There is so (WHIP PAN) much to enjoy (JIGGLY ZOOM) about HBO's John Adams that (ASKEW FRAMING) one almost feels churlish for (WIGGLING HANDHELD MOVEMENT) focusing on the absurdly (WOBBLY TRACKING SHOT) modernized directorial choices that Tom Hooper brings to the miniseries. And yet those choices frequently make the drama as frustrating and annoying as my opening sentence. What is the purpose of these techniques, I would ask Mr. Hooper? Are they meant somehow to augur for a "you are there" ambience? If that's the case, I must say they fail miserably, and do nothing more or less than call attention to themselves, drawing the viewer squarely out of the superb performances and history lessons that are at the core of this piece. It's one thing to have that visceral feel during, say, a battle sequence. But when the scene is men sitting around a fireplace having a philosophical discussion, what possible use is there for a wildly careening camera movement that actually leaves the actors out of frame for a moment?
OK, rant over. I just don't get these directorial choices, as I've made clear in my reviews of other pieces, especially period pieces, that utilize them to an absurd degree. So let's forget them for a moment and move on to the many pleasures that await the viewer in John Adams.
I recently had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with PBS' sterling miniseries from the 1970s, The Adams Chronicles, which I reviewed here some months ago. At the same time, HBO was offering a free weekend and I was able to watch one episode of John Adams, which struck me then, due to the directorial "tarting up" mentioned above, as less than stellar. I'm happy to at least partially reverse that verdict now that I've seen the entire seven episodes. Though Paul Giamatti would probably have been one of the last people I would have thought of to portray our second President, his work here is beautifully full and remarkably varied. While other Adamses, like William Daniels (in both the stage and screen versions of the superb musical 1776) and George Grizzard in Chronicles may have the edge on Giamatti in terms of patrician rage and obnoxiousness, it's Giamatti's doleful eyes, often full of pain and regret, that set his Adams apart from those other portrayals. As the Continental Congress sings to Adams in the musical version of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "You're obnoxious and disliked," but Giamatti is able to bring something else to the table here: a surprising self-awareness, even ruefulness over his personality faults, that make this Adams a living, breathing character and not some kind of animatronic mannequin from a lost wing of the Smithsonian. While I felt that Giamatti was outright mimicking Daniels' famous vocal interpretation of Adams, the resemblance really ends there. Giamatti's Adams has a scrap and grittiness, not to mention vitriol, that makes it a very unique creation.
Matching Giamatti every step of the way is a lovely and at times heartbreaking Laura Linney as Adams' wife Abigail, surely one of the greatest women in American history. Every part her husband's intellectual equal (some might argue convincingly his superior in this regard), and certainly more even-tempered and politically savvy, Abigail is a character needing equal parts spunk and restraint, and Linney delivers in both categories. The playfulness between Abigail and John in this miniseries is expertly handled, and the deep bond between them is absolutely palpable. Abigail's brilliantly eloquent mind is revealed in some excerpts from her actual letters to Adams, all of which never fail to impress with their incredible verbiage and depth of emotion, all couched of course in that quaintly restrained manner of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The series, which spans the years 1770 to 1826, is notable as much for what is leaves out (or deals with only tangentially) as for what it includes. Therefore, such world-shaking events as the Boston Tea Party are mentioned only in passing, and even some of the intricacies of the negotiations between northern and southern colonies in the agreement to declare independence is glossed over. The Revolutionary War itself is almost a sidebar here, as Adams finds himself in France for most of it attempting to woo various European governments into alliances, both formally and monetarily. The hedonism of the French court is nicely contrasted to that of the English when, after the American victory (which is dealt with via a message delivered to Adams), Adams then becomes the first American Ambassador to Britain. The scene of Adams and King George meeting for the first time is a wonderful moment in awkwardness covered by florid language, and one wonders how accurate it might be, though as an actors' piece, it certainly gives both Giamatti and Tom Hollander a great moment. While the series goes on to portray the big moments in Adams' life, including becoming our first Vice President and second President, it's really more notable for the personal matters it explores away from the headlines of history that really only serve as its backdrop.
