Something to Watch Besides Fireworks

July 1, 2009

The height of our summer season is here. Nothing says ‘America’ like stuffing your face with various mass-processed meat products and blowing stuff up. The charring of meats and childrens’ digits create an aroma that I simply call ‘freedom.’

If you are able to interrupt your fireworks and your egg salad and your ‘God bless Americas’ to make time for the all-American activity of sitting in front of the TV, may I make the best July Fourth recommendation I can:

The HBO miniseries (now on DVD): John Adams.

I’m not kidding when I say this is one of the most phenominal things I have ever watched. It’s kind of weird. Practically no one knows who John Adams was. Some people might know he was the second President. But coming after Washington, he seems to just be living in his shadow. What you’ll see is that this rather anonymous man was at the center of almost every event in the founding of America and was a genuine American hero.

The miniseries is based on the extensive journals Adams kept. He was kind of a curmudgeon, and lacking in charm and humor. He was intense and dissatisfied with himself. He was hard on his kids. Yet, you’ll grow to like the man for his dedication to the principles that made our country great…and for the fact that men who insist on having no sense of humor are often the funniest to others. The show spans fifty years, from the Boston Massacre, to the Revolution, to Adams’ time as an abassador in Europe, to Washington’s and Adams’ presidencies, then his retirement and death.

Paul Giamatti plays Adams, and Laura Linney plays his wife Abigail. There are lots of other familiar faces including Samuel Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton. Everyone looks and acts exactly how you picture them. The production is gritty and realistic. People age, and not always so gracefully. Men come home and take off their wigs. It’s kind of funny.

There are lots of historical details that keep this in the realm of historical accuracy. John Adams considered slavery to be an abomination before God. You’ll see him at home, when he isn’t at his law practice doing his own gardening. Abigail had a huge transformation when she went to Europe, though John was never comfortable there. The Adams’ were the first family to live in the (unfinished and uncomfortable) White House. Plus, you’ll see just how difficult it was to keep the fragile little United States alive in its early years.

At nine hour long episodes, it is a little bit of a committment to get through the whole series. There’s about three PG-13 scenes in the whole series and a little bit of history that will leave you unsettled, but it’s all in good context. Still, it’s probably not be for the kiddies. I’ll be upfront, the first episode was my least favorite. However, the rest of the show is all payoff. You’ll feel like you are really getting to know the guys you skimmed over in history class. The show ends fifty years after the founding of the country, when Jefferson and Adams are the last two remaining founding fathers. Adams’ parting words and the final words of the show are to us, the inheritors of his country, and they are truly haunting.

The best kind of heroes are the ones you don’t expect. John Adams is one of those guys. Do yourself a favor, and watch this series. You can find it at Blockbuster or on Netflix.

Have you seen this? Can you give it a thumbs up? What’s your favorite history (or sort-of history) movie?

I’ll be taking Friday off to get an early start on the annual deviled-egg eating competition (it’s a contest of one, so it’s win-win) and because I know no one will be reading blogs over the weekend. I hope you have a great celebration, and that all your digits remain uncharred.