One of the joys of having any kind of specialized knowledge is using that knowledge to nitpick and correct other people’s errors. Grammar snobs and sports fans have known this for a long time. So have the sort of history buffs who like to complain about anachronisms and inaccuracies in historical films.
So it was interesting to see historian Mark Peterson, writing in Common-Place, take on the much-praised HBO John Adams miniseries for “trying too hard to insert the work of professional historians into the script” and “trying to create the illusion that you were watching something that looked pretty much like the way it actually happened.” Peterson argues that the series’ scrupulous attention to period details only makes it “sneakily inauthentic” because it doesn’t recognize “the limits of our knowledge about the past.” John Adams gets the wigs and knickers just right, Peterson suggests, but it still trades in the predictable conventions and motivations of the costume drama. Better that movies “call attention to . . . the fact that they are inventing and dramatizing . . . rather than pretending, as John Adams does, that they are not.”
So what American Revolution movie does Peterson recommend? The musical 1776, starring Ken “The White Shadow” Howard as Thomas Jefferson, because it “calls attention to its own stylized qualities” and “does a better, more compelling and more economical job of teaching audiences some of the fundamental aspects of the American Revolution.” For example, Peterson writes, the tune “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” from 1776 “tells [audiences] that slavery was a major issue in the Continental Congress’ deliberations on independence . . . without leaving them thinking that they know, that they have seen, just what happened.”
As long as we’re recognizing the limits of our knowledge about the past: Does this mean that Jefferson, Adams and Rutledge didn’t really jump up on their desks and break into song during that summer in Philadelphia?
I like musicals about the Founding Fathers as much as the next guy, but if I had to choose, I’d still take John Adams. And it’s not because of any verisimilitude or because wardrobe got the tricorner hats just right. It’s because of Laura Linney.