HBO // 2008 // 501 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 17th, 2009
He united the States of America.
"God bless the King. Who else could have brought such a spirit of unity to the congress?" -- Benjamin Franklin
The life of lawyer, politician, diplomat and U.S. President John Adams is examined over the course of this HBO miniseries. The series begins in 1770 with a portrayal of Adams' career as a successful lawyer and ends in 1826 with his death. The seven parts (which run between 60-90 minutes each) are spread across three Blu-ray discs:
Part I: "Join or Die"
Part II: "Independence"
Part III: "Don't Tread on Me"
Part IV: "Reunion"
Part V: "Unite or Die"
Part VI: "Unnecessary War"
Part VII: "Peacefield"
I'm somewhat cautious when approaching historical dramas. When they are done well, they can provide us with a valuable and engaging look at the past, but the genre can easily become insufferably bloated and self-important when handled poorly. We've certainly seen more than enough stuffy dramas about America's founding fathers that have focused on sentimentally memorializing our nation's key figures to the strains of noble trumpet music. The deservedly acclaimed John Adams distinguishes itself by providing a no-holds-barred portrait of one of the most important men in American history. This seven-part miniseries simultaneously pays tribute to the considerable accomplishments of the second President of the United States while also unflinchingly demonstrating his human weaknesses. The result is a compelling drama that should prove satisfying to both history buffs and those who simply enjoy a good story.
The likes of Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are still widely acknowledged for the roles they played during America's early days, but it does us good to see or read something that reminds us of just how much their ideas and values inform this country (for better and for worse) to this very day. It is somewhat astonishing to consider that some of this nation's unshakable principles and functions were simply hammered out between a handful of men in one room over 200 years ago. I was particularly struck by the depiction of the events surrounding Congress' approval of the Declaration of Independence, in which a poorly-phrased statement by Adams or someone else of similar significance could have so easily undone the foundation of this country.
The scope of John Adams is both broad and intimate. It does not simultaneously attempt to be a picture of this nation's founding and an intimate study of Adams himself, but it does glides back and forth between both with relative ease. When Adams is involved in something vast and significant (as he so frequently was), so is the miniseries. However, when Adams is forced to turn his attention to something else, the film follows him. This leads to an intriguing story structure that offers a very detailed look at certain noteworthy aspects of our nation's history (the Declaration of Independence, Washington being named the first President) while pushing others into the backgrounds (the Revolutionary War itself mostly serves as a backdrop to Adams' misadventures as a diplomat in France).
Paul Giamatti might seem a somewhat unusual choice for the role of Adams, but he turns in a very fine performance that gets better and better as the series proceeds. Giamatti is decent enough as the earnest lawyer and politician depicted early on, but he really excels as the frustrated diplomat and constantly-troubled national leader. Laura Linney essays Abigal Adams remarkably well, matching Giamatti's work at every turn. She is clearly the intellectual equal of her husband, but too frequently restrained by the old-fashioned societal values that prevented women from being able to accomplish much without having the ear of powerful men. Tom Wilkinson is a playful delight as the witty Benjamin Franklin, serving as both a valuable ally and exasperating antagonist for Adams. David Morse brings a strength and dignity to his very successful turn as George Washington. Stephen Dillane does beautifully understated work as Thomas Jefferson, providing a very compelling character arc that contrasts nicely to that of Adams. Great actors abound in noteworthy smaller roles: Danny Huston as the feisty Samuel Adams, Justin Theroux as John Hancock, Zeljko Ivanek as John Dickinson, and Rufus Sewell as a particularly obnoxious Alexander Hamilton.
With a budget of over $100 million, this series seemingly spares no expense in terms of creating historical authenticity. Costume and set design are frequently praised aspects of historical dramas such as this, but John Adams genuinely exceeds even the high standards expected of this sort of production. Considering that this series was aired on HBO, it is unsurprising that the miniseries does not gloss over some particularly disturbing historical elements (unsettling depictions of barbaric medical procedures, a cringe-inducing scene in which a man is tarred and feathered), but I was quite surprised by the way the film stays accurate in terms of personal hygiene. Dirty teeth, untreated sores, and ungainly blemishes of all sorts are present to a certain degree in most characters here; simple aspects of life that are so easily forgotten about in the modern era.
The hi-def transfer is somewhat lacking in areas but nonetheless acceptable. Darker scenes as not quite as strong as I would like them to be, occasionally seeming a bit too murky and poorly-defined. There are sequences here that seem to vary wildly from shot to shot, seeming perfectly fine one moment and then surprisingly weak-looking the next. Outdoor scenes in particular seem to have trouble finding consistency. Even so, the series looks reasonably stellar more often than not, offering fairly strong levels of detail at least 90% of the time. The audio track certainly excels here, offering a rich and perfectly-mixed experience that transports the viewer to 18th-Century America. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and the score by Rob Lane & Joseph Vitarelli is effectively rich and well-mixed. During the few moments that demand more aggressive audio, the subwoofer kicks into action with considerable strength, but not so much that you will need to adjust the volume.
I have to admit I'm rather disappointed with the extras here. Each episode is accompanied by a historical fact track and character biographies. You also get a basic EPK-style making-of featurette and an admittedly engaging and substantial 40-minute documentary about historian David McCullough entitled, "David McCullough: Painting with Words." I would have loved some audio commentaries or featurettes that covered this production in a somewhat more substantial manner, but alas, HBO continues their too-frequent trend of disappointing in this department.
I also have to object to some of the visual choices made by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and director Tom Hooper. The camerawork employs a lot of very modern ideas (crazy camera angles, shaky handicam work, jittery panning) that serve to distract from the miniseries' attempts to take us into another era. The basic story and performances are immensely absorbing; it's not like we would have had trouble sitting patiently through a more traditionally-crafted series.
Finally, while John Adams makes a noble attempt to follow the lives of the Adams children, none of these storylines ever become particularly interesting or satisfying. Also, the last hour of the miniseries, despite being the shortest episode of the bunch, takes a bit too much time wrapping up the saga.
While I'm not sure this Blu-ray release is quite strong enough to warrant an upgrade, John Adams is a superb miniseries that deserves to be seen. Hats off to all involved in creating this top-shelf production.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 501 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Trivia Tracks