Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mini-series review: John Adams


A silver lining to my temporary state of spouselessness is the endowment of time with which to indulge in pursuits of the intellect.  Thus did I, this weekend, successfully power through all seven episodes of the HBO mini-series John Adams, based on David McCullough's eponymous Pulitzer-Prize winning historical biography.

There is so much to say about this fascinating accomplishment that I scarcely know where to begin.

The cast was superb, top-to-bottom.  But especially masterful were the performances of Laura Linney, as Abigail Adams, and Paul Giamatti in the title role.  Their interactions indicate complete faith in one another as actors.  It is as stately and beautiful as any ballroom dance.

Giamatti has many powerful soliloquies throughout the series, but, in particular, I was taken by his portrayal, in Episode 1, of young John Adams, the Boston lawyer, making his closing argument for the defense in the Boston Massacre trials. 

There are few things I resent more than a production that uses the musical score to manipulate and cue emotion, rather than support and refine.  John Adams, I think, passes the test.  The score is present and powerful, but not overbearing (although at times I was a bit suspicious). 

The series is a visual feast.  The sets and costumes, down to the smallest details, seem true and well-attended-to.  Director Tom Hooper demonstrates considerable skill in his ability to create atmospheres appropriate to the events being depicted.  Examples abound:  the surreal depiction of John Adams, newly appointed United States Minister of Plenipotentiary, in audience with his former sovereign, King George III; the eerie, corrupted vision of John and Abigail occupying a White House built with slave labor.

Besides the acting and the sets, the writing is also superb.  There are no wasted lines and viewers had best be on their toes.  A lot of weighty dialog gets tossed around. On perhaps a dozen occasions, I felt compelled to re-watch a scene in order to keep pace. 

But the most gratifying aspect of the series in my mind is its historical value.  I learned much about the founding of the United States and about the various personalities involved.  The series offered invaluable insights into how the fate of the United States was intricately tied to politics in Europe, of the bitter enmity between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, of the estrangement of the once-close friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. 

The series does not shrink from portraying iconic personalities as real people, with faults, doubts, and flaws.  George Washington appears larger than life, but detached somehow.  Thomas Jefferson is thoughtful, dandy, sophisticated, and deeply radical.  Benjamin Franklin is full of guile and arrogance.

But after viewing the series, I came away with a feeling of intimacy, with John Adams, the man.  The series revealed a daunting, brilliant and ambitious man, troubled by doubt, vulnerable to criticism, and suspicious of passion.  But also a determined man, with a sense of duty and propriety.  And, I hasten to add, a man guided by a strong, willful, and wise woman:  Abigail Adams, John Adams' most trusted adviser and his best friend for 54 years.

Every civic-minded citizen would do well to watch this series.  It teaches and entertains.  How can you beat that?

1 comment:

ed waldo said...

It is a well-mounted series, with excellent acting and production values, true. But it bears little relationship to McCullough's excellent biography, on which it's based. For instance, when in Holland, Adams is basically ill in the miniseries. In the biography, he convinces the Dutch government to recognize the USA and LOAN US MONEY. McCullough notes that this is every bit as important as Franklin's securing an alliance with the French.

Too many important events LIKE that are omitted for any serious praise of a historical epic that has made a hash of the very history it's supposed to be showing. Don't mistake slick production for quality presentation.