‘Franklin’ review: Michael Douglas plays Ben Franklin in France, looking to fund the Revolution

Throughout history, world powers have funded wars in which they have no direct involvement. (Stares in our current moment.) In 1776, Benjamin Franklin hoped to convince France to do just that when the British colonies in America declared their independence from England and were in need of a serious infusion of money, men and supplies. France was no friend of Britain’s and vice versa, so why not try to leverage that to America’s advantage? “Franklin,” on Apple TV+ starring Michael Douglas in the title role, depicts that delicate and complicated yearslong process. It was no doubt a fascinating diplomatic dance, but the eight episode series is unpersuasive on that point.

Does it matter that Douglas bears no physical resemblance to Franklin? Probably depends upon who you ask. I like that he plays him with an unfussy, modern approach, but this entire milieu is outside Douglas’ wheelhouse and his Franklin has no discernible personality. He has qualities — stubborn, thoughtful, tanned weirdly enough — and he is a low-key rascal and occasional libertine who seems mostly neutral on the ostentatious frivolities of 18th-century France. But as a man, he remains a mystery.

Tagging along as Franklin’s personal secretary is his teenage grandson Temple (Noah Jupe), who provides a window into the lives of the young and well-off — his diversions are mainly drinking, gambling, fighting and screwing — but every time the action switches to Temple, the story grinds to a halt. He’s too tedious to warrant this much screen time. It’s France’s foreign minister (played with wit and pathos by Thibault de Montalembert, of the French series “Call My Agent!”) who becomes the most complex and intriguing character of the narrative. He’s a cunning strategist, but with a human touch. It makes you wonder what kind of series might have resulted if it were told from the French point of view.

Eddie Marsan plays the buttoned-up John Adams and his arrival on the scene midway through — and his bickering with Franklin — shakes things up in intriguing ways. (The series comes from Kirk Ellis and Howard Korder and this is territory with which Ellis is familiar, as the creator of HBO’s 2008 miniseries “John Adams.”) Franklin has a deft understanding of his French hosts, whereas Adams is blunt and blundering. “Your notion of diplomacy will be our undoing,” Franklin warns him. “The art here is to achieve much while appearing to have achieved little.” He understands what Adams does not: No one is more petty than the rich when it comes to spending money on anyone other than themselves.

The settings are appropriately opulent, but a blue-ish filter tends to wash everything out, and the very first scenes (which take place at night) are too dark to be legible. Franklin was apparently a heavy packer, which is an amusing detail, bringing with him a glass harmonica, an instrument he invented (the mechanical version, anyway), as well as a printing press, which seems as impractical as someone today lugging an old-school desktop computer and printer in their bags for an overseas trip. But once a publisher, always a publisher. Franklin knew the power of words. His words, specifically.

There is no decisive moment when France agrees to back the United States, but rather incremental agreements to send support. The intrigue of slippery negotiations (“We make guarantees but we don’t guarantee anything”) is amplified by espionage that is always happening just out of sight. But the end result is a foregone conclusion. Franklin’s successful efforts would plunge France into debt and precipitate a bloody revolution of its own a decade later, and this hindsight hangs like a malodorous cloud over the proceedings. It’s enough to inspire a twinge of guilt — if one were inclined to be sympathetic to France’s spendthrift monarchy and aristocracy while its population starved.

The series doesn’t have much of a point of view on that, except for one sharp visual choice. Compared to Douglas’ “fresh off a Palm Springs golf course” visage, the white makeup and clown-like rouge favored by the French elite of the era give them the look of walking corpses, as if anticipating their own deaths just a few years later when the revolutionaries would come for their heads. The story provides no opportunities to scratch the surface of Franklin’s platitudes about the fledgling United States — by the end, these men are carving up land taken by force from Indigenous people as if they never existed — but that, as well as the role of slavery (which is glancingly acknowledged), may be on a viewer’s mind as well.

Can we pause to talk about urine? It is one of the show’s preoccupations and we are treated to multiple scenes of men relieving themselves against any wall or tree they can find. While it does capture the coarser realities of life before the advent of indoor plumbing, it quickly becomes gratuitous.

By contrast, it got me thinking of the French procedural “Nicolas Le Floch,” about a rakish 18th-century crime-solving police commissioner. It ran from 2008 to 2018 and is one of the better TV portrayals of France during this era, depicting both the high- and low-born. In one episode, we’re introduced to the equivalent of a public bathroom — a man wanders the street with a portable screen and a pot; pay him a few coins and you can do your business — and in contrast to “Franklin,” this detail becomes integral to moving the plot along. That’s how you do it.

“Nicolas Le Floch” understood how airless a narrative becomes if it only focuses on the upper crust. But as the story of the powerful and their backroom negotiations, by design that’s all “Franklin” can be.



2 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Apple TV+