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'1776' is the 4th of July movie for people who love to hate Congress

Founding Fathers singing their way up a staircase.
Founding Fathers singing their way up a staircase.
Screencap from 1776: The Director's Cut, via Amazon Prime

Let's face it: if you're someone who gets really excited about the meaning of the Fourth of July, it can be surprisingly hard to celebrate the holiday without getting frustrated by the current state of American politics.

You want to be proud of the fact that America's foremost national holiday isn't about a military victory or even about the forming of the American government, but about the birth of America as an idea. But it's easy to slip from pride in the American idea to fear that it's gone wrong, or is under attack.

No one wants that. That way lie arguments at the family barbecue about the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage. You need a Fourth of July that makes you feel unabashedly good about America.

You might be tempted to reach for The West Wing. Don't. The West Wing is designed to make you feel lousy about the current state of American politics. The series originated as an idealized alternative to the Clinton era: a "Wouldn't it be nice if our government were full of serious people who cared, as opposed to the jokers we have today?" counterfactual, extended over seven seasons.

What you need is something that validates both your belief in America and your frustration with it. And that means you need to watch 1776, a film that reminds you American institutions have always been dysfunctional, but that hasn't prevented them from doing some great things.

John Adams is a Masshole and Benjamin Franklin is a dirty old man

If zero of the words in the phrase "a musical about the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence" appeal to you even a tiny bit, 1776 is not going to win you over. But we've already been over this: you're the sort of person who gets excited about Aaron Sorkin dramas and "the idea of America." You will find a lot to love.

For one thing, it's funny. No one in 1776 comes off looking particularly heroic — but they get in some great zingers on each other. John Adams (played by William Daniels in the 1972 film), as the protagonist and the leader of the fight to get the Congress to "declare independency," gets some of the best ones. His first monologue starts, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress."

But Adams himself is kind of, well, a Masshole, and the rest of the characters have a lot of fun at his expense. (He's called "obnoxious and disliked" so often that the phrase is more likely to stick in your head than any of the actual tunes in the play.) Ben Franklin (Howard da Silva) is a dirty old man who quotes himself too much. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) gets writer's block because he'd rather be sleeping with his hot wife. And in every case, another character is around to point this out. The movie takes some air out of the Founding Fathers by having them take the air out of each other.

The upshot is that watching 1776 validates our ambivalence about America — and makes that ambivalence seem patriotic in its own right. It's okay to be unsettled when Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (John Cullum in the film), one of the leading anti-independence members of Congress, makes the best point about slavery in the show: American prosperity in both North and South was built on the backs of African slave labor. It's okay to feel, by the time the Declaration is actually signed, that it's an imperfect, compromised, bureaucratically-revised document — and to be deeply proud of it nonetheless. And it's okay to both agree with John Adams that Congress is useless and feel that Adams should probably take it less seriously.

You can watch the movie differently when everyone already knows the ending

There's a very good reason 1776 can take itself lightly while genuine political dramas (in real life or in art) can't: the outcome of 1776 is a foregone conclusion, so it's not defined by narrative tension. When it's not clear whether your side will win a political battle, it gets extremely important that everyone do everything they can to help the fight — and nothing that might hurt. "Message discipline" can become overwhelmingly controlling, and snark is either seen as frivolous or as actively harmful to the cause. But there's snark running all the way through 1776, commenting on events as they're unfolding, and it doesn't induce any anxiety, because there's no doubt that the good guys are going to win.

If there's a community theater putting on 1776 in your area, go see it live. It's not easy to pull together a couple dozen men who can sing, so any theater group that's able to cast the show is probably good enough to do it justice. And a live production is more likely to keep the debate scenes snappy and spontaneous.

The movie is supposed to be a filmed replacement for the stage play, and it shows. (The less said about the cinematography, the better. Some scenes are like those 80's photo-session portraits where you see the subject from two angles at once.) It's long, and sometimes it drags.

You have my permission to skip two slow songs in the middle, if you like. You can fast-forward through the scene when the young soldier is talking to the Congressional staff about his experience in Lexington: "Momma, Look Sharp" should be a heartbreaking song, but the scene just doesn't work in the movie. And when John Adams imagines himself into his farm back home — like I said, don't ask me about the cinematography — you can skip the ensuing duet with Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff).

But don't fast-forward through the debate scenes, even when they start to get long. You might miss a cane fight (I'm serious), or at least a good zinger or two. Besides, it's a long weekend, you have the time, and there's no point in rushing through to the ending anyway. You already know where this is going. With 1776, getting there isn't half the fun — it's all the fun.

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