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June 9, 2008 |

By TK Burton | TV | June 9, 2008 |

As they do with many of their shows, HBO took a bit of a risk with “John Adams,” the 7-episode biographical series about of the nation’s forefathers. Instead of filming a jingoistic, bombastic tale of redcoats and radicals, they instead opted for a lengthy, quiet character study. You’ll find no scenes of gunfire and battlefield heroism here, and therein lies the risk — a miniseries about one of the pivotal figures of the Revolutionary War, without any actual war. Despite the total lack of action and a slow, deliberate pace, “John Adams” works exceptionally well. It is impossible to cover the full depth of the series — it covers five decades and uses dozens of characters — but if you know your history, it will flesh out your experience and provide a fascinating glimpse into both the man and the events of the time.

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian David McCullough and directed by Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I, Longford), “John Adams” takes an honest and critical look at the life of our second President, beginning with the Boston Massacre in 1770 and chronicling his life up to his death in 1826. While several historical figures of note play key roles in the show, and even more are seen on the periphery, the series focuses its efforts on the titular Adams (Paul Giamatti) and his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) as they deal with the tumultuous events of their time — not to mention dealing with each other.

The series opens with a fire and the sound of gunshots from the infamous Boston Massacre, and Adams is asked to defend the British soldiers when they stand trial for murder. It is a case that he eventually wins, to the chagrin and outrage of his peers - not the least of whom is his cousin Samuel (a wonderful Danny Huston), who is harshly critical of his choice and a far more fervent revolutionary than his brother. It is this trial that sets the tone of the series, for Adams, while brilliant and erudite, is not a well-liked man, even among his peers. Instead, he is egotistical, arrogant and frequently lacking in patience, traits which earn him few friends over the course of his life. Despite this, the revolutionary thinkers of the time recognize his inherent skills and the weight his presence brings, and he is invited to be part of the Continental Congress, where he joins the ranks of other contemporary giants such as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and John Hancock (Justin Theroux). Here they discuss the course of action regarding Britain’s increasingly harsh reign over the colonies, eventually setting into motion the events that would lead to a tempestuous battle for independence and Adams’s difficult role in that process.

Giamatti is absolutely sensational as Adams. It is to his credit as an actor that he can sympathetically portray someone so unpopular and irritating to his peers. As the series shows us, Adams’s vanity and lack of grace make him a complicated man who, while respected and eventually befriended by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson, remains disliked by many. The truth is that Adams was a scholar and an active social critic but not much of a politician. He had neither the jocularity and likability of Franklin, who is played as a ribald old schemer, nor the quiet intellectualism of Jefferson. He certainly did not have the strength and physical presence of George Washington (a somber, impressive performance from David Morse). As a result, while those other famous names of his times became renowned and beloved by the people of the day, his personality often became his own worst enemy. When Adams is eventually sent to France, he almost sabotages all efforts to gain French support by being not only ignorant of the complex French games of court and politics but also unwilling to show the patience and political caution that Franklin, a popular figure in Paris, so desperately recommends. Giamatti is a true chameleon: Any role you’ve seen him in before is completely erased from your memory as you watch him here. His mannerisms, his style of speech and intonations all coalesce to form a fully realized picture of John Adams, a quirky, annoying, irritable man who understands the importance of the events around him and desperately wants to lead the charge for independence but whose glaring character flaws make doing so difficult for him. He is hard on everyone around him, unwilling to concede even an inch on any topic. His vainglorious personality will make you clench your jaw and roll your eyes at times — similar to the reactions of the Senate when he is elected vice president to Washington’s president — yet Giamatti shows us that despite all of his stubbornness and condescension, he is ultimately dying to be a part of things, and in the quiet, tender moments with Abigail, we see how wracked with insecurity he is as well.

Giamatti is surrounded by an impressive array of talent for the series, most notably Linney’s portrayal of Abigail Adams. Linney has already etched herself in our minds as one of the most phenomenal actresses of her generation, and she is no exception here. Abigail is tough and strong-willed, and while she clearly loves her husband deeply, she recognizes and will even call him out on his narcissism. Linney has the complicated task of playing such a strong woman within the boundaries created by the times, being patient and dutiful yet still willing to attempt to curb her husband’s ego while attempting to provide him with a sense of perspective. At the same time, she is also the matriarch and the real authority figure for the ever-growing Adams family, providing them with the love and attention that they sorely need. Adams, while he plainly cares for his family, is more concerned with their status and success, transferring his own professional insecurities onto his sons, thus occasionally alienating himself from them. Regardless, Linney’s Abigail is full of the sort of reserved, intelligent fortitude that one would need to be an effective counter to Giamatti’s Adams. In fact, if one were to ask who plays their part more effectively, you would be hard-pressed to choose.

