Saturday, March 22, 2008

Not So Revolutionary Thoughts on "John Adams"

I just finished watching the first episode of the new HBO ministry "John Adams"* and found myself pleasantly surprised. I'm not sure what I was expecting-- I grew up on the 1956 movie "Williamsburg: Story of a Patriot" from my multiple trips to the Colonial Williamsburg visitors center. It was from this film that I learned that men should not be trusted to choose ladies hats unattended, George Washington could crack a walnut between his thumb and forefinger, and the meaning of the word "pusillanimous" from that most brilliant orator, Patrick Henry**. My second Revolutionary film staple was "1776," in which I learned that Philadelphia was mighty warm that summer ("It's ninety degrees/Have mercy, John, please/'Cause it's hot as hell in Philadelphia!"), that John Adams was "obnoxious and disliked" ("Did you know that?" "I hadn't heard."), and that Mrs. Jefferson found ol' Tom's violin mighty sexy. Pretty unimportant stuff, over all.

Frankly, I'm ashamed to admit that when I picture John Adams, it's as William Daniels (aka Mr. Feeny from "Boy Meets World"). In reality, John Adams looked more like this. And between Paul Giamati and Daniels, I think Giamati has the look down a little better. Instead of the trim, nattily dressed little man from "1776," we see Adams as pudgy and with a receding hairline beneath his wig. Giamati plays him as a dispassionate man searching for justice, whether it be for his own New Englanders or representatives of the Crown. A man who refuses to choose a side until he feels that basic human dignities have been wronged. A man, in short, that we could sorely use in today's world.

The show doesn't present the Revolution we learned in elementary school. Instead of the murder of innocent Bostonians, the Boston Massacre is portrayed as instigated by a violent mob and the soldiers as scared boys who are far from home. Later, a customs officer is stripped naked, then tarred and feathered. I found this scene particularly horrific. I'm not sure what I expected-- how could I not realize that to be tarred means to having molten liquid poured on the bare skin and hardening to a shell? It seems to obvious to be now. I remember being back in elementary school learning about the practice and thinking how silly that sounded, like a bit of fun. Who wouldn't laugh at a guy covered in feathers being carried out on a log like some absurd parade float? But the agonized arch the man's body made as his skin sizzled beneath the tar has banished those airy thoughts altogether. I trust I will not be abused for admitting that I cried a little.

I think this show has something to say about our times-- that not everything is black and white. This may be the most obvious of observations, but it bears mentioning. We hear about events in far away places and it is easy to place sides in tidy boxes of right and wrong. Indeed, passion makes it even simpler to smudge the line between truth and fiction to fit a certain viewpoint. Perhaps we should be a bit more like John Adams and take the time to scrutinized both sides, witness both the beautiful and terrifying nature of each issue before making a choice. Some choices seem instinctual, but is there really a difference between instinct and primitive urges? Isn't rational thought the thing that makes us most human?

This is quite disjointed, but this blog was never meant to present precise arguments or coherent thoughts. I save those for graded assignments.

I look forward to the next episode when Adams ventures to Philadelphia. And I swear to G-d, if there is singing, someone is going to die.


* This is not a review; I suck at that game.

* *The phrase "Are we so meek and pusillanimous?" became my favorite line for a period of about three years during my elementary school career. It made me very popular on the playground.

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