John Adams (2008)
This is actually a bit of a cheat since I watched it a couple of weeks back but it doesn’t fit any other category around here so let’s call it poetic license!
The 8-hour-plus miniseries prizes feeling over form, telling detail over narrative sweep, and that’s basically to the good, even in the second part, which highlights the inherently sweeping narrative of the Continental Congress of 1776 and plays like a somber doppelganger of 1972’s lively, near-boisterous film of the musical 1776.
Maybe timing really is everything. This is one of the weightier moments in 1776. In John Adams it would pass for comic relief.
However much one or the other is or is not about the actual events of 1776, it’s certain that, even more than usually, these particular “histories” are very much about their own moments.
The America of 1972 (when 1776 was released), was, for all its recent and ongoing tribulations, still connected to the old can-do optimism that was a crucial part–I’d say the crucial part–of the founding dream.
We’re not connected anymore.
Oh, we’re still connected to history. It would take a lot more fire than we’ve passed through yet to burn that bridge all the way down even assuming it could happen at all.
But we’re not really connected to the dream.
Like 1776, Part 2 of John Adams (by far the most dramatically compelling of the series) hinges around the conflict between Adams and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson.
Unlike the earlier film, made within the lifetimes of most people likely to have seen either, John Adams does not take the final answer to the question that was burning through the summer of 1776–whether independence was truly the best, or even most “patriotic” option–for granted.
Not only does it not take the question for granted, it no longer assumes the answer has been entirely settled.
Since neither source biographer David McCullough nor anyone associated with the miniseries is likely to have been after any sort of revisionism, it’s probably safe to assume that the question is now hanging in the air (for a lot of summers before 2008 and every summer since) because the history is intact but the dream is severed.
Once that happens, the air is bound to be rearranged.
And it’s one thing to hear the rearrangement on the radio–the empty ranting across every music, talk or news format except NPR (as ever, wrapped in gauze) striving to fill the empty space–or see it played across nihilism-on-the-cheap movie screens or pay TV channels forever blurring the distinction between pro wrestling and “highbrow” navel gazing.
But when it affects the middle-brow comfort zone John Adams is so squarely aimed at, and affects it so profoundly, well, that’s when we can all say…this is serious!
Let’s just say it’s possible that John Dickinson…
or John Adams…
the defeated man..
and the triumphant man…
..wore just such expressions in 1776.
But they were inconceivable to the world of 1972….
Hope we don’t still need that dream.
Because we’re surely back to first things.
And forget John Adams. I’d be happily surprised to find a John Dickinson among us these days.