Today we celebrate the independence of our great country. I’m proud and blessed to be a citizen of this great nation (although I feel like we deserve more in the quality of those who lead us.) The road to this country’s existence may seem like a passive chapter in a history book for some. But clearly there was a deeper story to be told. I remarked with a friend at work about some of the films that have been released and how superior they are in quality to the bland and lifeless retelling of our nations history by teachers who seemed to be narrating from a teleprompter. While this may seem a bit extreme, I believe it would be far more effective to substitute 5th grade history class with a 60” Plasma television, comfortable chairs and a DVD Box Set of the HBO Original Series John Adams. If the quality of history teachers is anything now like it was when I was a lad, this would be a far more effective lesson.
John Adams is an HBO original series based on the book by David McCullough, but calling it a “TV series” is almost degrading. This is a high quality theatrical production. I call it a film and think of it as a film, because truthfully that’s what it is – only one that was cut up into seven parts and had it’s theatrical release omitted.
I don’t know how historically accurate the film is, but considering the scrutiny that films find themselves under these days, I would have to say that it’s probably as accurate as it could be (for a retelling of events taking place 230 years ago.) I thought initially that this would be a long and boring undertaking. After all, seven parts of any film is an investment that you may later regret. But as soon as this one gets started, you realize that this is no typical American history retelling. No faux flutes and patriotic music to drown out the bad acting here. This one has some substance.
Everyone by now is aware that Paul Giamatti has the lead role, but aside from Laura Linney (Abigail Adams) and David Morse (George Washington), there aren’t many faces here that I’ve seen before. And this is a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. This adds completely to the authenticity of the film. Instead of finding yourself saying, “Hey, look at Patrick Stewart playing Thomas Jefferson!”, you instead find yourself lost in the story and exploring the ideas through unfamiliar faces.
As well directed and well acted as the entire series is, what I took away most from the series was authenticity. Sure, it’s difficult to even attempt to paint a picture about what really happened in an event so critical to American history and, for that matter, the history of the world. But it’s the little things that helped me to commiserate with the plight of Englishmen in a foreign land, trying to push away their mother country. The flies that make the first Congressional meetings uncomfortable. The dialect of the different characters. The toys that the children play with. It’s the little things that seemed to grab me.
There were many details that we learn throughout the more than eight hours of viewing. Some of them you’ll find that you knew. But whether some of the ideas that we learn about (like Adams lack of people skills and Ben Franklin’s taste for French culture) are factual may be somewhat debatable. But the authenticity is only part of the point. What’s great here is the discussions that might ensure afterwards. Whether we’re discussing rumors about our forefathers or actual accurate details, the point is that we’re discussing them.
I felt most captivated by the situation that these English townspeople found themselves in. The struggle between people wanting to live and govern amongst while still being only a generation away from their native land. This experience put the idea in my head about just how chancy and operation this was. America was in isolation. No allies (although we were trying to form some with France). No trained army. No real sense of how they might win this thing. But a deep conviction that what they were after was right.
The film deals somewhat delicately with the issue of slavery. They hint at the obvious irony of wanting to be free Americans without rule from Britain yet keep another people enslaved (regardless of whether the reasons were economic or not. I always found it ironic that slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833 – thirty-two years after the country who wrote they wrote to about wanting ‘the right to life and liberty’. But that’s another post.)
I think one of the great scenes in the film is one where an older John Adams, (I believe at the end of his term as President), stood in front of John Trumbull’s famous depiction of ‘The Signing of the Declaration of Independence’ as Trumbull pridefully stands aside it and asks John Adams what he thinks. His first remark is that all of those depicted, save for a few, are “dead…all dead”. Then he seems enraged…almost incensed. And he talks about scenes that we’ve seen earlier. He remarks that the real signing was nothing like this. Men were going to and from Philadelphia, traveling from their home states to sign the document. And he also makes mention of the fact that if they were in the room at the same time that the scene wouldn’t be this peaceful assembly of men standing around. There was passion and shouting and arguing and deciding. It’s a great scene and in many ways, shines light upon the inaccuracies in history that we always knew. In an incredible stroke of genius, this scene really excuses any technical inaccuracies that the makers of this film might have committed. If John Trumbull, being a living, breathing soul at the time of the events – so much so that he was able to have one of the subjects stand before it – can’t capture the scene in complete accuracy, then who are we to fault director Tom Hooper for any inaccuracies we may have seen.
Contrary to popular opinion, I echo Michelle Obama’s sentiment – the point of which appeared to me was that sometimes it’s hard to find reasons to still be proud of this nation. We wage war over suspicion and step over our hungry and house-less while instead trying to figure out ways to spend money on research about why Americans are overweight. Our priorities are out of order in many areas. But nonetheless, our history is one of the greatest stories ever told. With God’s help, what we are now is no indication of what we become. We pray that our best days are ahead of us. And while we look to our current leadership with skepticism, perhaps the best way to develop more pride among ourselves as Americans is to take a closer look at how we came to be. This film isn’t perfect, but it’s a great example to set before our children.
It’s my hope that the American tradition on the 4th of July, our Independence Day, will not be spent watching bad Will Smith films and eating hot dogs. But instead, I wish that every American could watch this series, culminating with the 7th part on July 4th. (Then we can eat hot dogs and hamburgers.)