John Adams (2008)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop
 

Prior to this miniseries airing on HBO, I could not go ten feet without running into advertisements for it, in post offices, libraries, and grocery stores. It peaked my interest and gave me high expectations, which the film more than surpassed. It is one of the most historically accurate epics ever to come to the small screen with a tremendous cast and heart-wrenching attention to realistic detail. If you are a history fan, you will absolutely love it.

 

Taxation on tea is unbearably high in the colonies and strife between the colonialists and the resident British forces comes to a violent head when soldiers fire into a crowd of men and boys, killing several people and wounding others. The only man willing to stand for the British soldiers at the resulting trial is John Adams (Paul Giamatti), not because he approves of their actions but because he believes in their right to a fair trail. This action gains him disapproval from certain of his friends but earns the respect of good men, and it is not long before he is invited to participate in discussions over what is to be done about the conflict with the English. Leaving his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) and children at home on the farm, Adams journeys to the south and joins the ranks of men such as George Washington (David Morse), Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkenson), and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) in debating the merits of forming a single force and gaining independence. Throughout the months and years that follow, Adams proves himself politically invaluable and formidable in his opinions, but his unusual ideas do nothing to make him more personable, and he remains important but in the background as America is formed and fights for her independence, dealing with family rivalries and estrangements along his route to the White House.

 

The series centers around Adams but also delves into the lives of the men that surround him. Ironically, the two most vivid characters are the eccentric and funny Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, whose mysterious personality immediately captivates the audience. Several things did disappoint me, and the first is that we never actually see some of the major happenings of the times. I was excited to think I might witness the Boston Tea Party on film for the first time, but we only hear about it in retrospect. The same goes for the entire Revolution. One episode is devoted to the Declaration of Independence and in the next Adams is off to France and before long, we hear the colonies have gained their independence with not a single shot fired on screen. It makes the production a tad anti-climatic in that respect but the series is about John Adams and one should not expect it to encompass anything in which he was not present; so in that respect it can be forgiven.

 

Overall the cast is tremendous but does falter a bit. I respect Giamatti as an actor and for awhile was not initially convinced, around the second or third episode he made me believe in his character wholeheartedly. David Morse has a little trouble pulling off George Washington. He looks remarkably like him but is so soft spoken I cannot envision him leading an army. Tom Hollander, Sarah Polly, and Mamie Gummer are quite good in minor roles, but it's Linney who really shines as the tolerant and wise Abigail. Her eventual death will bring tears to your eyes, because it represents not only the passing of a remarkable woman (an abolitionist and feminist) but also the loss of the woman who shared Adam's heart for fifty-four years. I especially loved learning how much of a compelling force she was in her husband's life -- through their loving letters, their occasional fights, and their constant devotion to one another whether together or apart. It was truly beautiful to watch unfold. One of my favorite characters and performances though is Dillane as Jefferson, so mild-mannered and elusive that you want to spend more time with him than you get to. The score is also absolutely tremendous. The opening musical theme is one of the most gorgeous pieces I have ever heard. 

 

I wish I could say the series is acceptable for family viewing but sadly it is not. In the first episode a man is stripped naked and tar and feathered. The camera catches several glimpses of full frontal nudity. Another episode has a man's leg being graphically sawed off by a doctor. After being apart for a long time, the audience follows Abigail and John into the bedroom for a brief but intimate sexual encounter. The actual act is clothed but I felt as if I were intruding on something Mr. and Mrs. Adams would not want me to see. In the final installment, their daughter is diagnosed with breast cancer and we see the doctors preparing for the operation -- along with her laying topless on the bed. It is a series that could have benefitted from some discretion. Showing the man from the waist up would not have lessened the horrors of what was being done to him. Nor would refraining from showing Nabby's breast have made the operation any less frightening. Likewise, ending the reunion of the Adams' at the bedroom door would have served them well. But it did appear on a paid cable network and as such, I am not surprised.