The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

John Adams
Better late than never critique; and what about John Marshall and "XYZ"?

Stephen Dillane (left) as Thomas Jefferson; Paul Giamatti as John Adams,
in the episode "An Unnecessary War." Via

You tell me: does Stephen Dillane, portraying Thomas Jefferson in the recent "John Adams" HBO miniseries sound and resemble more than a little his fellow countryman, Leslie Howard -- and especially as Howard interpreted Ashley Wilkes in "Gone With The Wind" ? You decide.

Leslie Howard.... .....Stephen Dillane,
as Jefferson

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson discuss The Declaration of Independence:

Scarlett and Ashley in the library at Twelve Oaks:

My niggling notes:

Holy Steadicam, Batman!

In an effort to wrest this period piece out of the category of "Disney animatronics" or "moving painting" the cinematography at times got in the way of the story. During establishment shots, in particular, the camera turned on these neck-craning "Dutch angle" positions that had me saying, "Meanwhile, back at Continental Congress Cave in Philadelphia, Adams and Jefferson, the Boy Wonder, hatch a plan for independency." Or, "Meanwhile, back at the not so stately Braintree farm, Abigail fights the bloody pox!"

The one scene in the final, "Peacefield" episode that actually turned the camera upside down while Adams went through his cornfield was a bit much. The over-indulgence used with these decisions runs the risk of making the series look "dated."

The reliance on the steadicam was also utilized to breathe life into what could've been a waxwork tableaux, but, you know, I started to feel like this was an 18th century version of "The West Wing." And, well, it was.

Getting the buzz

The sound was excellent throughout the series, except that the humming of insects -- meaning flies as in piles of dung and filth and stench --never seemed to affect the people. Unless I missed a moment when somebody brought their hand down or slapped their cheek, "Got you, you sonofabitch!"

"You, sir, are no Rubens."
One of my favorite scenes wasn't accurate to McCullough's book. This was the viewing Adams had of Jonathan Trumbull's immense "Declaration of Independence" painting. I thought that Adams' annoyed criticism, accompanied by a comical jig, that it was a "shins and ankles" painting, sounded familiar--but he apparently didn't say it; and I'm wondering if somebody else's harsh words against Trumbull's effort were inserted into Adams' mouth. The series interpreted what Adams may have thought, but didn't speak, and turned it into a morose outburst more indicating his state of mind--perhaps--at the time than what he said at that moment, his wistful and sad statement, "I consider the ideals of our Revolution as lost."

According to McCullough, Adams didn't turn into an art critic. He gazed upon all those faces--most of them dead men by then--and just pointed to the right side of the picture, and explained how after he nominated George Washington for commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, "he took his hat and rushed out that door."

"Just go, John."

Laura Linney. Well, what can I say. She was amazing. And she and Giamatti complemented each other and seemed to have that kind of marriage-of-equals that made John and Abigail the perfect couple. Yes, he may have looked like a snapping turtle (especially as he got older), but he respected her opinions and acknowledged her intellect, and in the 18th century, that wasn't common.

One of my favorite scenes, for several reasons, was when she was down on her hands and knees, sleeves rolled up, scrubbing the floors of the Braintree farmhouse with a wire brush. She is trying to prevent the spread of "the bloody pox." And John is getting summoned away to Philadelphia, and not for the first time, and she's got to stay back and play Mother Courage with the children.

And he's standing in the doorway, watching her bent over next to the bucket, and trying to say good-bye -- he doesn't know when he'll be back. And there's a silence. She looks up at him. And the series of emotions playing across her face: frustration and anger that an illness she can't fight is laying siege to her house; resignation and annoyance that her husband has to go off and do Great Things, and while she loves him, she cannot find any affection their predicament in that particular hour. And she's just...beautiful. And she says, "Just go, John."

Oooomph! You kinda have had to have been married to know how to say that, and why, and shove into those three words the complicated sense of what they meant to Abigail in that moment.

The theme music kept playing in my head.

I don't know why. Struck me as, well, sounding a bit like a Captain Morgan/Pirates of the Caribbean swash and buckle about the swelling of drums and fife skirls. But the music would start up on my interior iPod, especially when walking to work in the morning; in particular the passage beginning at about minute two, when "Executive Producers Tom Hanks Gary Goetzman" appeared, to the end. If this theme doesn't get used in some montage sequence pertaining to the current presidential election, I'll be surprised.

• "I suppose I must appoint you."

