Friday, July 4, 2008

John Adams

"John Adams" (Tom Hooper, 2008) Tom Hanks' Play-Tone Productions' latest mini-series (after "From the Earth to the Moon" and "Band of Brothers"--both highly recommended) continues with another dissection of an epic topic based on a fine book, this time David McCullough's best-selling biography on John Adams. Adams' life is so full of incident and character that even if he weren't a pedantic, obnoxious little prat, it'd be worth watching. But that Adams is brilliant and his own worst enemy makes for an intriguing series of episodes, as Adams work in Revolutionary America, his stint as an ambassador to France, rubbing Ben Franklin (Tom Wikinson, perpetually peering) the wrong way, and his ambitions towards the Presidency, and then, his post-Presidential trials all make for fine drama (they certainly did back in the day of "The Adams Chronicles"). That John and Abigail are played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, both with an eye towards flintiness only raises the bar of expectation, and their performances are fun to watch. It's history written down-to-earth, so you get to see "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" (it's aftermath, anyway). You get to watch Franklin and Adams editing a somewhat diffident Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) over The Declaration of Independence (Franklin changes the "We hold these truths to be" from "sacred and undeniable" for "self-evident" as the former "smacks of the pulpit."). We see Franklin as the toast of Paree, George Washington's inaugural (David Morse plays Washington as a quiet, resolute stiff who is only seen angry once, chewing out Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson for their constant bickering).

We also get a hint of life in those times: the sense of how long it took to get anywhere, we see a rather disgusting treatment for pox, and a horrific one for breast-cancer, and how, even in those days of the Nation in its infancy, it was still tough to get things done.

But, there are annoyances. Do we need to see John and Abigail snogging? If you think seeing your parents have sex creeps you out, John Adams humping (geez, even just Giamatti humping) really does.

Then, there's the direction. Tom Hooper's way of shooting at odd angles sometimes can be explained away by architecture, for instance, this shot (used a few times) of a Philadelphia street lets us see the top of the building at upper right:
But, that doesn't explain the "dutch angle" used for this shot of a theater.

You could say that this angle of Adams as Vice-President sitting before Congress, shows him as forceful, or as a man alone and resolute (or, that just in front of him is an anachronistic bit of room-design), but it's a bit clunky and makes you want to look to the right of the television, rather than the figure of Adams, himself...

...but what of this awkward angle for a discussion between Abigail and John that is a bit heated, but, really, is so distracting that you lose the train of what they're discussing.
Glad they filmed this "letter-boxed." I'd have hated to miss any of the blank wall on the sides of that shot. Then there's this angle on Thomas Jefferson sitting in a public house, photographed--for no good reason--through the slats in the backs of the chairs.
The direction is too fusty, too "do-something-different" for its own good, as in the staging of a dinner party held in a tent. How does Hooper approach the scene? How do we enter it? Through the hole in the top of the tent. It's maddeningly confusing, and serves no purpose other than to prove that they had a crane that day to do it. That's swell, but when the result of the shot is disorientation, rather than communication (when disorientation isn't the point of the scene), what's the bloody point? It's needlessly arty. It's nice for a director to showcase his work, but one should tell the story first, rather than pad his "reel" for the next job.

In the meantime, History is passing us by.

The last hour is harrowing, with his days as President behind him, with the Jefferson administration a burr in his side (as Jefferson and he have become feuding politicians), and the vagaries of age and dissipation affecting his entire family, but there is the wonderful compensation of the dramatised segment of Adams and Jefferson, aged men, mending fences in a series of letters that are some of the most celebrated in literature, politics and civics.

And it ends, as it should, with the little bit of a miracle that put a touching finale to their life-work, the type of thing that if it were written as fiction, no one would believe it: the cosmic appropriateness of both men, friends and rivals, then, again, friends, dying on the very same day--July 4th, fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, and 182 years ago, today.

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