Tuned In

John Adams, Founding Fighter

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Don’t serve him merlot, Frenchies! Adams (center) meets with Jefferson (left) and Franklin. / HBO: Kent Eanes

Note: A variation of this piece will run in the issue of TIME on newsstands next week. Since John Adams debuts Sunday, and I didn’t want to write a second different review from scratch, I’m sharing this extended version with you. You lucky, lucky people!

America’s first President, George Washington, is on Mount Rushmore. So is the third, Thomas Jefferson. But there is only the merest crevice between them, where the second, John Adams, might have been. Nor has Adams ever been on the face of a piece of U.S. currency. They put William McKinley on the $500 bill, for God’s sake!

The misfortune of John Adams the man, however, is the good fortune of HBO’s John Adams, the miniseries. Because viewers of little preconception of the man, the miniseries is free to do what history should, which is not just reproduce the past but reflect on the present. Add a little diversity and subtract a few powdered wigs, John Adams says, and we’re having essentially the same arguments over 200 years later.

John Adams (Paul Giamatti), in comparison with some of his more revered contemporaries, didn’t catch many breaks. He wasn’t tall and commanding like Washington, wildly gifted like Ben Franklin or silver-tongued like Jefferson—and, he notes bitterly, he doesn’t have a vast inheritance, so he must work for a living as a Boston attorney. This colors his personality; Giamatti plays him as a trudging bulldog, noble but vain, intellectual but provincial, idealistic but cautious. And it colors his politics, giving him a darker view of life than his colleagues with cleaner fingernails.

HBO has made a specialty of what you might call Dirty History–familiar historical settings stripped of their usual myth and retouching. John Adams is not quite as myth-breaking as Rome or Deadwood; it has an unashamed reverence for great moments in history, and the characters sometimes speak like figures from a textbook. (Tom Wilkinson plays Benjamin Franklin as a vibrant, witty rascal, but the script sometimes forces him to burst out in classic Poor Richard aphorisms–“Fish and guests stink after three days”–which are jarring even if he actually did speak like this in casual conversation.)

But the miniseries’ best move in demythologizing the founding of America is John Adams himself. Giamatti makes him an intelligent but pugilistic workaday politician–in another time, you could imagine this Adams leading a union or representing some blue-collar neighborhood in Congress. He is brilliant and savvy about his career, but also ever-conscious of the difference between him and the aristocrats in his own country and in others. When he visits France as an envoy, he stands out among Paris’ refined, cynical libertines as the earnest, provincial American. He doesn’t speak a word of French (and is laughed at for it); he refuses to take a French mistress as Franklin recommends (“Do not underestimate the educational opportunities of the boudoir”); and when he goes to ask the King for aid in the Revolution, he can’t–or won’t–understand the French preference for subtle diplomacy over brass-tacks straight talk. Few actors do discomfort as well as Giamatti, and standing before the effete court of Versailles, you can practically feel Adams chafing in his suit. Yet he has his own bombastic, grandstanding tendencies, kept in check by his wife Abigail (Laura Linney, making the most of an underwritten role).

The miniseries doesn’t romanticize or condemn his upright Yankee parochialism; it simply understands that it is part of Adams’ (and America’s) nature for both good and ill. And it lets Adams make a strong argument for himself, as when French courtiers tease him because he doesn’t know opera: “I regret that I have no ear for la musique. I must study politics and war so that my sons will have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons must study navigation, commerce and agriculture so that their children will have the right to study poetry and painting and music.”

Is he priggish? Is he right? John Adams allows him to be both, and that is its strength. He’s a patriot, and he’s kind of a jerk. The first episode (HBO airs the first two Sunday) establishes his contradictions right off, when, as an attorney in Boston, he agrees to defend a British soldier accused in the Boston Massacre, arguing that the crowd attacked British soldiers and forced them to fire to defend themselves. Boston patriots—especially Adams’ second cousin Sam—resent his taking the case. But Adams does so, partly out of need (he has to work), partly out of ambition (he loves the challenge of winning a hard case), partly out of arrogance (he’s naturally inclined to believe that he’s right and everyone around him wrong) and partly out of principle (he distrusts mob rule and believes passionately in the rule of law).

The most thought-provoking exchanges in the first four parts are between Adams and Jefferson (Stephen Dillane). Jefferson is a classic Enlightenment optimist, who believes in philosophy and science and the improvability of mankind. Adams believes that you can change people’s conditions—make them freer, more prosperous, more fairly represented—but you can’t better their souls. And not without reason: in an early scene, Adams is disgusted watching a mob of “patriots” tar and feather a British official in Boston. “Most men,” he grumbles, “are weak and evil and vicious.”

Their differences spill over into politics after the Revolution. Jefferson is leery of creating a strong Constitution that will effectively force the choices and values of his generation on generations of Americans to come. Adams favors it—for exactly that reason. To him, human nature is to revert to barbarity and injustice; if his generation is lucky enough to rewrite the rules and get them right for once, they should damn well be cemented so that later generations can’t screw them up. “You have a disconcerting lack of faith in your fellow man,” Jefferson chides him. “And you,” Adams retorts, “display a disturbing excess of faith in your fellow man.”

It’s an eternal, unresolved argument. Rephrased one way (can we essentially change political discourse, or is that a naive pipe dream?), it’s the debate between hope and pragmatism. Rephrased another (are people bound to be good if only they’re given equality and opportunity, or are they born wicked and must be forced to be good by a strong society?), it’s the argument between liberalism and conservatism.

In part 4, the two men watch a demonstration of the first hot-air balloon in France. It’s a small, perfect illustration of the ferment and unease of the Enlightenment. Jefferson is rapturous about the flight, and all it symbolizes about human progress; man’s bond to Earth is literally being severed for the first time ever. Adams is convinced the thing won’t get off the ground. When the balloon takes off, Jefferson can’t help but gloat: “Mankind floats on a limitless plain of air.” Adams deadpans, “Hot air.”

Hot air! Just pretty words! It’s tempting to map John Adams on today’s election, with Jefferson as hopemongering orator Obama and Adams as pragmatic workhorse Clinton. The analogy is not perfect, not only because Jefferson sired too many slave kids owned too many slaves to comfortably compare with an African American politician. The complex Adams has parallels with different successors throughout history, from different parties. Like the current President Bush, he’s leery of foreign counsel, especially from the French, whom he sees as corrupt, face-painting dandies. (As opposed to Franklin, whose Francophilia extends to sharing a bath with a French mistress.) Like the previous President Bush, he established a dynasty, through his son John Quincy. And he carries in him pieces of many Americans who’ve had to rely more on hard work than gifts and charm: a little Nixon, a little Truman, a little Bob Dole.

You would think that Hollywood, like the chiselers of mountains, would side with the charismatic dreamers. But John Adams generously shows that Adams unflashy tenacity— “Thanks be to God, He gave me stubbornness”—is itself an asset, and his skepticism a form of idealism.

To put it in today’s terms, John Adams is not the Founding Father you would want to have a beer with. Jefferson is, or the witty, bawdy Franklin. (You would want Sam Adams, of course, to brew the beer.) But Adams ended up beating Jefferson in the first contested U.S. election in 1796, before losing to him in 1800. Since then, the multifaceted argument between them has raged through American history, with different sides taking up different aspects of the fight: between utopianism and pragmatism, between libertarianism and social control, between internationalism and nativism.

Who was finally right? Who ultimately won? Who knows. Unlike Mount Rushmore, that answer has not been set in stone.