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Exchange: Taylor On The First Four Parts Of 'John Adams'

John Patrick Diggins, author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series, Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, and Kirk Ellis, writer and co-executive producer of the HBO miniseries "John Adams," are discussing the show on Alan Taylor, author of Writing Early American History, joins the discussion this week. This is the ninth entry in their conversation. (Follow the complete dialogue here: Entries 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.)

Click here to read the previous entry in the conversation. 

Dear Jack, Steve, and Kirk,

I started late but at last have caught up and seen all four episodes--and I’ve enjoyed reading your insightful posts. Like you, I’ve been impressed by the attention to detail, particularly in framing shots and in the patient pacing of the dialogue. This is a remarkably good historical docudrama that strives to convey a feeling of another time on something like its own terms. Many of the scenes offer rich tableaus of late 18th-century life, an accumulation of small touches that convey the grit of it: laconic men in rough clothes beating out rope in Boston; John and Abigail working with their children in the dirt and manure of a New England farm; John suffering the torments of an Atlantic passage in a small wooden ship during a gale; and Abigail and the children taking the crude smallpox inoculation (variolation) and suffering horrific sores. Such images rarely appear in most film portrayals of the revolutionary era, which prefer to present the past as a quaint and sanitized costume ball.

I also like the way the film takes political debate seriously, without trivializing dissenting positions. Although the film certainly sympathizes with the colonists taxed without representation, the filmmakers offer some balance by showing the human cost borne by those who remained loyal to the union of the empire. The film aptly shows the fear of the British soldiers hounded by angry colonists in the streets and in the court docket. Better still, the film strips off the sugar-coating on the colonial resistance by showing the painful humiliation of a customs officer, tarred and feathered by an angry crowd in Boston. In both cases, John Adams appears as a moderate, torn between his principled allegiance to the colonial cause and his fear that breaking with Britain would unleash a violent anarchy. These scenes vividly show that the struggle was a revolution, with real violence and bitter debates between Americans, who were far from united in resisting British rule.

The second episode is especially bravura: the best attempt on film to depict the Continental Congress coming to terms with independence. (Yes, like Steve, I like the musical 1776--but as a comedy rather than a drama.) The writers and director allow John Dickinson to make a dignified and forceful case for caution. They resisted the temptation to caricature his position, which was, in fact, widely held. By presenting Dickinson as a worthy and honorable adversary with a good argument, the film elevates the proponents of independence. Far from having a slam-dunk case, they must strain to new levels of eloquence and political resourcefulness to build a consensus in Congress. This portrayal builds the drama and counters the public assumption that declaring independence must have been easy given how bad it was to be ruled by a distant king. I especially liked the restraint of the scene when the congressmen completed their vote, then quietly and somberly sat reflecting on the momentous and dangerous gamble they had just taken. The scene avoids the usual Hollywood histrionics of wild celebration, and that restraint drives home just how difficult it was for those men, who revered precedent and institutions, to take such a bold leap into the uncertainty of republican government and a confederation of their fractious new states.

I also loved the restraint and dignity of the scene in Part 4 where King George III receives John Adams, the new American minister, to his court. The scene clearly shows Adams’s awkward discomfort in bowing three times before a monarch, recently the great villain of revolution. But Adams gathers himself to give a heartfelt offer of emotional reconciliation between two kindred peoples. Better still, the king responds with a frank sincerity that acknowledges the strain of losing America as well as a desire to heal the wounds. But the king also shrewdly probes Adams’s reported lack of affection for the French as a potential entry to wean the Americans from their alliance with Britain’s great enemy. Patiently paced, this scene avoids the usual pitfalls of presenting the king as a drooling lunatic and tyrant--his usual fate in American popular history.

I could pick out some errors--mostly small but some large--but I’d rather focus on the much larger accomplishment of a film that dramatizes a more complex and authentic picture of that age of revolution than I’ve ever seen on American television.


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John Patrick Diggins is a professor of history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of John Adams: The American Presidents Series. Kirk Ellis is the writer and co-executive producer of HBO's John Adams. Alan Taylor, a contributing editor to The New Republic, is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of Writing Early American History. Steven Waldman is the editor-in-chief of and author of the newly released Founding Faith.

By John Patrick Diggins, Kirk Ellis, Alan Taylor, and Steven Waldman