"JOHN ADAMS" (2008) Review
In a nutshell . . . "JOHN ADAMS" is an adaption of David McCullough’s bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize winning biography on the country’s second president, John Adams. Instead of beginning the story during Adams’ childhood or early adulthood, the miniseries began in the late winter/early spring of 1770, when he defended seven British soldiers and one officer accused of murder during the 'Boston Massacre' crisis. It ended with the episode that covered the last fifteen years of Adams’ life as a former President. And despite some historical discrepancies and a rather bland fourth episode, "JOHN ADAMS" ended as another glorious notch in HBO’s history.
The performances were superb, especially Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. On screen, they were as well matched as the second President and First Lady were, over two hundred years ago. If either of them is passed over for either an Emmy or Golden Globe award, a great travesty will end up occurring. Especially Giamatti. He is the first actor I have seen make the role of John Adams his own, since William Daniels in "1776". Another performance that left me dazzled was British actor Stephen Dillane’s subtle and brilliant performance as one of the most enigmatic Presidents in U.S. history – Thomas Jefferson. I had heard a rumor that he preferred acting on the stage above performing in front of a camera. If it is true, I think it is a damn shame. There is nothing wrong with the theater. But quite frankly, I feel that Dillane’s style of acting is more suited for the movies or television. These three fine actors are backed up with excellent performances from the likes of David Morse as George Washington, a brooding Sam Adams portrayed by Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson portraying a roguish and very witty Benjamin Franklin.
I found most of the miniseries’ episodes very enjoyable to watch and very informative. Not only did "JOHN ADAMS" gave its viewers a detailed look into the United States and Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rarely seen on the silver or television screen. One particular scene comes to mind occurred in Part 1 - "Join or Die", when Adams witnessed the tar-and-feathering of a Boston Tory by members of the Sons of Liberty. The entire incident played out with grusome detail. Another scene that caught my attention occurred in Part 6 - "Unecessary War", when the Adamses had their first view of the recently built White House, located in the still undeveloped Washington D.C. I am so used to Washington looking somewhat civilized that its early, ramshackle appearance came as quite a surprise. And instead of allowing the actors and scenery resemble something out of a painting or art museum, everything looked real. One might as well be stepping into the late eighteenth century, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells . . . if one could achieve the latter via a television set. Speaking of sounds, I have to comment on the opening scene score written by Rob Lane. It is very rare find a miniseries theme song this catchy and stirring. Especially in recent years.
If I could choose one particular episode that left me wanting, it had to be Part Four - "Reunion". This episode covered John and Abigail Adams’ years in Paris during the Treaty of Paris negotiations and as the first U.S. Minister to the British Court of St. James in London. It also covered his return to Massachusetts and election as the first Vice President. I enjoyed the development of the Adams’ friendship with Jefferson in this episode. Unfortunately that is all I had enjoyed. I wish that the episode had expanded more on the troubles surrounding the Treaty of Paris and especially the Adams’ stay in London. The most that was shown in the latter situation was Adams’ meeting with King George III (Tom Hollander) and Abigail’s desire to return home. On the whole, I found this episode rushed and slightly wanting.
But there were three others that I found fascinating. One turned out to be Part 3 - "Don't Tread on Me". This episode featured his subsequent Embassy duties with Benjamin Franklin to the Court of Louis XVI, and his trip to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. I would not exactly view this episode as one of the miniseries’ best, but it did feature an excellent performance by Paul Giamatti, who expressed Adams’ frustration with the opulent Court of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, rakishly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. Watching Adams attempt to win the friendship of the French aristocrats and fail was fascinating to watch.
One of the episodes that really stood out for me was Part 6 - "Unnecessary War". This episode covered Adams’ term as the second President of the United States and the growing development of a two-party system in the form of the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) and the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. This episode featured standout performances from not only Giamatti, but from Linney, Dillane and Sewell as a rather manipulative and power hungry Hamilton. The episode also featured a detailed history lessons on the beginning of political partisanship in the U.S. and the country’s (or should I say Adams’) efforts to keep the U.S. neutral from the war between Great Britain and France. It also focused upon a personal matter for both John and Abigail, as they dealt with the decline of their alcoholic second son, Charles. An excellent episode all around.
My favorite episode – and I suspect that it might be the case with many fans - is Part 2 - "Independence". This episode focused upon the early years of the Revolution in which Adams and his fellow congressmen of the Continental Congress consider the option of independence from Great Britain and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It also focused upon Abigail’s struggles with the Adams’ farm and a smallpox outbreak in the Massachusetts colony. Personally, I consider this the best episode of the entire series. I especially enjoyed the verbal conflict between pro-independence Adams and delegate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (superbly portrayed by actor Željko Ivanek), who favored reconciliation with the Crown. But one scene I found particularly humorous featured Adams and especially Franklin “editing” Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence. All three actors – Giamatti, Wilkinson and Dillane were hilarious in a scene filled with subtle humor.
Despite being based upon a historical biography, "JOHN ADAMS" is not historically accurate. Which is not surprising. It is first and foremost a Hollywood production. Some of the best historical dramas ever shown on television or on the movie screen were never historically correct. Whether or not "JOHN ADAMS" is 100% historically correct, it is one of the best dramas I have seen on television in the past three years. Now that it has been released on DVD, I plan to buy and watch it all over again.