John Adams: The short ugly hero of America

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John Adams is the Pete Best of American history,” Tom Hanks says, a rich, rolling chuckle hovering in his warm, familiar voice. “You’ve got all these famous names - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alex-ander Hamilton - but it’s Adams who triangulates the founding of America. He was the last person to speak before they signed the Declaration of Independence. He was the second president. He fought the first true election. The reason he’s unknown - even in America - is the great failure of the way history is taught.” Then he pauses. “Maybe Pete Best is unfair. He’s probably closer to Brian Epstein.”

Hanks is doing pretty much everything he can to correct time’s great slight by telling the story himself. His latest venture is called simply John Adams. It’s a rich and complex seven-hour mini-series about the American war of independence, told from the point of view of a man who, essentially, turned up late to all the explosive, exciting and film-able moments. Adams arrives as the smoke clears at the Boston massacre, gets to the first great battle at Lexington and Concord only to witness the aftermath, and is raising funds in Holland when the British surrender at Yorktown. And yet, somehow, the tale is intense and compelling - like The West Wing with wigs.

Perhaps this is because the story holds many surprises for anyone at least vaguely acquainted with America’s founding myths. In the first episode, for instance, Adams the lawyer defends the British soldiers at the Boston massacre who killed five civilians and ignited the rebellion. “The massacre is a staple of American history,” Hanks says earnestly. “Soldiers shooting unarmed citizens, a turning point, got that, understood. But if I’d been told the second part in my high school or even at college – that the British soldiers were put on trial and acquitted by a jury of Bostonians, and defended by a lawyer who went on to be the second president of the republic - it would have changed the way I viewed my own history.”

Despite these revelations, there is an unusually familiar feel about this import - partly because it is directed by the Brit Tom Hooper, who cut his teeth on EastEnders, but also because it is eminently recognisable as costume drama.

Hanks explains, however, that to mainstream America this is a revolutionary genre. “We have lots of documentaries that examine a subject for an hour and move on, but this allows us to go much deeper - looking at geography, seasons, how letters were delivered on foot, by horse or by sea, and how events took place over a generation. It’s something I feel passionate about and you have to feel passionate because it was a bitch to bring to life.”

Hanks, the co-producer Gary Goetzman and the writer Kirk Ellis based their script on the Pulitzer-prizewinning biography by David McCullough, starting out with a 13-hour epic that - Hanks recalls - HBO suggested they reduce to seven because “that was all they were going to give us the money for”. They put every cent on the screen, with movie-style sets, costumes, camerawork and a stellar cast: Adams is played by Paul Giamatti, his wife, Abigail, by Laura Linney, Jefferson by Stephen Dillane, Washington by David Morse and Franklin by Tom Wilkinson, all of whom were nominated for awards in a series that is up for 23 Emmys.

“The actors came because something as rich as this - it’s close to the reasons you became an actor in the first place,” Hanks argues. “The economy of making pictures has become so prohibitive - I personally know of Academy Award-winning directors who have gone in to pitch their next project and have been told: this studio doesn’t make adult pictures. So the actors, the writers and the directors are migrating to TV, where they can make extended high-quality movies like The Sopranos without worrying about the three acts and 24 beats the studio demands.”

For Giamatti, there was another attraction in telling this story in an election year. “There’s an election fought between Adams and Jefferson in the show that’s basically the founding of our current political system,” he explains. “You have current conservatives claiming Adams and liberals claiming Jefferson - although both those men argued with a greater depth of ideas and intellect than today’s politicians. I’m not sure this show will contribute to the debate in the election, because I’m not sure anyone sane could actually contribute.”

Hanks recognises similar links. “Jefferson and Adams fought with the same rancour and used the same dirty tricks as the election of 2008 will,” he sighs. “Adams was a virulent antimonarchist and yet he was painted as the imperial president - the one who wanted to become an emperor. That’s the same kind of stunt as the Swift Boat veterans calling John Kerry a coward.”

Curiously, McCullough’s book began as a joint project on Jefferson and Adams and gradually became the story of the lesser-known one. Hanks approves. “Jefferson had all the glamour - tall, good-looking, rich, almost a poet,” he explains. “Adams was short, ugly, angry and depressive. But Jefferson was Southern landed gentry with a plantation farmed by slaves. Adams thought slavery was an abomination. He worked his own farm and hired freed John Adams, More 4, Sat, 5.30pm slaves. On the day they died, Jefferson was $100,000 in the red and Adams was $100,000 in the black. So we thought it was worth telling the story of the guy who wasn’t the slave owner.”

For those who like their politics leavened with romance, Adams’s schemes are intertwined with his passionate, tempestuous, intellectual and sensual relationship with his wife. Hanks resisted the Tudors route - casting a set of abs as Adams and a cleavage as Abigail...

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