New Sights

John Adams
I will not drink Merlot!
Since HBO retired its Emmy-makers, it’s been lacking in quality programming. Some of the strongest shows were the historical dramas (Band of Brothers, Rome, Deadwood) and John Adams can join that pantheon. Initially Paul Giamatti in the title role was criticized, but I think he fills it well, certainly the later years of bulging gut and balding pate. (Jefferson is another matter).

But the costumes and set pieces are secondary to the root of the miniseries, which is the birth of the United States in a new perspective. A telling scene occurs near the end, when Adams examines John Trumbull’s historic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams in incensed, pointing out the historical inaccuracies: there was no grand official ceremony – isolated representatives signed in fearful secret during the siege of Philadelphia.

One crux of the series is the relationship with Adams and Jefferson. Adams was a statist, imbued with a Hobbsian mindset, fearful of the fickle sway of public opinion. Jefferson, in contrast, was enraptured with pure liberty, the sanctity of the states, agrarian Virginia instead of the industrialized New England. It was the horrible degeneration of the French Revolution that put Jefferson’s dreams of global democracy and liberty on hold, and paved the way for Adams’ Sedition Acts (the Patriot Act of 1796).

Adams was a cranky man, impatient with those who didn’t share his convictions or live up to his expectations (even disowning his own son). But Giamatti expertly balances the passionate vitriol with stubborn, subdued love, especially in scenes with the equally talented Laura Linney.

Most of all, I enjoyed the writing of the show, much of it verbatim from letters and speeches. In many exchanges, the word providence is employed, lifted directly from Abigail and John’s correspondence. Nowadays, our secular age would substitute “random chance” or even “luck”. I prefer “providence”, not because it demands a manipulative deity, but because it implies hope in situations beyond control. And I think any patriot staking his own life and liberty to ensure future generations the same would much prefer providence to chance.

Eastern Promises
he should be a hand model
David Cronenburg has always been an auteur of the grotesque. In the 80s it was strange science fiction devices and inventions that transformed human biology. Lately he’s been interested in pure violence in the context of organized crime. History of Violence was the first, and it stunned more with its pure savagery than the slightly muddled narrative. Eastern Promises is a redux of sorts, again with Vigo Mortensen, who plays a tattooed Russian henchman. The talk of the film is a ten minute naked fight scene in a steamy sauna, bold swaths of blood on inked skin. But it is Vigo’s performance as a weary soldier caught inextricably in the web of violence that seals the deal.

Michael Clayton

2007 was a year of dreary, serious movies, with lots of moral ambiguities, ugly violence, weary protagonists (save Juno and the Apatow films). As Michael Clayton, George Clooney probably gives his best performance. On the surface, a suave lawyer who drives a black sedan, and “fixes” critical situations for his firm. But as the legal thriller unspools, we see another side of the man, guilty about his failures as a father, husband, brother. Even as he delivers his lines with trademark Colony cool, his eyes and mouth betray his moral uncertainties. At the end of the film, he hops in a cab – “Fifty bucks, just drive” – and we just watch his face, the entire tragic drama of the film replayed in his stubbled jaw and dark eyes.

Sunshine

It’s been some time since a quality hard sci-fi film was released, with all the space opera and fantasy draining away CGI budgets. Sunshine has been called the 2001 for our generation, although I wouldn’t go that far. The premise is simplistic enough – a team of astronauts must fly a giant pack of H-bombs to kick-start the dying sun. It’s the visuals that sell the thing. The film is always facing the sun, the screen painted in all shades of fire – yellow and orange and pure overwhelming white. There’s a spiritual appeal to their quest, something transcendental, but when things begin to inevitably go wrong, it devolves into Event Horizon. An admirable try, but if 2001 is any model, avoid the cheap thrills and stick with wonder.

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