Categories: TV Reviews

‘Franklin’ Review: Talk Less, Smile More; Gorgeous Production Slightly Bogged Down in Dry Diplomacy

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In today’s world, diplomacy seems to be somewhat of a lost art. When so much is visible and accessible in a world that seems smaller than ever, the delicate nuance of negotiation behind closed doors might not be as important to the world order as it once was. When a single tweet can upend delicate balances, what is there to be accomplished from a carefully worded conversation anymore?

And yet, with so much of the world at war, we still see the need for diplomacy between powers, as it still serves as the first and most sought-after resource to settle disputes, as minor as the drawing of a border to as significant as the terms for hostage release or cease-fires. Some of history’s key moments are still achieved from detailed discussions in a closed room rather than bullets on a battlefield. Diplomacy is often the true unheralded hero in any given conflict, the one that achieves greatness without fanfare and succeeds through the omission of violence, rather than the inflicting of it.

There is a tremendous virtue in diplomacy, an evolved, mature, and uniquely human approach to conflict that is honorable, but it is not without guile. My father, who worked for the State Department for thirty years as a member of the American diplomatic corps overseas, most of it in Europe during the Cold War, described diplomacy once to me in one simple sentence: “Diplomacy is getting what you want while letting the other party think they are getting what they want.”

In a nutshell, success in diplomacy is all about who’s better at playing the game. This is the theme behind Franklin, a new AppleTV+ series about founding father Benjamin Franklin’s crucial time in France during the Revolutionary War, in which he attempts to negotiate an alliance with the French, hoping to capitalize on their rivalry with the English—the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Starring Michael Douglas as Franklin, the series tells a little-known but crucial bit of American history, one that most don’t know about, but without which our country might be very different. Written and executive produced by Kirk Ellis (John Adams) and Howard Korder (Boardwalk Empire) and directed by Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire), Franklin is an exquisitely produced history lesson arriving at a perfect time for a country needing to remember the principles and sacrifices upon which it was built, but, sadly, one that gets lost in its own minutiae, ending up as a talky slog, more distraction than diplomacy.

The series begins with Ben Franklin arriving in France in October 1776 as a representative of the fledgling United States congress, hoping to parlay his worldwide fame for discovering electricity into an alliance with France, one in which, in exchange for money, munitions and ships, America would share its wealth of natural resources. But mostly, Franklin was hoping to convince his French counterparts that, by helping the United States, they could hurt England, whose defeat in the raging American Revolutionary War would certainly be in France’s best interests. The British Army was winning the war when Franklin made his trip to France, so there was everything riding on his ability to convince the French to help. Without France’s help, any hopes of an independent United States would be lost.

Franklin didn’t travel to France alone. He brought along his 16-year-old grandson, Temple, played by Noah Jupe (Honey Boy, Ford v Ferrari), who served as Franklin’s secretary, but who quickly blazed his own path in France, becoming a bon vivant who fell in love with the French people and culture.  Franklin is as much Temple’s story as it is Franklin’s, if not more, which is one of the ways in which the narrative loses its way.

With Michael Douglas playing Ben Franklin, which takes some getting used to, the audience becomes invested in seeing one of our greatest American actors playing one of America’s greatest heroes, but there is obviously only so much drama that can be compellingly portrayed by an old guy sitting around talking to other old guys, Michael Douglas or not. So, the story turns, more often than not, to Temple’s journey, from naïve teenager to rebellious teenager to socialite teenager, which is not only distracting, but ultimately pointless. It’s clear that the writers wanted to inject as much energy into the series as possible, so following Temple as he is seduced by the intoxicating charms of Parisian nightlife is obviously designed to balance the scenes of men discussing politics—of which there are many. But there are eight episodes to fill, and only so much talking and partying one can bear, especially when most of the dialogue is in French. The audience becomes desperate for action, but anyone who watches Franklin must understand that the most riveting thing that happens is the subtle gamesmanship between gentlemen—albeit high stakes, not exactly high drama.

