Hurry, weekend! I can't wait to see HBO's new miniseries "John Adams," which commences at 8 p.m. ET this Sunday, then continues through seven installments at 9 p.m. every subsequent Sunday till April 20. See the full TV sked HERE plus background info at the program's special website — HERE.
What looks great about this inevitable future winner of the Emmy Award for best miniseries is that it takes a leisurely pace to tell the tale of American independence through the perspective of our least statuesque, most bungling, most bizarre and most interesting founding father.
Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman ("Band of Brothers") for $100 million, it was directed by Tom Hooper ("Longford," "Elizabeth I") and written by co-exec producer Kirk Ellis ("Into the West") based upon David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller. It stars Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his firebrand wife, Abigail. Timespan covered: Boston Massacre of 1770 to Adams' death in 1826.
"I don't think any film that's been done about this all-important part of our [national] story has ever been done with such authenticity," McCullough boasts in the promo video below.
Oh, yeah? That's what I hope to see, all right, but am skeptical. From the trailer and early PR info, this looks like the classic, butt-smooching, flag-waving treatment instead. First off, why, oh, why did they cast Giamatti? Sure, he has a schlubby, everyman quality about him, which Adams did too, but that was a secondary characteristic of America's second president. Adams was widely loathed and despised because he was insufferably smug, lording over everyone with cartoonish pomposity. I don't see any of that coming through in the video trailers below.
Nor have I heard that this miniseries bothers to show us Adams' creepy dark side — why his enemies believed he was a dangerous buffoon who secretly plotted to wipe out democracy in favor of a Federalist aristocracy that could rule with absolute, unchecked power.
Granted, Adams was a great champion of American nationhood. In late June 1776, he burst into a rant at the Continental Congress that was so dazzling and so inspiring that it probably swung the key votes needed to make the break from Mother England. Thomas Jefferson — who was one of Adams' most fierce critics — conceded that Adams was the "Colossus of Independence" because of the vital role he played at key times like that in early American history.
But once the republic was launched, Adams' politics were scary, and I doubt that this miniseries will do an honest job dramatizing same — just like McCullough's book brushed off the really nasty stuff.
Sure, the mini 'fesses up about Adams' enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts when he was president, but it looks as if the blame is passed off to Abigail, who, yes, did pressure John to squash freedom of speech just seven years after the passage of the Bill of Rights, allegedly because of the threat of looming war with France. But Adams really didn't need prodding, according to Jefferson, who believed that once he was president and corrupted by power, Adams was a serious, sinister threat to America's sacred values.
I consider myself to be an amateur historian — I study American, world and Hollywood history voraciously all the time — so I happen to know a lot about the backstory here and I sure hope HBO has the guts to tell it to us. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not really enacted as a necessity of national defense during a pending war with France. We know that claim was bogus because the Sedition Acts prohibited criticism of all top U.S. leaders except the Vice President. Isn't that curious? Guess who was Vice President under Adams — Thomas Jefferson, his fiercest critic. Adams even used the laws to level huge fines on people who joked about him or called him "proud."
Adams was so adamant about squashing freedom of speech that he shut down all major opposition newspapers north of the Mason-Dixon line, tossing their editors in jail — with one exception. The Philadelphia Aurora held special status because it was published by Benjamin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, in Franklin's old print shop using Franklin's old printing press. But finally Adams could suffer its criticism no more and hurled Bache into jail, where he died of yellow fever before he could be brought to trail for sedition. But that didn't stop the Aurora from continuing to publish. Bravely, it soldiered on, sometimes from secret distances, and years later Jefferson gave the newspaper credit for saving the democratic republic. Ultimately, the Aurora reaped revenge. By fearlessly continuing to expose the antics of Adams and other Federalists, it caused them to lose the White House to Jefferson and his new, rival party.
Will this miniseries honestly portray the shocking truths of that story? Will it reveal that Adams didn't want America's elected officials answerable to the electorate? Once installed in office, he wanted the president and congressional leaders to remain in office for life. The notorious aristocrat wished the presidents (Washington and himself) to be referred to as "His Highness," by the way.
Another interesting aside: Though Adams didn't own slaves and refused to employ slave labor, he fought against the emancipation of slavery in his home state of Massachusetts and against allowing free blacks to fight in the Continental army.
Yes, all of our Founding Fathers have scary dark sides we don't like to acknowledge today. But I'm digging up all this old dirt about Adams now because I want us to keep it skeptically in mind when viewing this mini that promises to tell its story with fearless and honest "authenticity." Just out of curiosity. Just to exercise my own freedom of speech.