In ‘Franklin,’ Michael Douglas Uses His Charm to Bankroll America

Sailing across the Atlantic to France in October 1776, Benjamin Franklin had 38 days to contemplate his near-impossible mission: persuading the absolute French monarchy of Louis XVI to bankroll a nascent American republic.

His democracy in the making had just declared independence from another monarchy, the British, and had done so with “no gunpowder, no engineers, ships, munitions, money and no army fit to fight a war,” said Stacy Schiff, the author of the 2005 book “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.”

Communication with the revolutionary colonies was erratic and his authority in France tenuous, but Franklin had one significant card up his sleeve: The French hatred of the British, fortified by recurrent war. Franklin, oozing charm at 70, deploying creative ambiguity, leavening wisdom with humor, aware of French fascination with this strange new creature called an “American,” had the guile — as well as the ironclad patriotic conviction — to exploit this diplomatic opportunity.

This is the backdrop to a new eight-part Apple TV+ series, “Franklin,” that began airing this month. Based on Schiff’s book and filmed in France, it stars Michael Douglas, in his first period picture, as the most worldly of America’s founders.

The series has premiered as another war-torn young democracy, Ukraine, scrambles for arms and funds to defend its freedom, and as the American democracy whose fragility Franklin always feared confronts the January 2021 storming of the Capitol by a mob intent on overturning an election. This timing gives the drama a powerful added resonance.

Douglas’s Franklin captures the birth of an enduring American impatience with honorifics and formality. Credit…Apple TV+
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