As Benjamin Franklin lay on his deathbed in 1790, John Adams said, “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other, the essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington.” As it turns out, Adams wasn’t altogether incorrect. When history looks at the founding of the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are often given the bulk of the credit, while the nation’s second President, John Adams is given a secondary role in the birth of a nation.

HBO’s seven part mini-series, John Adams seeks to change that perception. The mini-series is based on historian David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning opus. Even at seven hours, the mini-series couldn’t possible give viewers the entire story of how America became a nation. And since the series is about John Adams, other seminal figures seem to get short shrift. Because of time constraints, some events happen off camera and are simply referred to later on. In an effort to get all the main points across, Paul Giamatti (in an Emmy worthy performance as John Adams), is occasionally burdened with some clunky dialogue that forces him to use, “no taxation without representation” as part of his normal conversation. While the style is a bit off putting at the start, it does give the audience a sense of the political climate of the period, and does a pretty good job at laying the groundwork for what’s to come.
johnadams2_kent_eanes.jpgAdams was a lawyer and a farmer who believed that the law was “the great equalizer.” He believed that law was designed to topple corrupt men and build up the weak. In his final address to the court when he defended soldiers accused of firing unprovoked shots during the Boston massacre, Adams said, “The law…will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations and wanton tempers of men…On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.” And so, a politician was born.
It is made clear from the start that Adams’ anchor in life, his wife Abigail (another Emmy worthy performance by Laura Linney) is the person who keeps his ego in check when he’s flying too high and assures him he is doing the right thing in his darkest hours. She is always there to steer him in the right direction when his speeches are too egotistical or just off the mark. The couple also seemed to adore each other sexually, as shown in a scene where John enraptures Abigail, dress and all, after months apart.
Fresh off his successful defense of the Boston massacre soldiers, Adams heads to Philadelphia, where he serves as a delegate for Massachusetts in the first Continental Congress. Adams attends hoping to persuade the representatives from the other colonies to support independence from Britain. However, with the passage of the Intolerable Acts–which included the Boston port act, which closed Boston to trade–Adams could find little support for his cause. Only after shots are fired in Lexington and Concord, is he able to make a convincing case for independence to the Congress.
For all his good deeds, John Adams comes across as a fairly boorish man, not cut out for the role of a hero. Giamatti has a history of being able to play characters not necessarily comfortable within themselves. As Adams, Giamatti purses his lips and wears a worried look throughout the film. He also had a rotund figure and seemed to walk slightly bent over, as though he had the weight of the world on his back, even as a fairly young man. In contrast, George Washington (David Morse), is tall, stately and patrician looking; the perfect figure to cast as the father of the United States. Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) dashing and witty, possessed a self-confidence that made him hard to ignore.
After watching John Adams, I’m sure some viewers will have a much better understanding of why a man who was the second President of the United States and a crucial part of the birth of the United States as a nation is often given less credit for his part in the country’s formation than George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. While Washington and Jefferson were charismatic (perhaps more like the politicians we know today), Adams was distant, aloof, stodgy and driven by an unrelenting sense of duty that didn’t always enable him to work well with others, and likely cost him a second term as President.
While John Adams provides a wonderful portrait of a widely misunderstood man and there is much to like about the mini-series, there are some flaws. It is clear that the film, produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman want to give almost all the credit for independence to Adams. Of course, history tells us that, although Adams made the case for independence to Congress, it was Thomas Paine who convinced the citizens of the colonies that independence was the only option. Further, it was Thomas Jefferson who actually wrote the Declaration of Independence. Despite these inaccuracies, John Adams still serves as a fine portrait of a complex man who helped in the birth of a very complex nation.
The three disc set is presented in widescreen and the audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound.
The set features a forty minute documentary, “David McCullough: Painting With Words” provides an overview of the Pulitzer Prize winning authors life and work.
“The Making of John Adams” is a typical “making of” featurette. It gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the production and includes interviews with David McCullough, executive producer Tom Hanks, the miniseries’ stars and key crew nmembers, such as director Tom Hooper, production designer Gemma Jackson, and costume designer Donna Zakowska.
“Facts are Stubborn Things” is an online guide that offers facts on John Adams and his times. As an added bonus, the set also includes an offer to receive an admission pass to Colonial Williamsburg, where the mini-series was filmed.