Politics & Policy

The Lawyer Who Saved America

HBO takes on the methodical but passionate John Adams.

Beginning this Sunday at 9:00 P.M., HBO explores our nation’s revolutionary past with a new miniseries, John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, the seven-part series presents the American Revolution through the story of perhaps its most impassioned advocate, who went to become the new nation’s second president. In the process, it serves up a portrait of a joyful and inspiring marriage, and of a man who risked everything in the cause of liberty.

We initially meet Adams against the backdrop of the Boston Massacre, in 1770. The first episode shows how he earned a reputation for integrity by defending the British soldiers who were put on trial for shooting five Bostonians. Accepting these clients made Adams unpopular at the time, but the participation of such a skillful lawyer kept the trial from becoming a kangaroo court, which would have damaged the credibility of the colonists’ cause. Subsequent episodes follow his tireless lobbying in the Continental Congress for adoption of the Declaration of Independence, his service as an ambassador to foreign countries, his vice presidency and presidency, and his long-term rivalry and late-life reconciliation with Thomas Jefferson.

Adams was a lover, not a fighter. He spent his life as a scholar, a persuader, and a doting husband. Viewers who like their TV full of explosions, chases, and dramatic deaths should look elsewhere. Everything in the film is presented through the experiences of either John or Abigail, so all the violence takes place off camera. Instead, we are treated to long scenes of speech and counter-speech at the Continental Congress. At times it feels like C-SPAN in powdered wigs.

We meet other Revolutionary figures, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, as Adams meets them. Their characters and back stories are not explored; the mini-series expects its audience to have some level of familiarity with Jefferson’s contemporaries, including the less famous ones. That’s a risky assumption in this day and age, and over the course of its eight and a half hours, all but the most serious history buffs will recognize some names they should probably know, but can’t really place.

Those who stick it out, though, will be rewarded–not just with a vivid dramatization of a great historic event that was very far from being a sure thing as it happened, but also with a touching portrait of a happy and fulfilling marriage. “John and Abigail’s partnership wasn’t just extraordinary for the time – it’s still extraordinary,” says screenwriter and co-executive producer Kirk Ellis. “These two people loved each other – truly loved each other. More than that, they were intellectual equals, and John always showed Abigail the respect of treating her as such” — something that was quite uncommon among husbands then and remains far from universal today. Laura Linney plays Abigail with a mix of devotion, determination, intelligence, and quiet humor. The frequent separations caused by John’s dedication to his country become increasingly painful, but the lovers are united in their sense of duty. John Adams was at his best when Abigail could contribute to his ideas; they were strong apart, but much more so together.

The viewer will also be rewarded with many stirring moments. After the final vote to declare independence, which follows months of wrangling, the delegates look at each other with stunned expressions on their faces, as if to ask “What have we done?” Later, the reading of the Declaration of Independence to a cheering crowd brings shivers to the spine.

In some ways, John Adams was the prototype of a modern American. He had none of the aristocratic tendencies shown by Washington, Jefferson, and most of the other southerners active in Revolutionary politics. More often blunt than genteel, he sometimes clashed with the feudal foreign courts to which he was sent as a diplomat. He was blustery and ambitious, sometimes honest to a fault. Above all, he believed in two very important things that are still with us. The first is justice by means of fair laws applied equally to all. The second is his truly revolutionary confidence in ordinary Americans, a trust that simple farmers, laborers, and traders could recognize, enact, win, and defend liberty. On this belief he bet his farm, his family, and his life. It’s a bet that is still paying off 232 years later.

  –Rebecca Cusey writes from Washington, D.C.


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