There Will Be Blood (2007)
John Adams (HBO Mini Series - 2008)
I finish watching both of these last night, and they seemed to beg some comparison. John Adams, a sprawling 7 part mini-series follows the political and personal life of 2 President John Adams, played by tPaul Giamatti. There Will Be Blood follows the professional and personal life of self proclaimed "Oil Man" Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Both capture a period of Americana, that both shows how different that time was from the present, while shaping it in a way that we can't ignore the impact of that era on our own. The drilling of land and cheating of land owners shows the beginning of the loss of America's pioneer spirit. While in John Adams, we see the movement away from the British Monarchy, and clumsily stumbling into something new. JA represents the initial blastoff of America as a beacon of hope for freedom, and by TWBB, we see that the American dream is already become an cannibalistic monster - feeding one man's dreams at the expense of others.
Both movies also show the struggle of the American's complex relationship with religion. In TWBB, the relationship is very parallel, and not very subtle but evocative symmetry of religion and free enterprise as systems of control. In JA, religion is the heart of America, while being kept separate, but close to democracy, the brain of the new Union.
I have to say that after watching JA, I was pretty unimpressed overall. This was another attempt to breath live into the old colonial oil paintings of the founding fathers, to evoke vitality and counter presumed truths. In the end, it really only solidified the stogy notions. Sure, we find out the JA was a lovable curmudgeon (Giamatti seemed to be channeling his role as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor), and that George Washington had a meek voice and often following questionable advice - but at the end of the day, it was the same portrait of men inexplicably rising above their surroundings to become the gods of government for a brief time. It was all too reverent, and all too "good acting". I love Laura Linney, but came to despise her portrayal of Abigail Adams. I'm sure she played it as directed, but she, like everyone else, became more and more one-dimensional. For a mini-series, it was well produced, but a Hollywood budget, this was not. I can't take points away for that. At the end, this fell prey to the common historical drama fate - accomplished actors playing dress up, serving a director who read a "really good biography".
Flip to There Will Be Blood. The first 20 minutes doesn't even have any dialog. Here we don't so much experience the spiraling downward of an antihero, as much as we come to know a man who was inwardly evil all along, and the changes are the resources that become available to him. What is amazing about Day-Lewis' performance, is not how pitch perfect each scene is, but how naturally he progresses into the monster at the end of the film. He doesn't seem any different at the end, but if you go back and rewatch the early scenes, you see how much he has changed. As the audience, I was unable to watch him grow old and change, much like people are unable to see it in themselves and those close to them. The directing was superb - the imagery and cinematography was lyrical - lyrical in the way that Lawrence of Arabia is lyrical.
Finally, the end of each respective piece might but a fine point around their differences. The final episode of John Adams is the prolonged passing of the founding fathers and their loved ones. It was akin to a studio rock track that repeats the same refrain over and over, fading out to nothing. There Will Be Blood ends in a thunderclap, that cuts to credits before you have time to synthesize it's full meaning. It was akin to a crescendo that is followed by silence, and you only then discover the piece is over.
John Adams: One Middle Finger
There Will Be Blood: No Middle Fingers