Friday, July 4, 2008

"John Adams" Top Ten Unforgettable Moments

As Jane has already noted, HBO is replaying their tremendous John Adams miniseries today on HBO, starting at 1pm eastern (with replay on HBO West at the appropriate time), and also starting tomorrow on HBO Signature over several nights. Check out the HBO schedule for specific details, of course.

Jane hit upon the complete appropriateness of John Adams as a Fourth of July accompaniment. As a wonderfully produced tribute to the brilliant men and women who fought for America's independence, as well as a thrilling tale full of passion as well as intellect, John Adams satisfies on many levels. Not being a Revolutionary War scholar I will refrain from commenting on the history of the miniseries, but instead I offer up our list of "John Adam's Top Ten Most Unforgettable Moments":

1. The Smallpox Vaccination Scene, from Part 2: While John is in Philadelphia working on independence, Abigail and the children are left at home to fend for themselves, including facing a devastating smallpox outbreak. In an amazing sequence combining horror, compassion, bravery and gruesome historical accuracy, Abigail summons the doctor to administer the by-no-means safe and secure smallpox vaccination to her and her children. The entire scene is riveting and very nearly impossible to watch. As much as the moments when Abigail comforts her stoic offspring and goes first to offer her example to them are affecting, I cannot forget when the doctor goes outside to his cart, where a poor young man, victim of smallpox, lies dying on a bed of straw, in obvious agony, flies buzzing around him. "Just one more time, lad," the doctor kindly but matter-of-factly whispers to him as he scrapes off one of the bloody pustules to create the vaccine. If you can imagine yourself just even for a second in that poor boy's will never complain about getting a shot or giving blood again. A devastating sequence all around.

2. The Tar and Feathering of the British Official, from Part 1. Ouch! A frothed-up Colonial mob is enraged by a British government agent's demands, and before you know it, and before John Adams and his less level-headed cousin Samuel Adams can intervene, the crowd has dragged the hapless official to a nearby platform. They strip him, pour hot tar over his head, feather him, put him on the rail, and parade him through the street. John Adams is horrified at the spectacle, but clearly one man cannot bring reason to the mob, and even his cousin isn't inclined to do so anyway. The horror on John's face is palable, as is his horror at his realization that the deteriorating situation with the British will get much worse before it gets better.

3. "Well, It's What I Believe" -- Thomas Jefferson's Draft, from Part 2: A considerably lighter moment, finally, as Benjamin Franklin and John Adams read over, for the first time, Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. They dicker over wording and fiddle with the prose, and though we of course know they are reading one of the most significant documents in American history, it's disarming and charming when they finish and look at Jefferson. "Well, it's what I believe, anyway," he offers off-handedly. It's one of the moments when you realize that Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson totally rocks.

4. John and Abigail are Reunited in Paris, from Part 4: Ooh-la-la! After a very long separation, Abigail finally joins John in Paris at the very fancy digs they've been given. John leads an impressed Abigail through the ornate and cavernous rooms to their bedroom, where their polite 18th Century formality finally gives way to their affection and relief at being together again. Mr. Adams and Mrs. Adams get it on, as we'd say, nearly fully clothed and oh so happy to finally be in the same bed -- not to mention on the same continent -- again after so long. Tame by current standards, the scene is nevertheless affecting, sexy and sweet, all the more so because Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti have, by this time in the miniseries, totally convinced us of the bond between Abigail and John.

5. The Balloon Ascension, from Part 4: A beautiful and transcendent moment of pure joy and loveliness. Of course by now we have seen that John, Abigail and Thomas Jefferson have become fast friends -- with some Jules and Jim vibes, maybe! -- with Thomas' cool ease a very attractive personality trait that especially appealed to Abigail. John and Abigail have received news that they are to be posted to London, leaving Jefferson in Paris, and in this lovely scene the trio, along with thousands of other Parisians, are gathered to watch one of the Montgolfier Brothers' hot air balloons rise into the sky. It's a wonderful scene, almost sad, nothing will ever be the same again, perhaps, as the world -- and this trio -- progresses, but what a moment for them all.

6. The Adams' Troubled Son Charles, from Part 6: We saw glimpses early on that the charismatic Charles was not going to walk the expected path, as he sowed his wild oats in college and generally was the son with mischief and charm and little sense of responsibility. Unfortunately he became a complete disappointment to his father, who eventually tracks Charles down to the slum where he lives as a sad drunk after Charles' wife turns up with their children to plead with Abigail for help. In a powerful scene filled with paternal rage and raw emotion, John rails at his wastrel son and disowns him, despite Charles' pleas. John will not be moved to reconsider, even after Charles falls ill and Abigail goes to visit him. Later she receives a letter that her beloved son has died. "He was the delight of my eye," she tells John, who still is resolute and essentials renounces him again. A tremendously affecting scene of maternal love and paternal stoicism.

