Franklin TV Review

Michael Douglas is excellent in a historical espionage series that is not nearly as good as it could have been.

Plot: In December 1776, Benjamin Franklin is world famous for his electrical experiments. But his passion and power are put to the test when he embarks on a secret mission to France—with the fate of American independence hanging in the balance.

Review: Of all the television and big screen depictions of the Revolutionary War and the early days of the United States, few have focused specifically on Benjamin Franklin. The scientist, inventor, scholar, and dignitary has been a key character in many projects, notably played by Tom Wilkinson in HBO’s John Adams and by Howard De Silva in the musical 1776, but always as a supporting player. Despite being one of the Founding Fathers and having his iconic visage gracing the one hundred dollar bill, the first narrative production centered on his life is just now being released. Franklin, an eight-episode limited series from AppleTV+ and ITV America, focuses on Franklin‘s decade-long mission to secure France’s support in the fight for independence from England. Boasting an impressive performance from Michael Douglas, Franklin positions itself more as a tale of espionage, negotiation, and political intrigue than a war film or even a biopic. The result is an interesting look into the life of the most famous American politician never to be President but one that lacks the momentum or energy deserving of such a tale.

Opening in December 1776, Franklin begins with the titular character completing his voyage from Philadelphia to France during a torrential downpour. Recognized for his brilliance and intelligence, Franklin (Michael Douglas) arrives with his grandson William Temple Franklin (Noah Jupe), who is his assistant and protege. Temple, the illegitimate son of Franklin’s illegitimate son, joins his grandfather to learn from him in the hopes of becoming a politician. Almost immediately, the Franklins are dismissed by the Comte de Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert), the First Minister to the King of France, who wants nothing to do with the American war with England. Secretly, Ben Franklin and his colleague Edward Bancroft (Daniel Mays) work through alternative channels to secure weapons and money to help finance the American military which is flagging badly in the West. This means that Ben Franklin must use his wit and wisdom to persuade reluctant aristocrats while staying one step ahead of British spies and other loyalists to the Crown.

Over the next eight chapters, Ben Franklin forges alliances with playwright Beaumarchais (Assaad Bouab), entrepreneur Jacques Charmont (Olivier Claverie) and his wife Therese (Florence Darel) and the beautiful musician Anne-Louise Brillon (Ludivine Sagnier). Along the way, Temple also crossed paths with an idealistic young French solider named Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (Theodore Pellerin), who would majorly impact the Revolution. Equally, the elder Franklin’s life is forever changed as he enters romances with Brillon and Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, also known as Madame Helvetius (Jeanne Balibar). The exploits that Franklin engaged in over eight years in Europe would forever change the fate of the United States, and that sentiment rarely goes unspoken. Because of the thousands of miles between France and the ground battles in America, the tension in Franklin replaces guns and swords with secret messages, impostors and stand-ins for complex misdirections, and plain old palace intrigue as backroom conversations and deals forever change the fate of democracy.

The dynamic between Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe works best in the series. Rather than playing Franklin in his prime, Douglas (who is eight years older than the real Ben Franklin was at the time of this series), portrays the statesman as eldery but still very capable. Believing that he would not live to see the United States as an independent nation, Franklin is stoic but passionate and still very much fill of the vigor of a much younger man. The series also makes sure that he is not portrayed as a universally beloved figure, even in America, as we find out when John Adams (Eddie Marsan) arrives for secret negotiations towards the end of the series. Noah Jupe is also very good as the seventeen year old Temple. Willing to learn from his grandfather, Temple becomes enamored with the stately court of Verseilles which throws a wrench between them, something that is a focal point for much of the series. The trouble with that dynamic, though, is that it develops incredibly slowly over the course of the series.

Writers Kirk Ellis and Howard Korder adapted Franklin from Stacy Schiff’s book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America” with an eye on trying to make the series into a political thriller. Korder, who has experienced writing for the stage, helps transform the dialogue into a central strength for Franklin but still struggles with building momentum. Individual scenes are beautifully shot as interiors within French palaces and mansions. At the same time, the exteriors show the countryside of Europe in an often overcast light. Still, even the most cinematic sequence fails to overcome the fact it is mostly just people talking and walking in period attire. Veteran director Tim Van Patten, best known for The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Perry Mason, and Masters of the Air, is more than capable of capturing the scope of the drama being articulated by the cast, but that does not change how slowly this series movies. Nevertheless, despite the pace, Franklin is a showcase for Michael Douglas.

Having watched the entirety of Franklin, I gained a deeper appreciation for this perspective on American history that I was never taught in school. The picture many of us have of Benjamin Franklin is only a superficial layer of the brilliant man. Michael Douglas inhabits him more fully than any other role in the actor’s career. Franklin may not be as exciting or quotable as Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, but it still presents a unique glimpse into how America became an independent nation. Thanks to solid supporting turns from Ludivine Sagnier and Noah Jupe, Franklin is a good series that finally gives the title figure the biopic he deserves, even if it is not quite as sprightly and energetic as the man himself.

Franklin premieres on April 12th on Apple TV+.

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