Famille Historiann spent this past holiday weekend in a nearby Colorado mountain town, and therefore I had access to a much better cable package than I have currently at home. Flipping channels, I landed on an HBO marathon of John Adams, starring the shockingly ugly actor Paul Giamatti and wasting the talents of Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. (And you all remember my opinion of John Adams, right?)
The whole thing is played like history is just a costume party with wigs. All Linney does in the two episodes I saw is look worried and cry and say to her kids, “I wish your father were here,” or hear her kids say, “I wish father were here!” (Plus lots of hugging for the eighteenth century.) And apparently, Abigail Adams kept the farm going in Braintree and raised four kids without any household help. At one point, she’s so upset about John being away that she starts washing windows obsessively in the middle of the night–as if clean windows were a priority in colonial huswifery. (Having windows in the first place was the limiting step for most folks.) The scenes in which Adams inoculates her kids with smallpox was pretty satisfyingly gruesome. However, they all broke out with the pox (one daughter rather seriously), but magically, their skin cleared up and they bore no scars. (Kind of like the invisibility of the household help!)
I’ve never thought that much about Abigail Adams one way or the other, but I never thought of her as a neurotic stay-at-home mother. Linney is a great actor–but roles like this one seriously diminish both the historical person and Linney. (And please don’t get me started on the squirm-inducing sex scene she does with Giamatti. Ugh! It was so unwatchable we had to turn it off.)
I also caught the end of the episode in which they vote for independence. The filmmakers make that day in Congress look about as exciting as your average faculty meeting. The one episode I saw all the way through covered Adams’ disastrous trip to Paris in 1778. (I think the movie conflated different European visits and combined them all into one.) The whole episode played on the dumbest old stories and stereotypes about Benjamin Franklin and Adams in Paris. Guess what? The Parisians are frivolous and value charm! Franklin was an old goat! John Adams was a terrible diplomat! Having watched these two episodes, I think I know less than I started with, they were so devoid of intelligence, insight, or news. (They have pretty good production values, though, I must admit.) Then all of a sudden, Cornwallis surrendered without showing us a single battle scene! What a ripoff.
Then on Independence Day itself, I flipped channels again and ran into 1776, and was reminded of what a much more entertaining movie it is. Come on–the White Shadow as Thomas Jefferson! Dr. Mark Craig as John Adams! (Clearly, this actor was too handsome to play Adams.) Gwynneth Paltrow’s mother as Martha Jefferson! And the old bartender with the hot young wife on Northern Exposure as Edward Rutledge! I much prefer historical productions with a sense of humor, no matter how silly. Much better than watching all of those glum, pasty Adamses. Sheesh.
And if that’s too earnest for you, you could try this.