The Beauty of HBO’s “John Adams”

john-adams-presidentAmerican history is a larger-than-life enterprise, filled with lofty characters who scarcely seem like ordinary people.  Franklin, Edwards, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and the list goes on.  One of the most important figures of the American past is the Massachusetts politician and farmer John Adams.  Second president of America, close friend of Thomas Jefferson, Revolutionary War leader, Adams looms large in our nation’s memory.

The 2008 HBO miniseries entitled, simply, “John Adams” explores the life and times of the man, revealing him to be a very human character indeed.  Though some out there might be surprised to hear that a series produced by HBO is worthwhile, I assure you that it is.  There is a bit of medically related nudity in part six of the seven-part series, but other than that, the film is splendid.  I would highly encourage all Christians to watch the film, and would think it will prove an excellent companion to home-schooling historical study or public school learning.

As I said, the film makes Adams a real person, showing not only his great oratorical gifts, his strong character, and his keen mind, but his forceful pride, his self-pitying nature, and his need for his wife.  Adams, played by Paul Giamatti, shares a very close relationship with Abigail, his wife, played by Laura Linney.  Both actors turn in exceptional performances of the highest caliber.

In the end, the series reveals that even the most full of lives cannot satisfy the restless heart of man.  Even with an impressive past and a wonderful marriage, true and lasting satisfaction evades Adams.  Though a believer in God, Adams and his family evince little deep faith, a matter treated well by David McCullough’s magisterial John Adams, the book upon which the miniseries is based.  Spirituality was not alien to the Adams home, but neither was it preeminent.  This results in much sadness in the children, as John’s politics take him far away from his family.  The sacrifice was worthy on many accounts, but carried a deep cost, as the film clearly shows.

The film shows the glories of America’s founding, and it allows the viewer to experience the drama of early American history, as characters like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Hamilton play key roles in the story.  As a student of American history, I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the film and found myself almost gleeful at the opportunity to see even a fictional Thomas Jefferson and a pretend Ben Franklin.  The struggle to form the republic in which we live is poignantly and dramatically depicted, and the strength of Adam’s character shows itself as he refuses to descend into mere partisanship throughout his career, choosing instead to put his country, and not his name or his party’s cause, first.  He emerges as a flawed but deeply honorable man, more wise and less narcissistic than the brilliant Jefferson, and Giamatti’s performance is superb in capturing both sides of Adams.

Friendship is a key theme of the miniseries, and the film never becomes more touching than when it covers the end of the marriage of John and Abigail and the termination of the friendship of Thomas and John.  Married couples will find this a most moving depiction of the realities and deep bonds of covenanted life, and friends of all kinds will find the twilight years of the Adams-Jefferson friendship stirring.  The sadness of life without faith in Christ and the promise of eternity with Him comes through powerfully as the series wears on, as it is almost unbearable for Adams to part with his wife and his friend.

Rent or even just buy the film. You won’t regret doing so.  You’ll learn or re-learn a great deal of American history and watch as one of the most amazing political developments in all the eras of the world plays out before your eyes through the leadership of a small band of imperfect men.  You’ll also receive fresh encouragement by which to reach out to those around you who have even the best sort of earthly life and tell them of the only enduring hope they may possess, regardless of achievement, investment, or interest.

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  • Yes the founders are larger than life to us now. I agree with you. However does that mean that the pendulum needs to swing so far the other way as to make them tragically dysfunctional and overly flawed?

    Some of them came across in the series as downright weird. However, I very much liked the book. Here is my take on the series if you want to check it out: