Review: John Adams (Blu-Ray)

Robert September 5, 2011 1
  • Acting
  • Directing
  • Writing
  • Production Values
  • Enjoyment

John Adams is an HBO mini-series produced by Tom Hank’s company, Playtone, and based on the book by David McCullough. It stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

The program aired starting in March of 2008 as a seven part mini-series. It was recently released on Blu-Ray.

John Adams is an impressive historical presentation covering not only 56 years of the life of the second president of the United States of America, but also some of the most important events in American history. Strangely, as significant and interesting as the formation of the USA was, it isn’t a topic or period that has been thoroughly covered by Hollywood. I remember two mini-series about George Washington, starring Barry Bostwick, from about 25 years ago (bizarrely they aren’t on DVD!). There was the film 1776. Nick Nolte did Jefferson in Paris, 14 years ago.

John Adams has never received the attention that the more glamorous founding fathers received. He did get a PBS mini-series back in 1976 (The Adams Chronicles), but it took David McCullough’s 700 page masterpiece to bring him to the front of the stage. McCullough did copious research and was fortunate enough that John Adams and his wife Abigail exchanged many, many letters over their long life together. The mini-series is wise to build on this and to elevate Abigail Adams to an almost equal player in the story.

The first episode opens in 1770 with the Boston Massacre. John Adams was a lawyer, by trade, and defended the British soldiers involved, at risk to his safety, family, and career. This opening hour does an excellent job of establishing who John Adams was. We get a distinct sense of his personality, moral beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, and of the importance that his wife played in every decision he made.

I’ve been a fan of Paul Giamatti since 1997, when he played Howard Stern’s boss, in Private Parts. He really came to everyone’s notice in Sideways.John Adams should establish him as one of the finest actors of his generation. He is perfect as John Adams, able to bring great complexity to the character. He’s matched by Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. Both actors well deserve the Emmy and Golden Globe they each won for these parts.

The second episode deals with Adams’ critical role in the declaration of independence. This is probably the episode where the pacing is most likely to lose the casual viewer. The filmmakers strived for a level of reality and accuracy in the meetings of the continental congress. The dialogue is true to the time period and often more wordy than is typical for TV. For any lover of history, it is absolutely fascinating. It is also in this episode that we get to meet George Washington (David Morse), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), and Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson). All three actors give good performances. David Morse and Stephen Dillane, to suit their characters, both give subtle performances. Wilkinson, again to suit his character, is boisterous. The makeup job on David Morse is eerie – his Washington looks like he stepped out of the Sullivan portrait.

Episodes three and four detail Adams’ experiences in Europe, during and after the war. It was in Europe that Adams had his biggest difficulties, and probably not coincidentally was away from his wife.

Episode five concerns his two terms as Vice President and Episode six concerns his term as President, including the construction of the White House. Episode seven is about his retirement.

The production values throughout the series are impressive – even more so when one has watched the making of documentary and realizes that very few of the locales even exist today and had to be recreated, from vast sets to excellent CGI. The John Adams set was no place for vanity – throughout the series every character is shown warts and all, from bad wigs to decaying teeth. This mini-series is probably as close as most of us will come to seeing what the 18th century really looked like.

The Blu-Ray includes a nice biographical documentary of David McCullough. There are also features that allow for popups of historical facts during viewing. It is a very nice package and the film looks beautiful in high definition. The mini-series is, of course, also available for standard definition DVD.

I found it very fitting that I watched the final two episodes on July 4th. This is both a very entertaining and educational product. I think every American home should own a copy.

One Comment »

  1. JNagaray June 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Nice review. Among a number of omitted episodes, I’d like to have seen included John Adams’ writing of the Massachusetts-Bay constitution (with the exception of the clause establishing a state religion, which was written by “revolutionary” Sam Adams), which would be the model for the US Constitution.

    Otherwise, it does show the partisanship on the “revolutionary” side that Adams also had to resist, as in the confrontation with Sam Adams (his cousin) after the “Boston Massacre” (which was not in fact a massacre), with Sam pretty much trying to bully John, asking him, “Which side are you on?”

    To which John responded: “The law. Is there another?” And when Sam persisted, “Justice and the rule of law are to be ABOVE politics.”

    Thus Adams stood by his principle of, “A system of laws, and not of men,” due process of law, and trial by jury, despite the costs to him in both business and personal terms.

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