John Adams (2008)

Tom Hooper

Doxology, Praise, Creation

John Adams (2008).  HBO Mini-series.  Episode VII: “Peacefield.” Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti.  71 mins.  Rated TV-14.

Sometimes preaching choices are easy.  In this instance, skip the sermon to play the following three times.  Or maybe four.

Old John Adams (Paul Giamatti) is pushing 90.  Despite his distinguished career from revolutionary rabble-rouser and vital shaper of the Constitution to second President of the United States, his old-age in many ways has not been kind.  His reputation has suffered, in part due to trashing by Thomas Jefferson, his successor in the White House, vexing middle son Charles who died of alcohol abuse at age 30, and the loss of daughter Nabby at age 48 from breast cancer, even after breast removal (something done without sedation).  And then his remarkable life companion Abigail (Laura Linney) dies, leaving him bereft.  It does not seem a happy end for a man (and couple) of sterling virtue, and the last installment of HBO’s seven-part series (2008), based on David McCullough’s magisterial biography, does not mince or palter the hard realities of Adams’ old age.  Amid that arduousness of aging, always restive for knowledge of this world, old John realizes a thing or two, and a powerfully big recognition it is.

In the midst of a walk through the fields with his youngest son, Adams lets loose with a roaring doxology (at least with as much roar as he can muster at his age).  In wonder at his long life and himself, Adams first notes that he is “still not weary of life,” although he is by now abundantly decrepit.  More importantly, he then reminds his son that while he has seen the courts and jewels of France, none compare to the elegance of the simplest wildflower, pointing to it with his walking staff while he holds forth.

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Moreover, strangely, he observes that “now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”  Adams wonders at this world, at himself in it, and to what his mind, imagination, and soul now turn.  And the gist of that?  Well, awe, adoration, and profound gratitude for the beauty of the earth and life upon it for its ceaseless wonders.

And soon that is followed by his proclamation to his son to “rejoice evermore,” smiling more fully than we’ve seen him in the whole of the series.

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Indeed, three times he repeats, with relish and passion, driving his staff to the ground with increasing force, yelling the phrase to his son, who is but a few feet away. “Rejoice evermore.”

And then some.  Right?

And then a confession of sorts: “I wish that it had always been in my heart and on my tongue.  You know I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees in adoration.  Right here.”

And in his attempt to kneel, he falls laughing into his son’s arms.

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Finally, at last then, he has taken to “delight” in the “mundane,” as Abigail called it, and to behold it, a soul complete, as a realm of splendor that surpasses all the fame and wealth he has seen in his life, though he has not coveted any of it.  And such brings old John to his knees.  Not bad for a walk on a farm named Peacefield.

Adams dies soon after—on July 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson’s death, on the fiftieth anniversary of the United States.

written by Roy Anker