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JOHN ADAMS

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, Danny Huston, David Morse, Sarah Polley, Tom Wilkinson
Director:  Tom Hooper
Audio:Dolby 5.1
Video: Color Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio: HBO
Features:  See Review
Length: Three Discs, 501 minutes
Release Date:  June 10, 2008

"You do not need to quote great men to show you are one."  - Abigail Adams, to her husband

Show ****

No country in history was so blessed to have so many brilliant, brave, and hard working men as America.  Ben Franklin was both charming and scientifically wise, Jefferson eloquent and charismatic, Washington brave and enduring, Hamilton a fiscal and intellectual giant of the age, but possibly the most overlooked and underrated founding father was John Adams. 

Only a one-term president, perhaps vain and overly fond of his own voice, but what a voice it was.  He was one of the first conservative voices in America, a largely self-made man, a farmer and one of the best attorneys in America. He was the frugal, practical, but spirited New Englander among the Virginians.

David McCollough's bestselling biography, brought to life by Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions, finally sought to explain and salute the overly conscientious, unsocial, and largely uncredited patriot whose clashes with Hamilton and his own children did not interfere with his two great loves—his young country and his thoughtful, wise, and devoted wife Abigail, played so bravely by Laura Linney. 

You can almost feel the chilly New England wind in your own hair as we watch them get their children immunized, sail the Atlantic to meet the English King, witness a tarring and feathering, and even see their daughter-in-law undergo a mastectomy with no anesthesia.  One of their sons dies of alcoholism in squalor.  Paul Giamatti deserves awards for his portrayal of a father who cannot decide whether to smother his children with affection or ignore them, or whether Jefferson was the most brilliant American or Satan himself.  Adams contradictions are so believable since they are present in most ambitious men and women.

We see Adams travel to France to secure their help in the revolution, only to clash with the French and Franklin himself, who was a sensualist and libertine, whereas Adams did not make any attempt to learn the language or customs, and seemed to hold the partying French openly in contempt.  Though this toughness
and brains served him well later, when he persuaded Washington to become their first commander in chief and Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.  They also served him well when he was sent to England as our first ambassador---and his first job was to meet the king, face to face.  The meeting went surprisingly well.  No one was better or more confident in such matters than Adams.

McCollough agreed to allow this special to be made partly because the producers convinced him that many viewers would not have necessarily read the book or wanted to read it anyway.  But an unexpected quality of this mini-series is that America is not romanticized and Adams himself is shown aging, black teeth and all.  Like all good biographies we feel like we know the person and the myths and legends are left in the dust.

By the way, the set contains an unexpected bonus: a coupon for free admission to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia when one admission is purchased.  I don’t know if all sets will have such a nice gift…

Video  ****

Excellent, crisp and perfect like the broadcast.  Hopefully the series will be recognized for its incredible quality, with sets of the infant White House, unfinished and unfit for anyone in the swamps of northern Virginia.

Audio ****

The rear channels were well used throughout and the soundtrack is also one of the best in many years. A bird flying overhead, I swear, seemed to actually do so as the sound moved from the center front to center rear. The opening theme will remind HBO viewers of Rome and Carnivale yet it is quintessentially American in its romanticism.

Features ***1/2

There is an informative though somewhat annoying “Facts are Stubborn Things” feature that is like a pop-up video adding facts to what you are seeing.  This is good for history buffs or anyone watching it more than once. 

I suggest watching the David McCollough interview first, he is so fascinating and very old school, still using an old typewriter for everything.  He is truly a renaissance man who has many interests, but sees history as people, not a bunch of dates and events which seem to have nothing in common except their tedium.

He did not talk about this special much, other than the research going into the book, and this was a serious oversight. There is also an amazing “Making of” special which reveals how much CGI was used.  For example, most of the sets has no roofs because CGI filled in the tops and added birds, smoke, etc.  The palaces and great rooms we see are mostly just bare sets with green screens all over the place.  Even though you know most of it is not real, it all seems so believable, almost more real than the real thing.

Summary:

One of the best miniseries in years, if ever, John Adams brings to life one of our most passionate leaders and breathes life into this tough as leather New Englander, in all his humanity.  For once the miniseries lives up to the book, and forms a companion piece which will hopefully bring this founding father back into our consciousness.  Jefferson may have been the pen, and Washington the general, but Adams was the voice of New England becoming America.  We must never forget his pleading with his fellow countrymen to break free from Great Britain, before the country was even born:

“While I live, let me have a COUNTRY...a FREE country...."

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