The writers do their best to inject as much mystery and drama into Franklin, littering spies everywhere and fomenting betrayal and treason around every corner, even bringing in Franklin’s rival, John Adams, played by Eddie Marsan, to shake things up. Adams has little regard for Franklin’s methods, so he tries to upend everything Franklin has accomplished during his time in France. Their rivalry should be something exciting to see played out, but Marsan is wasted as Adams comes off as nothing more than jealous and hapless. The spies and various rogues with questionable motivations and loyalties are much more effective in making Franklin a tolerable viewing experience, but it just isn’t enough to save the series from being an overly dreary talk-fest.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to look at in Franklin. Clearly, Apple spared no expense to produce this eight-episode historical drama, which is set during the reign of Louis XVI, the last king of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution. There perhaps is no greater place and time in history for costume designers and set dressers than Paris in the 1700s, and Franklin is a true feast for the eyes as costume designer Olivier Bériot went all out, dressing a cast and hundreds of extras in the finest costumes and wigs. There is no shortage of wig design in Franklin, the budget for them alone must have been equal to the gross national product of a small nation, each one more eye-popping than the next. The costumes are gorgeous and the art direction by Yann Biquand and production design by Dan Weil are tremendous. The settings are sumptuous, from palaces to opera houses to expansive gardens, it is all a feast for the senses.

Unfortunately, all the beauty of the series is just window dressing to an ultimately empty storytelling enterprise. As important as Franklin’s mission was, it is ok to admit that there may not have been enough there to warrant eight hour-long episodes. Casting Michael Douglas as Ben Franklin is not enough to make us want to watch him grouse about his gout or banter about debt or the value of the fish market in Newfoundland.

It’s strange enough watching Douglas play Franklin, something it takes eight episodes to get used to, frankly. Douglas is a tremendous actor, and he does a good job finding nuance in the character and gives us just enough to make him believable as our country’s most beloved founding father. But the script doesn’t give him anywhere to go with his performance. Franklin must stay even-keeled and unflappable, unemotional and focused, which doesn’t give an actor much room for embellishment. As a result, Douglas is subtle and delicate in his performance, but there’s only so far he can go before he runs out of road.

As for Jupe, who carries most of the load in the series in terms of emotion, action and plot development, his character does have an arc and Temple’s journey is as much a coming of age as it is a self-awakening and personal enlightenment. The problem is there is a lack of foundation and motivation in Temple’s actions—we have no idea why he’s acting the way he is, why he’s making these choices. Without that understanding, it’s difficult to root for him, no matter how much effort Jupe puts into playing every facet of Temple’s story.

The ensemble cast is strong, though, especially Thibault de Montalembert as France’s Foreign Minister and Franklin’s negotiating partner, Vergennes, Théodore Pellerin as French soldier-turned-American-hero Lafayette and Assaad Bouab as the musician and revolutionary Beaumarchais. There is not much for the female characters to do in Franklin, other than lust, sulk or play the harpsichord—and wear those insane wigs.Expectations of a series about the American Revolutionary War are quickly dampened upon the realization that Franklin is not about war, but about politics, diplomacy and lots and lots of talking. The game of chess makes an appearance a few times in the series, a not-so-subtle reference to the complicated and delicate game the human players are engaged in. There is much at stake in every conversation in Franklin, and it is impossible to not be struck by how little things have changed in international negotiations since then and to not recognize the existential meanings, for any American, in the events that take place in the series. As a historical record, Franklin carries a lot of weight and stands as an important story to tell in our country’s colorful history. But as a fictional narrative designed to captivate an audience, Franklin just is not able to close the deal.

Grade: B-

AppleTV+ will release the first three of eight episodes of Franklin on April 12 with new episodes every Friday.

Catherine Springer

Catherine is a shameless child of the ‘80s who discovered her passion for movies when she was 12 and has never looked back. As the daughter of an American diplomat, she spent the first 18 years of her life as an international nomad, but, when it came time to choose a college and set down roots, there was no other option than Los Angeles, a true industry town where movies touch and flavor everything. She wouldn’t be anywhere else. The only thing she loves as much as watching movies is writing about them, and her reviews have been seen in the Glendale News-Press, Magill’s Cinema Annual and on Prodigy. 15 years ago, she started her own her own movie blog, CathsFilmForum.com, which has been her pride and joy. And, although she loves sports, there is no better season than Oscar season. She owes everything to Tootsie for lighting the flame and to Premiere Magazine for keeping it lit.

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