As HBO unfurls its epic seven-part miniseries about the life of John Adams smack dab in the middle of a rollicking election year, it's only natural to wonder how our profoundly significant, but often overlooked, second president would have fared in today's political environment.
Not so well, says David McCullough, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams was the basis for the production.
”He wouldn't be very good on television, and all the marketing, packaging and money involved in the process would turn his stomach,“ McCullough says. ”But he certainly would wipe the floor with anybody in a debate. He would take his opponent apart right before your eyes.“
Of course, many of us don't know how sharp-minded and eloquent Adams was because we don't know Adams. His face isn't on Mount Rushmore. There is no gleaming monument erected to him in the nation's capital. And until last year, his round, pudgy face wasn't emblazoned on any of our currency.
Despite the fact that Adams was a driving force in the American independence movement and profoundly influenced the values on which the United States was founded, he long has lived in the shadows of his larger-than-life contemporaries, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
”It's really disgraceful,“ McCullough says of the oversight. ”Except for Washington, there was no more important American in the whole revolutionary era.“
Perhaps the John Adams miniseries, which counts Tom Hanks among its executive producers, will atone for some of that neglect. Paul Giamatti (Sideways) plays the short, stout and often cranky man whom Jefferson called ”the colossus of independence,“ and recent Oscar nominee Laura Linney plays his devoted and equally astute wife, Abigail.
The miniseries begins in 1770 during the Boston Massacre and ends July 4, 1826, with the eerily coincidental deaths of both Adams and Jefferson. Along the way, it portrays its fascinating and flawed hero as a man of both uncommon intellect and common humility — a man who could be high-spirited, open-hearted and humorous, but also quick to anger, vain, stubborn and irritable.
”It's an enormous character — a Shakespearean character,“ Giamatti says. ”I get to run the gamut of emotions and highs and lows.
”I mean, I get to do everything in this part.“
Adapted by screenwriter Kirk Ellis and deftly directed by Tom Hooper (Longford), the ambitious production ushers viewers through the landmark moments of Adams' life — his passionate pleas for independence at the Continental Congress, his stint as an ambassador in Europe, and his years as president, during which he steered the nation away from a potentially disastrous war with France.
His trusted ally through it all was Abigail. In fleshing out this most remarkable of marriages (some have called them America's first power couple), the film drives home the point that she was not only the love of his life, but also his muse, his sounding board and his emotional ”ballast.“
”You can't understand him without understanding her,“ says McCullough, whose research included hundreds of letters written between the two. ”Their love story is genuine, not contrived, and so is the deep respect he had for her. He acknowledged that, in many ways, she was superior to him.“
In order to bring the story to life, Hooper relentlessly strove for realism — even if it wasn't always pretty. A tar-and-feathering incident is depicted in graphic detail. The grisly horrors of a smallpox epidemic are there for all to see. And in defiance of the ”costume-pageant“ approach of many period productions, the film contains plenty of characters with grubby clothes, bad teeth and grime under their fingernails.
”You see most films about this era, and everything looks like a beautiful and picturesque postcard,“ Hooper says. ”But we didn't want to romanticize it. I actually spent a lot of time on my hands and knees in the mud, putting more dirt on the actors' clothes and faces.“
Much effort also was put into accurately capturing the rich, descriptive language of the time.
”The language alone (in the script) was something I just couldn't believe would be done for television,“ Giamatti says. ”To have people speaking at this high level and with this amount of intelligence was incredibly exciting to me.“
And even though the story begins in early colonial times and advances 50 years into the pre-industrial revolution, it contains the kind of material and themes that should deeply resonate in an important election year, screenwriter Ellis says.
”Right now we're seeing this resurgence of engagement in politics, especially by young people. There is this widespread recognition that we have a civic duty to participate in the process,“ he says. ”Adams was someone who believed that with every fiber of his existence. He lived the kind of life that we often just give lip service to.“
Ellis also says that the concerns of Adams' time — ”Who are we as Americans? What do we stand for? What defines a patriot?“ — continue to be fodder for much spirited debate. Moreover, Ellis says, Adams could teach a thing or two to our presidential candidates of 2008.
”Back then, decisions weren't made by committees and polls and studies. You couldn't call up people on your BlackBerry. You couldn't send faxes,“ he says. ”You had to commit yourself to a cause and live by the courage of your convictions.
”These days, most politicians tell people what they want to hear. Adams told people what they needed to hear.“