There are an abundance of fascinating little factoids dropped throughout the seven episodes, some cultural, some historical and some personal. I was amazed to find out that the relatively primitive medicine of that day had a sort of inoculation for the smallpox epidemic which ravaged America during the 1700s and beyond. Though this segment is a bit graphic, with live pox being squeezed and that effluent being knifed into uninfected people to create a hoped for immunity (as the physician in the episode admits, it actually kills quite a few), it showed an amazing foresight into what would centuries later would become the idea behind vaccines. In one of the last episodes, when it's discovered that Adams' daughter has breast cancer, there's an amazingly frank discussion about mastectomy. On a personal historical level, it's fascinating to see Adams take an individual journey from hatred of the Monarchy, to a pained respect (once he becomes Ambassador), to actually arguing that the United States might need a King in order to prevent dissolution! There are also some nice throwaway moments, such as when Adams is assuming the duties of President and looks around at the slaves surrounding the doorway, making the subtle point that refusing to deal definitively with that issue during the negotiations behind crafting the Declaration of Independence sowed the seeds for what would a half century or so later become the Civil War. Also nicely portrayed is the growing animosity between Adams and Jefferson (well played by Stephen Dillane), who start out as quite close friends (in fact, the Paris episode shows Jefferson flirting more than a little with Abigail), but who soon find themselves on opposite sides of virtually every issue, especially with regard to the Franco-British war, ultimately rending their friendship asunder. Tom Wilkinson of Full Monty fame makes an appealingly playful Ben Franklin, though I was surprised to hear the hint of an Irish brogue in his interpretation which I'm not absolutely sure is historically accurate.
There's also, as might be expected, quite a bit of drama concerning the Adams children. Aside from daughter Abigail's health problems, and a mismatched marriage, the miniseries doesn't shirk from alcoholism and other tribulations that beset Adams' sons, including a sad early death. The family dynamic is brilliantly portrayed here, with the thrust and parry between John and Abigail leaving indelible marks on their children, as it always does. Adams' almost constant tours away from the homefront in the early episodes gives Linney some of her best moments, where she teeters rather precariously between anger and sorrow.
The miniseries, when it isn't beset by the constantly shifting and patently absurd camerawork, has a beautiful look to it, with some stunning location work. The courts of France and England come fully alive here, and the segments in Amsterdam look (I think intentionally) like something out of a Brueghel painting. But watch out for those weirdly askew camera angles--by the time this had happened for the umpteenth time, I wanted to yell at two Netherlands councilmen, "Watch out, you're going to slip out of frame," when they were filmed at about a 90 degree angle.
John Adams closes on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the date on which both Adams and Jefferson, now semi-reconciled, die mere hours apart. Adams' death is ridiculously overplayed in one of the few missteps in the series, one that virtually has "Emmy Award Screener Material" stamped on it, replete with drool oozing out of Giamatti's mouth as his character shuffles off the mortal coil. Thankfully, after the deaths of Adams and Jefferson, there's a brief epilogue culled from Adams' letters to Abigail and vice versa and it brings home the fact that despite its epic historical figures, John Adams really is at its core a beautiful love story between two absolutely remarkable people who together helped change world history.
The basic image, aside from the camerawork, is absolutely great in John Adams. The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is crisp, clear, and with excellent color. An attempt is made to recreate natural lighting throughout this piece, so some of the nighttime scenes are a bit underlit, which actually works here.
The DD 5.1 soundtrack is exceptionally well detailed, with excellent separation and fidelity. There's not a whole lot of low end sound here to push the limits of your subwoofer, but everything is crystal clear. There's also a Spanish 2.0 soundtrack, as well as English, Spanish and French subtitles.
Each episode comes with an optional "Facts are stubborn things" text subtitles option, which presents further information about the history behind the events portrayed. Each episode also features a "Previously on" submenu choice, though you need to select it to view it, or else the episode will simply begin. The final disc has two superb featurettes, the better of which is a 50-odd minute documentary giving a nice intimate look at author David McCullough. The less satisfying piece is a fairly standard "Making Of" featurette.
If you're not prone to motion sickness or at the very least have a good supply of Dramamine handy, John Adams is a superb portrayal of one of the seminal figures of American history. Sticking almost exclusively to the intimate side of his life, while letting the broad historical events play out in the background, Adams is fueled by two knockout performances by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Highly (QUICK ZOOM TO THE CORNER OF THE ROOM WHERE NO ONE IS STANDING) recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet