J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sons of Liberty: From the Streets of Boston to 1776

It is always bad news for an oppressive government when the wealthy elites start making common cause with the drunken rabble. Such was the case at the Second Continental Congress. Bostonians Sam Adams and John Hancock had little in common, but they both loathed to pay British taxes. Together with their fellow Patriots, they changed history and ultimately founded our great nation. Their early skirmishes on the streets of Boston and the campaign to unify all thirteen colonies are dramatized in the History Channel’s three-night mini-series Sons of Liberty (promo here), which begins this Sunday.

Not surprisingly, Sam Adams was a terrible tax collector. When his leniency evolves into outright insurrection, Loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson calls for his head. For the sake of stability, the wealthy merchant John Hancock tries to play peacemaker, paying off Adams’ debts and convincing the future revolutionary leader to cool his rhetoric. However, Hutchinson soon radicalizes the moderate Hancock by clamping down on both his legitimate mercantile and smuggling operations (which were largely indistinguishable in duty-despising 1760s Massachusetts). Tensions build until blood is finally shed in 1770, concluding the first night with the Boston Massacre.

At this point Dr. Joseph Warren enters the story, not just to tend to the wounded, but also as a prominent patriot in his own right. Those who know their history will understand what lies in store for him, but at least he gets the mini’s only love scene with Margaret Kemble Gage, the New Jersey-born wife of the brutal new military governor, Gen. Thomas Gage. Their affair may or may not have been true, but there is enough historical speculation to justify its inclusion here.

Meanwhile, the reluctant Sam Adams accompanies Hancock and his brother to the First Continental Congress. Although it is not very productive from his standpoint, they meet two key allies, a lecherous old eccentric named Ben Franklin and the quietly commanding George Washington. Essentially, the second part of Sons sets the scene for Lexington and Concord, as well as the vote-counting at the Second Continental Congress, which will play out in the third climatic night.

By focusing on less celebrated Founding Fathers like Hancock and Warren, screenwriters Stephen David & David C. White help distinguish Sons from HBO’s John Adams and the old 1980s Barry Bostwick George Washington miniseries, its natural comparative titles. Frankly, the best part of Sons is the way it celebrates the idiosyncrasies and unruliness of the early Patriots. Was Franklin a bit of a hedonist? You bet—and a genius too. Clearly, they had to be wired slightly differently to challenge the mighty force of the British Empire, but they were also highly intelligent (both strategically and tactically), courageous to a fault, and indeed willing to sacrifice their lives, fortune, and sacred honor.

Ben Barnes is suitably intense either brooding or raging as the mercurial Sam Adams, whereas E.T.’s Henry Thomas is stuck playing the far less cool John Adams as a bit of a worrywart. Of course, nobody has more fun than Dean Norris, who gleefully captures Franklin’s sage insight and mischievous humor. Ryan Eggold also adds a nice bit of romantic dash as the good Dr. Warren. Yet, the biggest surprise is how well the historical Hancock holds up as a central figure and how convincingly Rafe Spall portrays the steady blossoming of his leadership and integrity.

As period productions go, Sons is okay, but not exactly sumptuously detailed. Nonetheless, Canadian director Kari Skogland keeps it moving along at a brisk trot. To their credit, she and the screenwriter tandem never water down the colonials’ complaints amount intrusive government and confiscatory taxation, making it rather timely for Twenty-First Century American viewers. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy historicals, especially those that come with a bit of ale-swigging, Sons of Liberty premieres this Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings (1/25-1/27), on the History Channel.

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