Image A Sound A+ Extras B+
"Join or Die," "Independence," "Don't Tread on Me," "Reunion," "Unite or Die," "Unnecessary War," "Peacefield"
JIMMY CARTER MAN FROM PLAINS
***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A
directed by Jonathan Demme
by Ian Pugh It's hardly anything new to explore the professional brilliance and personal failings of those upon whom history has bestowed the title of Greatness, but Tom Hooper's epic miniseries John Adams bucks genre expectations by refusing to keep us at arm's length with a standardized character archetypally flawed, deigning to present us instead with an actual human being. Certainly it forges an entry point in dismissing the sense of harmonious unity we usually attribute to those early American leaders: marvel as the opinion Adams (Paul Giamatti, a delightfully bitter pill) holds of stoic, wooden George Washington (David Morse) sours from respect to resentment; smirk as he barely hides his contempt for the hedonistic Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and his platitudinous adages; shock as he is too late in realizing the treachery orchestrated by that prick Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell). But it's not enough to tear down romantic icons by having General Washington--who looks as if he's leapt out of a Stuart painting--crack one of his false teeth at breakfast. "Bed, both'a ya!" Adams shouts at his children shortly after witnessing the bloody aftermath of the Boston Massacre, and suddenly the shroud of tall tales collapses in a single powerful blast from a man who may represent the antithesis of any preconceived notions we have about the era of powdered wigs and stockings.
It's in that brusque moment that John Adams unveils its intentions. Calling it a chronicle of the first fifty years of United States history through the eyes of its least-known Founding Father would be doing it a great disservice. Although it demonstrates the creation of a country to be a messy affair, John Adams is primarily the story of a man who attempted to translate his fears and pet obsessions into a system of government with the aid of his brilliant, even-tempered wife (Laura Linney, dignified and heartbreaking)--and, furthermore, how those desires changed over the years, often in the face of perceived victories. When we meet Adams, he takes on the unenviable task of defending the British perpetrators of the Massacre because he believes strongly in the right to counsel. Once the Revolutionary War is over and he has become the Vice-President of the newly-minted United States, he's futilely insisting that the leader of the executive branch should be granted a few more honorifics if it is to be taken seriously in a world of monarchs and empires. It strikes me that films like The Queen labour to deliver a similar treatise on how the most progressive among us are destined to lose sight of the future with the passage of time. John Adams manages to give that message credence by honing in on the dissolution and re-integration of Adams's family life: as Adams dicks around Europe during the Revolutionary War in a bid to acquire money and naval power for his budding nation, he grows ever more distant from his wife, while his sons splinter off into lives of diplomacy and drunkenness. The mutual sense of terror, passion, loneliness, and heartache is palpable; and who is there to blame, ultimately, but the call of history itself?
If John Adams occasionally frustrates for skipping along its subject's lifetime, it does so only to remind of what little time we have to achieve what we want in life and to give our loved ones the attention they deserve. Adams's famous last words--paying tribute to Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration, just hours after the man himself had died--are somehow lent extra weight by this interpretation, encapsulating everything the series has to say about regret. It may be an abstract reference to living in history beneath his successor's shadow, but their tumultuous friendship is presented without definitive conclusion--even though they become pen pals in their winter years in what appears to be a desire to mend wounds inflicted through years of distrust and political haranguing. Despite the greatness that men are capable of accomplishing, John Adams spends its final moments wondering whether it's worth the pain and misery.
Watching Oliver Stone's W. shortly after a tour of John Adams, I noticed a strange kinship between Giamatti's Adams and Josh Brolin's Bush. Stone delivers the fascinating tale of a holy fool, too obsessed with acting from the gut and shooting from the hip to understand how far he's operating beyond his own comprehension. Hooper seems similarly taken by a man who, though incomparably more intelligent than this modern-day counterpart, ended up struggling to reconcile his own bull-headed sense of justice with any sort of practicality for a new nation, forever haunted by the question of how far his smarts can see him through to such an unprecedented enterprise. Perhaps the kings have more in common with the jesters than we'd prefer to think.
Jonathan Demme also finds a quest for nuance and justice laced with regret as he turns his camera on America's thirty-ninth President, nearly thirty years out of office and still struggling to bring peace to the Middle East. Jimmy Carter Man from Plains documents Jimmy Carter's 2006 cross-country tour for his latest book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, in which he discusses the Israeli government's security fence around and within Palestinian territory--which, as he sees it, functions as more an oppressive move than a defensive one. Unfortunately, while he had hoped that the book's title would instigate discussion towards a mutually beneficial goal, Carter encounters a broader spectrum of reactions; throughout the tour, he weathers accusations of anti-Semitism and coddling terrorists. Eventually, the heat becomes oppressive enough that even healthy debate is subject to suspicion: following a thorough exchange with an Israeli television reporter, Carter laments that "what always hurts you is the editing."
