Empty8-10:45 p.m., Sunday, March 16
Although John Adams is not exactly forgotten among the Founding Fathers, compared to many of the others, he hasn't received his due.
Perhaps his appearance belied his valor. Whereas Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and others cut dashing figures, Adams was round-faced and pudgy. Nor was he particularly distinguished for his oratory, wit or tact. Even today, his face can't be found on currency.
With Adams, though, there was a lot more than met the eye. Historian David McCullough, who set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, initially feared that Adams would scarcely hold his own against his Virginia colleague. Once the research started, though -- and particularly after reading hundreds of letters between Adams and his wife, Abigail -- McCullough shifted his focus. His book, and the meticulously faithful HBO miniseries, create an honest and stunning portrait of one of America's most tireless patriots.
"John Adams" begins its seven-part story in 1770, when Adams agrees to defend a group of despised British soldiers from murder charges for firing on mostly unarmed colonists. Adams convinces the jury that the soldiers were provoked and that the order to fire came from the mob. His courtroom victory, though bad for his legal practice, earned him a reputation for courage and respect for justice.
The miniseries recounts Adams' experience in the Continental Congress, his service as an ambassador in Paris and London and his return to government (and politics) as the nation's first vice president and second president. At the same time, it documents the steadfast love and respect between John and Abigail, a self-educated woman with keen insight into human nature as well as current events.
The miniseries is as courageous in its way as Adams was in his. "John Adams" is downright bold in its insistence on authenticity. Filmed in Virginia and Budapest, Hungary, the production design is absolutely faithful to the colonial period, right down to the muted and even dreary colors that dominated New England. Kirk Ellis, who adapted the biography, stays true to the words and speech patterns of the period. Director Tom Hooper shows a keen eye for the details of colonial life and the mannerisms of the day.
Paul Giamatti is brilliant as Adams. He is fearless in his portrayal, confident that the character's all-consuming sacrifices for his fledgling nation will more than compensate for his numerous character flaws. Laura Linney, with charm and determination, shows why Abigail was so important to her husband and, indirectly, to the birth of the nation.
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, played by Stephen Dillane, is seen here as reserved and even morose. Jefferson was no shrinking violet. His uncompromising passion for life and his ideals of democracy were both a source of his greatness and an irritant. He shared Adams' devotion to liberty but differed greatly on how that was to be achieved. A more full-blooded portrayal of Jefferson would also have added additional perspective to the portrait of Adams.
Overall, though, this handsome miniseries is praiseworthy on many levels -- as history, as entertainment and as a way to bring to life for new generations a sense of the sacrifice and heroism needed to establish the U.S. It also is a badly needed reminder that television is capable of so much more than it delivers most of the time, that it can be a rich and rewarding experience.
HBO Films in association with Playtone Prods.
Executive producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman
Co-executive producers: Kirk Ellis, Frank Doelger
Producers: David Coatsworth, Steven Shareshian
Consulting producer: Graham Yost
Director: Tom Hooper
Teleplay: Kirk Ellis
Based on the book by: David McCullough
Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto
Production designer: Gemma Jackson
Editor: Melanie Oliver
Music: Rob Lane
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Set designer: Kathy Lucas
Casting: Kathleen Chopin, Nina Gold
John Adams: Paul Giamatti
Abigail Adams: Laura Linney
Thomas Jefferson: Stephen Dillane
Benjamin Franklin: Tom Wilkinson
George Washington: David Morse
John Quincy Adams: Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Nabby Adams: Sarah Polley
Samuel Adams: Danny Huston
John Dickinson: Zeljko Ivanek