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How Accurate Is Michael Douglas’ ‘Franklin’?

A professional historian tells you what’s really true in Apple TV+’s epic historical series

spinner image A portrait of Benjamin Franklin next to actor Michael Douglas who portrays Franklin in television series
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Apple TV; Getty Images)

Apple TV’s limited series Franklin, based on Stacy Schiff’s 2005 bestseller A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, follows Benjamin Franklin from 1776 to 1783, when he convinced the king to fund the (very anti-king) American Revolution, the cost of which helped spark the French Revolution. That choice eventually cost the king his head. Here’s what’s fact and fiction in Franklin.​

Franklin is depicted as the 18th-century equivalent of a movie star

That’s absolutely true. In 1776, nobody in Europe knew George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton, but Franklin was far and away the most famous American. You discover electricity, you light up the world.

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“His reputation was more universal than that of Leibniz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any,” said fellow founding father John Adams (played in Franklin by Ray Donovan’s Eddie Marsan, 55). “They have it in their heads that I invented electricity,” says Michael Douglas in Franklin, besieged by fans. “Who am I to dissuade them?” Maybe not literally what he said, but it captures the situation.​

There were other American diplomats in Paris then, and Ken Burns might have given them more scenes than they get here. But it’s not all that inaccurate to let Franklin hog the spotlight.​

France looks authentically French

The show, mostly shot in Paris, has an eye for historical accuracy and is sumptuously designed. The costumes especially give Bridgerton or The Gilded Age a run for their money. Many scenes look lit by candlelight, as they were — Franklin’s key and kite hadn’t yet led to light bulbs.

spinner image Ludivine Sagnier and Michael Douglas sitting together in a scene in the Apple TV Plus series Franklin
(Left to right) Ludivine Sagnier and Michael Douglas in "Franklin."
Rémy Grandroques/Apple TV

But Douglas looks wrong

The popular image of Franklin has long been as a grandfatherly, charming man with a bit of a belly and a receding hairline. That’s not what we get here. Douglas, 79, doesn’t look like Franklin, who was 70 when he went to Paris in 1776 and 79 when he left. He looks younger than Franklin’s portraits, has a headful of hair and has no paunch or Pennsylvania accent. He decided against prosthetics and hours in makeup daily. What we get is more like Michael Douglas playing Sandy Kominsky (the tart-tongued acting coach from the Netflix show The Kominsky Method) playing Ben Franklin. This Franklin is tough and acerbic, not folksy. It’s easier to imagine him going toe-to-toe with French and British diplomats than charming France (and its ladies) with his wit and jovial personality. Douglas is at his best (and most accurate) when Franklin has to be prickly rather than avuncular.​

Don't miss this: Michael Douglas on Playing Benjamin Franklin: ‘I Just Wanted to See How I Looked in Tights’ on AARP Members Only Access

The show depicts Paris as a hotbed of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that would make John Le Carré blush

Again, correct. The French spied on the Americans and British. The Americans spied on the French and the British. The main British agent, Paul Wentworth (Tom Hughes in Franklin), was straight out of a spy novel, using secret identities and invisible inks and codes as well as intercepting mail. Before the colonies knew what Americans were thinking in Paris, London knew.

But Franklin probably didn’t know that his friend Edward Bancroft (Daniel Mays) spied for the British, so he probably didn’t feed him disinformation to confuse the Brits, as Douglas’ Franklin does.​

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In Franklin, Ben and John Adams loathe each other — and they did

Franklin and Adams, who negotiated the peace treaty with Britain in Paris, respected each other — Franklin’s lobbying had helped convince Adams to serve in the Continental Congress. But they were oil and water. Adams’ dour puritanism grated on Franklin. Franklin’s vivaciousness shocked Adams. Franklin’s “whole life has been one continued insult to good manners and to decency,” wrote Adams.​

​Adams was provincial, Franklin worldly. Adams could be blunt. “There are very few People in this World with whom I can bear to converse,” he confessed to his wife, Abigail. “I am never happy in their Company.” Jefferson complained, “[Adams] hates Franklin … he hates the French, he hates the English. To whom will he adhere?”​

Franklin was a raconteur who loved company. Adams demanded things of the French; Franklin’s patiently devious diplomacy saved America. When they had to share a room, they had a huge argument over whether leaving the window open was good or bad for one’s health. Franklin said Adams was, “in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Adams and Franklin need to star in a reboot of The Odd Couple.​

The scene of them bickering about negotiating tactics nails their contrasting styles: “Your notion of diplomacy will be our undoing!” says Franklin. Adams retorts, “America cannot suffer any more of this slow, silent, imperceptible creeping!” “The art here is to achieve much by appearing to achieve little,” says Franklin, who did just that.​

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Franklin has fart jokes

​You’d think this was Douglas’ modern addition to the script, and it is — but as the actor loves to point out, Franklin really did write a 1781 essay about flatulence. The book Fart Proudly: Writings of Benjamin Franklin You Never Read in School is in Douglas’ personal library. Franklin warns us not to hold it in: “Retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself. Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.”​

spinner image Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe walking together in a scene in the Apple TV Plus series Franklin
(Left to right) Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe in "Franklin."
Rémy Grandroques/Apple TV

The relationship between Franklin and his teen grandson Temple (Noah Jupe) is wonderful and realistic

Temple Franklin was Ben’s grandson. Temple’s father, William Franklin, was Ben’s son and business partner, and assisted on the famous key-and-kite experiment. But William spied for the British against the American revolutionaries, so Ben angrily cut him off for life.

But Ben doted on Temple, who was his assistant in France — an early nepo baby. (Franklin’s younger grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, the son of his only daughter, Sally, also came with him to France, but he’s not in the show, and that’s fine.)

As the miniseries shows, Temple was a crucial second to his grandfather. He was a party boy and ladies’ man — like gramps, like grandson — seduced by the bright lights and fast life of Paris. After the revolution, Ben failed to get Temple an appointment in Washington’s government; Temple’s business ventures fizzled. Jefferson wrote that Temple’s intelligence was “enough for common uses but not for uncommon ones.” Ouch. Feeling more at home in Paris than Philadelphia, Temple moved back to Europe in 1796 — the show inaccurately implies he never returned to America — and died penniless in Paris in 1823. A friend paid for his burial.​

Just how important was Franklin, anyway?

Franklin’s diplomatic jockeying makes for fun TV — but it didn’t make or break the alliance that made America possible. It’s deliciously entertaining when Douglas’ Franklin goes mano a mano with France’s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes (Thibault de Montalembert, 62). But France didn’t need him to know which way the wind was blowing. When Washington captured Gen. Burgoyne’s entire British army at Saratoga in 1777, it did more to convince France that America could win than anything Franklin said (like claiming Washington’s 14,000 troops were actually 80,000).

Here’s the bottom line, according to Woody Holton, 64, Bancroft Prize–winning author of Liberty Is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (which Benjamin Franklin author Walter Isaacson called a “must-read book for understanding the founding of our nation”): “The Americans couldn’t win the war without France. They could win it without Franklin.”​​​

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