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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews John Adams (2008)

June 21st, 2010

I can’t believe it took me this long to get to the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams!

This seven-episode miniseries introduces us to John Adams as a prominent lawyer in Boston, defending the British soldiers who shot and killed several Americans in the so-called “Boston Massacre.”  Throughout the rest of the series, we follow John Adams’ long and eventful life through the American Revolution and the fifty years of American history that follow.

This miniseries is a monumental achievement.  Each episode is truly a mini motion picture.  (And not so “mini” at that — most episodes run WELL over an hour in length.)  The production design, the costumes, the sets, and the visual effects that filled in the environment beyond the sets all combine to create an astonishing recreation of pre-and-post-Revolutionary America.

I happen to be fascinated by the American Revolution, ever since taking a class back at Brown with the scholar Gordon Wood (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as one of the writers quoted by young Will Hunting in the “how about ‘dem apples” scene of Good Will Hunting), and I really enjoyed seeing that period of history brought to such vivid life.  Based on the book John Adams by David McCullough (another extraordinary writer and historian), the miniseries is filled to overflowing with fascinating historical details both large (for instance, I had no idea that Mr. Adams spent so much time abroad, working to garner international support for the fledgling nation during its revolutionary conflict with Britain) and small (I was intrigued to observe the changing fashion in wigs of American intellectuals and politicians).

The sprawling cast is top-drawer.  The series is headlined by several “big name” actors who are, to no one’s surprise, quite terrific — but the cast is also filled out by some very talented lesser-known faces.  The series rests, of course, on the performances of Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.  The two are absolutely wonderful, capturing the fierce intelligence and stubbornness of both Adamses, as well as the tender love that they shared throughout their lives.  I wasn’t expecting this miniseries to present a portrait of such a strong marriage, but that is a strong through-line to the story.  David Morse creates an exceptional George Washington (ably assisted by some terrific hair and make-up).  Morse’s Washington might be the most idealized character in the piece, but this ideal come to life is so much fun to watch that I have no complaints.

The biggest surprise of the miniseries, for me, was the quiet, underplayed performance of Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson.  I can’t speak to the historical accurateness of his portrayal, but his Jefferson is an endlessly enigmatic, fiendishly intelligent man, one who also happened to be just as stubborn as his friend John Adams.  I also must make note of the great performances of Danny Huston as Samuel Adams, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton, and Zeljko Ivanek as John Dickinson.  Take my word for it that for every actor I am mentioning, there are scores more just as impressive.

If I have any complaint about the miniseries, it’s that it peaks too soon.  There’s a tremendous intensity to the first two episodes (set in the days leading up to the American Revolution) that the remaining five installments never quite match.  I rather wish that the creators had given a little more time to the events of those first two episodes, and perhaps condensed the rest of the story a little more.  (The events covered in the last episode, in particular, could probably have been told in half the time.  The extended sequence dealing with John and Abigail’s daughter’s breast cancer is heartbreaking, but felt to me like a weird digression from the main narrative.)

No matter.  I’m thrilled to have finally had a chance to watch this epic miniseries.  The DVDs sit proudly on my shelf, and I am certain that this is a story that I will return to soon.

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