Indeed, Demme implies that there is something woefully wrong with a system that would allow for such paranoia to run rampant. Near the beginning, he cleverly sets up Alan Dershowitz, Carter's most vocal opponent on the issue, as some faraway bogeyman before revealing him to be a flesh-and-blood human being careful, in picking his words and battles, to remain as fair as possible. (Dershowitz himself seems particularly aware of the dangers of being misinterpreted, taking the time to clarify that a "cockroach" comment aimed at Palestine's democratically-elected Hamas government is not meant as an attack on Palestinians in general.) By the time Carter's critics have begun tearing him apart for allegedly plagiarizing the maps of the region in his book, the director is compelled to turn his attention to the West Bank itself--because no matter what forces may be at play here, you reach a point in the chaos where that brand of bullshit politics is no longer relevant.
As the two most oft-repeated words in this film are "controversial" and "provocative," Jimmy Carter Man from Plains is trapped within the boundaries of its own point, saddled as it is with the need to constantly repeat the verity that most people are perfectly at ease never subjecting their snap judgments to a thorough examination. Subsequently, it can be something of an endurance test as Carter is essentially spirited from one interview to the next for two hours. (It's made somewhat more frustrating by a dramatic coda at Brandeis University, which sums up the entire film so eloquently and, moreover, concisely that you wonder how much of what led up to it could have been chopped out.) Imbued with a strong sense of duty as a human being and a sense of humour to carry it all through, it's Carter himself who finally makes Man from Plains so engaging--and, especially through the prism of 2008's long, arduous Presidential race, his casual presence acts as an antidote to the angry smears and fear-mongering typically attendant to contemporary political discourse.
HBO Video brings John Adams to DVD in a lovely, shiny-gold box set spreading the series' seven episodes out across three discs. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is appropriately bleak but effortlessly accommodates a brighter palette when called upon to do so. Fool around with your "chapter" button a few times on the seventh episode to see the many ways in which the cinematography captures Adams's retirement at Peacefield: bright and inviting ineffably turns grey and dreary. The DD 5.1 audio is, in a word, awe-inspiring; the show's patriotic theme builds inexorably until the drums and woodwinds instigate a wonderful little earthquake in your living room. Meanwhile, quieter scenes are filled to the brim with discreet sounds--I freely admit that I was fooled by a few animal calls in the back channels, and had to rewind the show at several intervals to confirm they were indeed coming from my sound system and not something lurking outside.
Each episode of John Adams is appended by "Facts are Stubborn Things," an optional 'Pop-Up Video' track that takes Adams's popular axiom to heart by briefly explaining the historical precedents behind a given scene. I've never entirely seen the point of attaching this kind of feature to artistic re-enactments like this: while there are certainly some interesting tidbits to learn, I don't know that these soundbites (textbites?) open up much in the way of education beyond the generalities of the fictionalizations they're expounding on. Elsewhere, "The Making of John Adams" (29 mins.) focuses on the exhaustive effort to recreate every last detail of the 18th- and 19th-century landscapes. Though impressive in a movie-channel sort of way, I was more intrigued by the all-too-brief discussion of maintaining the founding fathers' unabashed humanity as portrayed in David McCullough's source book. Speaking of which, "David McCullough: Painting with Words" (39 mins.) is a thoroughly engrossing profile of the Pulitzer-winning author of John Adams. An astounding figure of many talents, this man McCullough--not least because he takes us on a genuinely fascinating walking tour of his life, process, and local haunts without sounding like some PBS shill or one of those smug-as-shit news reporters making their living by wringing nostalgia into a digestible gruel. "History is life," McCullough says, describing himself as a writer first. If only every historian operated by that maxim.
Sony brings Jimmy Carter Man from Plains to DVD in one of those ultra-thin cardboard packages that are great for the environment but lousy for storage. The 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer accommodates the digital video-based image quite nicely (the CGI titles, wrapped in and around the scenery itself, are worthy of long admiration), and, thanks to an impossibly diverse soundtrack (a culture collision of eastern and western traditions), the film carries with it a brilliant DD 5.1 mix. I caught myself turning my head almost as often as I did throughout John Adams, endeavouring to figure out where, precisely, a specific instrument was coming from.
Demme and producer Neda Armian pair up for a feature-length commentary. If Armian's contribution amounts to little more than a round of trainspotting cushioning Demme's own observations, the director is a tough act to complement as he goes into mind-boggling depth in his attempts to understand Carter's motives. His opening assertion that he saw Man from Plains as a "proto-Western"--one that casts Carter as an aging sheriff who jumps into the line of fire to solve the Hatfield-McCoy feud--is arguably the key to understanding the film as a whole. "Jimmy Carter Man from Plains: The Music Sessions" (33 mins.) chronicles the recording of the film's fitting score in between moments with Demme as he listens in awe and collaborates with various artists in the studio. Sadly, it's only presented in stereo, but you can take this mini-doc along with Neil Young: Heart of Gold as proof-positive that Demme just fucking knows music. No doubt about it: the man is a national treasure.
A long list of "Bonus Scenes"--mostly consisting of recollections from Carter's Presidency and more depressing evidence that folks will judge books by their covers--finishes off the disc's special features. Previews for Blu-ray awesomeness, My Kid Could Paint That, and Steep cue up on startup, which are then accompanied in a separate menu by trailers for Who Killed the Electric Car?, Why We Fight, Vitus, Offside, God Grew Tired of Us, The Fog of War, and Sketches of Frank Gehry. Originally published: October 22, 2008.