John Adams never appointed John Marshall as Supreme Court Justice. At least, according to the show. This is incredible and vital moment for U.S. history, as it set into motion an entire train of events that we're still talking about. Now, I give credit to the actor portraying Marshall, and those who took care to examine drawings and paintings of him at the time.

He looked the part. But Marshall's family had been in Virginia several generations by then, and he wouldn't have had this hint of what sounded to me like a Scottish accent.

Then, the time comes, Adams is tossing documents into the fire during what is portrayed as his last night in the White House. Secretary of State Marshall comes to Adams and informs him that the balloting is over and that Thomas Jefferson is the new President. Though the history is a bit wobbly here, this would've been the time for Adams to hear how nobody either wants or can fulfill the duties of the Supreme Court Justice, and how, in almost off-the-cuff fashion, Adams makes his "midnight appointment" of Marshall. Instead, we get a joke of "I didn't mean to burn that," and Adams trying to stomp out a blazing paper.

Maybe in the re-cut, DVD version this occurs, but if it doesn't, then the utility for education of that particular episode is diminished.

Having said these things, I must underscore, that I don't know when we'll ever see a sprawling epic such as this set in the early United States during the late 18th and early 19th century. Seems to me what should happen is something akin to HBO's Rome. But--instead--track the development of Revolutionary themes up to and through, say, the 1835 death of John Marshall and the Liberty Bell cracking while heralding his demise. That's as dramatic an ending as you could hope for.

Marshall was a line captain at Valley Forge where he observed first-hand how a squabbling collection of states and their representatives couldn't make a decision. Somebody, he decided, needed to be in charge. He served in Congress, as special diplomatic envoy, and as a cabinet officer until his appointment to the court, where he sat for 35 years. He'd be a good major character for such an undertaking. The unrest that Marshall feared and predicted would arise from the Southern intransigence over the slave issue overwhelmed the nation 26 years after his death. In fact, one of the most fascinating periods of U.S. history is immediately after the Revolution and up to the Civil War, because during this time, the nation created its founding documents and grappled with the core principles of country, and what they meant. We're arguing about many of them, still.

Marshall, as a young man, cut quite a figure -- six foot two or so, dark haired, and "ruggedly handsome" as the saying goes. Women liked the look of him, ("Tall, dark, and I'll have some") then, and apparently, now, even when he's become a monument, rather than a man. As demonstated here via

I'd like to see a theatrical treatment of "The XYZ Affair." Three unlikely and differing individuals, John Marshall-- leaving at home his beloved, pregnant and suffering Mary Ambler, "My dearest Polly"...Thomas Pinckney...Elbridge Gerry...Talleyrand...the gorgeous Madame de Villette, a protégé of Voltaire, said to be so beautiful, that even though the revolutionaries jailed her, they couldn't bring themselves to send her to the chopping block.

Marshall may have had some kind of love connection with her. And there was rumor that she was acting as spy. Secret negotiations...intrigues...personality conflicts...maybe espionage and certain sexual tensions, all in late 18th century costume in sumptuous rooms -- Prague sitting in for Paris.

Marshall returned home a hero, and the apocryphal phrase, "millions for defense but not a penny for tribute" enshrined on the public consciousness. This was supposed to be the U.S. representatives' reaction to having to pay a bribe to the French to get a meeting with Talleyrand. Pinckney is to have declared, "No, no, no, not a sixpence!" The statement doesn't possess the same dramatic ring, nonetheless, the French then understood with whom they were dealing. [The more powerful phrase was coined by Representative Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina during a Congressional dinner for John Marshall, just returned from France, at Philadelphia in June, 1798]

The story in good hands could be a romp of a play, or film -- just the title "XYZ" alone would raise curiosity.

There's a sexual subtext, too. Marshall, like Adams, almost stopped writing to his wife from Paris. A letter he sent, but didn't sign, mentioned a woman who spent company with the delegation and made their stay more bearable. This missive reached Polly while she was still recuperating from childbirth. "She immediately lost interest in everything," Jean Edward Smith writes, "including the new baby, and eventually had to be taken in by her sister..." Polly spent the next several decades holed up in her bedroom in Richmond unable to deal with even the slightest noise.

When Marshall each month held his famous "lawyer dinners"Polly went to stay at her sister's. But even a neighborhood dog barking at night could drive her up a wall, and John would have to, with great politeness, ask the person to do something about the mutt's noise. Polly was not made from the strong stuff of Abigail Adams. But John and Polly were married for 42 years and her death devastated him.

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