HE UNITED THE STATES OF AMERICA.
Sometimes there are discrepancies between filmmakers and the people hired to market their work. The tagline of this ambitious HBO miniseries has nothing to do with what John Adams actually did. He remains a controversial figure who was dragged into the fight for independence and subsequently came to view Britain’s monarchy as a model for how the newly united states of America should be governed. He was never a uniter, but nevertheless one of those who brought about the Revolution.
Representing British soldiers
As the story begins in the 1770s, John Adams (Paul Giamatti) has moved his family to Boston and receives much negative attention when he as a lawyer decides to represent British soldiers accused of massacring protesters. The trial shows Adams as a principled man who believes in law and order above everything else, but he soon becomes involved (not least thanks to his more rebellious second cousin Sam Adams (Danny Huston)) in the emerging struggle for independence. He is soon a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, becomes more convinced of the need for liberation and nominates George Washington (David Morse) to lead the Continental Army.
After the declaration of independence, Adams goes to France together with Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) where they secure an anti-British union. After the defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, Adams succeeds in obtaining funds from Holland and returns to the U.S. He is soon elected the country’s first Vice President, but his views of how the nation should be run are ridiculed and his future presidency is doomed to become a footnote in history.
Some chapters are rushed
There are many events in Adams’s unusually long and rich life that I have omitted in this plot summary… and so have the makers of this miniseries. There are times when you feel that some chapters are a bit rushed; writer Kirk Ellis has naturally been forced to decide what to include and what to cast aside. But that’s something you have to accept and the filmmakers have accomplished their task. They focus on what’s important – Adams’s political philosophy and how it came to differ in comparison with Thomas Jefferson’s; his challenges as a politician; and what his 54-year-long relationship with his wife Abigail and their children looked like.
There’s also an ambitious attempt to portray life in the 1700s, especially the limited medical knowledge that caused much suffering. Rarely do we see TV movies that take us to an era like this in such a convincing way; the locations and the costumes do their part to make us feel like we’re actually there. One example is a fascinating sequence where we get to see the White House built in the middle of the woods, with the Capitol being worked on a few miles away.
Giamatti faced criticism from some writers who couldn’t see him as John Adams – but I think he’s perfect. He has an ambiguous quality that fits this multi-faceted statesman very well; Laura Linney is also excellent as Abigail even though we certainly don’t get to know her as well as her husband. They’re surrounded by a top-notch cast, including Wilkinson as the vivacious Ben Franklin and Stephen Dillane as a muted, but intelligent and much-admired Jefferson.
An acquaintance of mine, a self-described expert on the American Revolution, calls Adams an “evil-intentioned clown”. Reading the letters between the Adamses over the years gives a much more complex image of the former President. So does this miniseries… although the undeniably stirring music theme might have been better suited for a riveting war movie.
John Adams 2008-U.S. Made for TV. 501 min. Color. Directed by Tom Hooper. Teleplay: Kirk Ellis. Book: David McCullough. Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto, Danny Cohen. Music: Robert Lane, Joseph Vitarelli. Cast: Paul Giamatti (John Adams), Laura Linney (Abigail Adams), Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson), David Morse, Tom Wilkinson, Rufus Sewell… Danny Huston, Justin Theroux.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Tom Hanks. First shown in seven parts.
Emmys: Outstanding Miniseries, Writing, Actor (Giamatti), Actress (Linney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson). Golden Globes: Best Miniseries, Actor (Giamatti), Actress (Linney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson).
Last word: “When I did ‘John Adams’ I was aware that American children thought these founding fathers were so on a pedestal that they found it hard to imagine them as flesh and blood. Since I’m not an American I had the freedom to not be inhibited by that.” (Hooper, Cinema Blend)