If you didn’t get to see the seven-part mini-series “John Adams” when it played on HBO, you must seek out the DVD release because this endeavor is truly astonishing. Not since the glory days of television mini-series in the late 1970s and early 1980s has there been a production of such intelligence, maturity and emotional depth.
Adapted from David McCullough’s acclaimed biography, “John Adams” traces its eponymous character’s life from his remarkable (and successful) defense of the British soldiers who fired on a mob in the 1770 Boston Massacre through the American Revolution and the nation’s rocky birth. Adams, by all accounts, was grudgingly respected but never truly loved by his peers and fellow countrymen. His strident, often cantankerous personality and his seemingly chronic inability to play politics often isolated him. Yet his stubborn determination enabled him to push ahead through Sisyphusean-worthy struggles: from convincing skeptical European powers to loan money to the nascent American government to following George Washington as president to coping with twilight years in an unloved exile amid nagging concerns that history would slander him.
In a way, history did give John Adams a raw deal. Lacking Washington’s innate majesty, Benjamin Franklin’s wry shrewdness and Thomas Jefferson’s patrician grandeur, the short and squat Adams seemed out of place amid the pantheon of Founding Fathers. Yet as this mini-series shows, he was the heart that kept the body of the young America pumping. Without his indefatigable spirit and blind refusal to accept compromise, it is easy to assume the revolution would have been a failure.
But this mini-series is hardly a stodgy history lesson. Indeed, “John Adams” packs an extraordinary amount of human drama into its seven episodes. Key to this is the love story between Adams and his wife Abigail. As played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, the Adamses are a brilliantly matched pair: his bullheaded personality is brought down to humanity by her patient intelligence, and he is continually in her debt for her love and guidance. In many ways, this production is truly a love story, and Giamatti and Linney achieve peerless performances by bringing alive both the fragility and the fortitude of John and Abigail Adams.
History is also well-served by presenting the Founding Fathers as flawed individuals rather than cartoon characters. David Morse’s humorless Washington is constantly under attack, either from British forces or his warring presidential cabinets or his awkward false teeth. Stephen Dillane’s Jefferson and Tom Wilkinson’s Franklin offer the polar opposites of 18th century American society – the aristocrat who longs to emulate European achievements and the rugged individualism who reinvents himself as he reinvents America. Rufus Sewell’s Alexander Hamilton is shown as brittle and vindictive – there’s no Aaron Burr in this series, which is a pity since it would’ve shown Hamilton receiving a seemingly well-deserved fate.
Director Tom Hooper frames “John Adams” keeps the story moving at a crisp, swift pace, and he is not afraid to emphasize the less-pleasant social aspects of that era (be forewarned on the gruesome sequence where a British agent is tarred and feathered during a Boston riot). The production uses subtle CGI effects to recreate many elements of the 18th century (you’ll need to watch the DVD’s “making of” featurette to figure out what’s real and what came from the computer – I’ve not seen CGI used this effectively).
“John Adams” is the ultimate made-for-TV rarity: a prestige production that is genuinely entertaining and engrossing. Truly, you will never look at history quite the same way again after experiencing this triumphant work.