Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Unprecedented President

HBO debuted its latest prestige mini-series this weekend. Let's have a go, shall we?

"John Adams" (Episodes 1 and 2)

You must understand that it had never happened in the history of the world up until then. No one who had attained a position of governmental power had ever surrendered it willingly. No one. George Washington was in a position to found an American royal line; most in Europe believed he would do just that. Instead, he reluctantly served two terms as this nation's first chief executive and then stepped down. In every single sense of the word, it was unprecedented.

But, some argued, he was handing power off to a like-minded soul in John Adams, the subject of HBO's new mini-series. It was no transfer at all, just a continuation. And Adams would never let it go, those same cynics surmised.

After one term in office, John Adams was defeated in his re-election bid by Thomas Jefferson who, by 1800, had become a bitter political rival. "Now you'll see," those pundits of 1800 said, "There's no way Adams will allow Jefferson to take the highest office in the land." But he did just that.

And those two moments when powerful men willingly stepped down from the seat of power laid the foundation for everything worthwhile in American government to this day. We will see a transfer of presidential power within the year, possibly from our current President to an electee who is diametrically opposed to him in every way. If and when that happens, think about John Adams and how his steadfast devotion to the law paved the way for the orderly transfer of power, for the will of the people to rule.

Adams is the subject of HBO's superb new mini-series, appropriately named "John Adams." The series is based on David McCullough's excellent biography of the man and is produced by history buff Tom Hanks, among others. It stars Paul Giamatti in the title role, with able support by Oscar nominee Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail.

Giamatti captures the prickliness of this self-described "obnoxious" man: he's short-tempered with his children and impatient with anyone of lesser intelligence. Only in the company of his wife does he ever soften.

Linney as Abigail is a one-woman rebuff to all those movie and TV roles where the only action the wife ever takes is to nag the hero to stop doing interesting things and come home. Here's a woman with every reason to beg her husband to return, but she never does. Those of this Revolutionary era seem to have a sense of forging history and Abigail Adams had a better sense of it than most.

Deeper into the cast, David Morse plays George Washington. They've saddled him with an unfortunate make-up that does nothing to help him resemble our first President, and does everything to make you wonder if he has the mumps. Despite that, Morse exudes the calm in the eye of the storm that made Washington such a natural leader of men.

And as Benjamin Franklin, another Oscar nominee, Tom Wilkinson, projects charm and impish wit, as well as all the political instincts that Adams lacks.

So far, HBO has aired the first two installments of this seven-part mini. The first one, "Join or Die," focused on Adams's defense of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, a case that propelled him to national prominence and set his reputation as a fair man of the law. The second, "Independence," dealt with Adams in the Continental Congress and the events that led to the Declaration of Independence. They are both airing repeatedly on HBO all through the week and are well worth seeking out. Future episodes will debut on ensuing Sundays at 9PM Eastern.

"John Adams" evokes the 18th century world with startling clarity. We of the present are fond of noting that those in the past lived in "simpler times," but there's nothing simple about the Colonial period, whether it's the labyrinthine politics or enduring the harrowing prospect of a smallpox inoculation.

At times the proceedings get a little too stodgy, a bit too "Masterpiece Theatre" for their own good, but overall, this is riveting history about an underappreciated Founding Father. For anyone who cares about this country and how it came to be what it is, "John Adams" is a must. For the mildly interested, it still ain't a bad way to spend a Sunday.

4 stars.

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