As with any series that spans more than 50 years and has a varied cast of characters, there are several other notable performances. However, two others truly stand out. First, Wilkinson’s Benjamin Franklin is beautifully portrayed as the brilliant American inventor and politician who becomes heavily influenced by the French, eventually finding himself more at home amongst the clever insouciance and political trickery of the French court, than the somber proceedings of the Americans. Wilkinson plays Franklin with a wicked sense of humor, a sly old fox who tries his best to guide Adams through the maze of French society. The second and third episodes (“Independence” and “Don’t Tread on Me”), in which he is prominently featured, are a joy to watch, providing a bit of sharp wit to an otherwise slow, staid production. On the other hand, Dillane’s portrayal of Jefferson is the very picture of restraint. He plays Jefferson as a somewhat sad, thoughtful persona, devastated by family tragedy. At the same time, he is the most radical of the central group of revolutionaries. Dillane’s temperate performance is interesting: Given how inflammatory some of his ideas were, he could easily have been mistakenly played as more of a firebrand. When he utters the famous line, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” instead of being a raised-fist sort of momentous proclamation, it is a quiet moment between him and Adams, and is said with a steely calm that is far more effective and stirring than any Mel Gibsonesque bellows of freedom.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two other most important parts of the series — the direction and the production. The production of “John Adams” is sumptuous and incredible. It feels like it deserves a second viewing for no reason other than to catch the various historical bits and pieces assembled to give it its atmosphere. Costumes, makeup, set design are all meticulous reproductions of late 18th and early 19th century styles. The wig budget alone must have been astronomical. But more importantly, little things — like watching the characters’ teeth decay and disappear over time, seeing Adams portly figure develop poorer and poorer skin as he ages, even watching as fashions change from country to country and decade to decade — are all done so effectively and exactingly that you feel like you truly are watching real people. Clearly, no expense was spared in the interest of historical accuracy, and it paid off. Some of the set-pieces that stands out the most are the shots of the construction of what would eventually become known as the White House. It is a dreary, depressing affair, filled with long shots of slaves, eyes cast downward, as they strain to carry the materials and assemble this magnificent structure set in the midst of a leveled area. These scenes are remarkable in their ability to make an important statement without using a single word.

However, I confess that my favorite scene is that where Adams eventually meets King George III. Adams makes his way through a snickering crowd of English royalty, fancifully dressed and in a stunning palatial setting. Yet oddly, the meeting itself is in a large, virtually empty room save for an opulent golden throne and ornate artwork adorning the walls. Tom Hollander is in the film as King George III for all of 10 minutes, but it’s an amazing 10 minutes. In the scene, he appears weary and red-eyed, a resigned, tired monarch who realizes that he has lost his precious colony and feels like he is losing a child. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic showing of the British king — almost as if he fears that, by breaking away from the monarchy, the colony will be doomed to failure, and he feels the brunt of that impending failure. But one of the things that makes the scene so effective is the sparseness of the setting. It’s clear that there is extravagance and wealth all around, but it’s cleared out to make the interaction between the two more effective.

Oddly, Hooper’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag. Overall, it’s quite good, and strongly aided by the impressive sets and the amazing cast. The camera work can be a little disconcerting at times, sometimes electing to use off-angle, close-up shots in an effort to convey emotion. It’s an effective tactic at times, but you can’t help but feel that it’s a bit overused as well. The pace of the series is what will ultimately make or break it, however. Make no mistake: “John Adams” has some of the best television acting you’re likely to see, and some of the greatest actors of our time, but it is slow, and at times it’s downright plodding. It is the inevitable consequence of filming what is, essentially, more than 8 hours of extensive dialogue. Other than a harrowing scene where Adams’s ship is attacked while crossing the Atlantic en route to France, there is little or no action. Regardless of how well-written and well-acted, 8+ hours of discourse will inevitably divert the attention of some viewers. This is a part of the risk that HBO took — how to maintain interest when so much other fare available today is so much more fast-paced, quick-cut and easily digestible. While the direction is deft and overall satisfying, there are times, particularly in the later episodes after the War and especially after his presidency, where it feels like we’re simply slowly filling up space until his eventual death. But then again, that was Adams’s dilemma as well. Once he was removed from the public eye and his political career wound down, he simply didn’t know what to do with himself, finding himself stultified by the inevitable slowing down of his life.

Despite the occasionally slow pace, “John Adams” is still worthwhile viewing. Fortified by some inspired performances — I haven’t seen all of Giamatti’s films, but I know that this certainly gives Sideways a run for its money — and beautiful and painstaking production values, it provides a great and edifying glimpse into the life and times of one of this country’s most important, and difficult, historical figures. Despite all of Adams’s personal foibles, he succeeded in playing a crucial role in one of history’s most celebrated events. There is no purpose to giving you a blow-by-blow description of the events depicted in the series; to do so is impossible given the length and detail involved. Instead, know that if you are even remotely interested in U.S. and European history, you will be awed at the attention given to showing the places and people as accurately as possible. Bolstered by its strong performances, “John Adams” is one of the most intricate and interesting miniseries ever created, and any fan of history or acting owes it to themselves to see it.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

Which Way Do I Go to Get to Your America?

"John Adams" / TK

TV | June 9, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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