7. Nabby Adams Has a Mastectomy, from Part 7: If you thought the vaccination scene was bad, this one will completely lay you out. The Adams' good and hard-working daughter Nabby, magnificently played by talented Canadian actress/director Sarah Polley, discovers a lump in her breast. After a consultation with the doctor, it is agreed that she must have the breast removed, immediately. And so she does, with nothing more than a swig of something to relax her a bit, and a rag between her teeth to bite down on, Nabby has her 18th Century mastectomy, as the doctor's strong assistants hold her down on her bed to keep her from flailing in agony. The lasting power of the scene is more about what we imagine than what we actually see, but it's horrifying just the same. Amazingly so, Nabby recovered and was healthy for several years until the cancer returned again. The scene after Nabby's death, when Abigail cleans out her daughter's dresser and finds a childhood toy, is inexpressibly sad and as we have also come to love and respect the brave Nabby, we feel the loss, too.

8. The Adams Go to Live in the New White House, from Part 6: The Adams have bad luck with Presidential housing. First they inherit Washington's old place, which has been ransacked by revelers, and then the new official Presidential mansion isn't even finished when they move in. They drive up through a devastated landscape, with newly-downed trees, mud everywhere, and slaves laboring to finish the project. It is a rude and disheartening welcome, and Abigail is especially distressed by what she sees, more so for the spectacle of the workers being misused than even the deplorable state of the White House. Diminished expectations abound.

9. Abigail Adams Dies, and John Adams Grows Old, from Part 7. The enduring relationship of John and Abigail comes to an end after their long and loving time together. Abigail never lost her spirit or her intelligence, and it's a moving moment when she passes away. John nevertheless perseveres, growing old and perhaps even more crotchety, but still full of the appreciation and zest for life that spurred him to greatness. Paul Giamatti is incredibly touching and realistic as he portrays John Adams in his later years. (I think any of us who were lucky enough to have elderly parents would recognize our fathers in him; I know I did.) There's a lovely scene where he is walking with his son in the field, reconnecting with the love of the land that always inspired him, and he finds renewed joy even without his Abigail and facing the end of his own life.

10. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Both Die on the Same Day, from Part 7. Though estranged for many years owing to serious political disagreements that killed their friendship, in their later years Adams and Jefferson, both rare surviving elder statesman of the Revolution, renewed their friendship via letters (Adams wrote to Jefferson to inform him of Abigail's death) which warmly continued for the rest of their lives. We see these two aging patriots in their respective homes, writing each other letters, Jefferson with a bust of Adams in his library, and Adams with one of Jefferson. In an incredible coincidence of history, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson lay dying at the same time, and both hung on long enough to make it to July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. Both men die, miles apart, on that auspicious day and within moments of each other.

Of course it's impossible to capture every wonderful John Adams moment; I didn't mention the magnificent scene when John Adams has an audience with King George and makes the King literally bow before the new nation. (Thanks to Jane for remembering that amazing scene.) And when President Adams is serenaded with a patriotic tune while at the theater, when he does not know if the public is with him or against him. You just have to watch the whole miniseries again to get the full effect. HBO's John Adams is a keeper, and it's now out on DVD to make part of your permanent collection. No, we don't get any royalties -- we just love this program so much. If it doesn't get some well-deserved Emmy nominations this month, we'll have to start our own revolution!

Happy 4th of July!


Jane said...

Absolutely outstanding post, Ms. Lisa. I want to print it out and carry it around with me in my purse. Reliving all of these moments makes me want to watch John Adams all over again for the bazillionth time.

Now our readers have three patriotic posts to help celebrate Independence Day. Hooray!

Dean Treadway said...

My god, Lisa, that was the best post ever! You are really passionate about this work! Jeez, I cannot wait to see this obvious masterpiece! Really outstanding writing, babe, that transmits true love in the fullest of colors. Bellisimo!

Scott said...

Great post. I was brought to tears by the mastectomy episode, and in the final episode. Literally. This was the finest television of the year. It must (and I'm confident will) walk away with all important Emmys and Golden Globes.

Lisa said...

You know, I wish I was as confident that it will get the Emmy attention it deserves. There was a kind of a backlash in some corners that it wasn't as interesting as it should have been, blah blah blah...not everybody liked Giamatti. We'll see soon, won't we? As for me, if Stephen Dillane doesn't break through with a nom for his mesmerizing Jefferson, it will be a crime! And Sarah Polley, though it is a smaller role, was wonderful as the grown-up Nabby. She's a tremendous talent in everything she does, and certainly Canada's darling, as she should be!

Dean Treadway said...

LOOOOVE Sarah Polley...I have ever since THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (yep, that's her as the lead little girl!). And THE SWEET HEREAFTER...her acting AND singing in that is superb!! So glad she's becoming more and more successful, even winning an Oscar nom last year as the writer (and director) of AWAY FROM HER. One more reason to catch JOHN ADAMS, which I'm sure I'll love. Those naysayers are about 24 years old and don't like anything (as I have said before) that doesn't have a cell phone as a prop.