Debuting on HBO a few short months ago in March, John Adams premiered to much critical acclaim for its detailed and (mostly) accurate portrayal of the United States second president John Adams. The series ran for six weeks, culminating in mid-April with the seventh part airing on April 20th. Those that stuck with the series from its two-part debut were immediately engulfed in not only the character of John Adams but the early years of the nation and the many men, Adams included, that helped sculpt it into a nation of liberty and justice for all.
John Adams is a sprawling HBO miniseries event that depicts the extraordinary life and times of one of Americas least understood, and most underestimated, founding fathers: the second President of the United States, John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man, HBOs American Spendor) in the title role and Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me, Kinsey) as Adams devoted wife Abigail, John Adams chronicles the extraordinary life journey of one of the primary shapers of our independence and government, whose legacy has often been eclipsed by more flamboyant contemporaries like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Set against the backdrop of a nations stormy birth, this sweeping miniseries is a moving love story, a gripping narrative, and a fascinating study of human nature. Above all, at a time when the nation is increasingly polarized politically, this story celebrates the shared values of liberty and freedom upon which this country was built.
Based on the Dave McCullough book of the same name, John Adams starts out with John Adams trying of the British soldiers involved with the Boston Massacre. With a victory in that controversial case, Adams moved his way through the ranks, allying himself with the likes of General George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and not only acted as representative in France but also found himself as not only a vice president to George Washington but also the nations second president. Starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, John Adams is a superb mini-series that paints the nations second president in a light never before seen.
Admittedly by the third installment of this set I was starting to feel a bit weary of the lengthy installments of the John Adams legacy but by the fourth I realized why. History is one of my favorite subjects and even I can grow weary of it all after awhile and it was probably not wise to watch each installment of this right after the other, as it really was a very talkative and character driven movie, with very little action of any kind to break it up. That’s not a knock against the mini-series, merely an observation; that’s simply the type of mini-series this was and there was no other way to film it. It’s historically accurate for the most part and the role John Adams played in the shaping of the nation was in no way battlefield oriented, so the most exciting elements you’ll find in the film occur with him as a lawyer in the first episode of the series.
Considering it’s a character piece, John Adams strongest element is its cast. Giamatti and Linney as the Adams are simply superb and two portray a very believable couple in love. This goes hand-in-hand with the description of their partnership as being one of the “most moving love stories in American history.” They are the center of the mini-series and they play their parts through the ages flawlessly. I’ve no doubt the story wouldn’t have felt as powerful with lesser actors in the lead; it’s simply an astounding performance the pair give, both when they’re apart on the screen and especially when they’re together. Their reunion in the fourth part of the series is especially pleasing to watch, as it’s a mixture of their professional faces as well as the intimate ones they have for each other.
The performances don’t stop with Giamatti or Linney, however; David Morse as George Washington, however brief, portrays the role of the quiet general with grace, while Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin carries its own amount of prestige and even a bit of sleaze as he commiserates with the French both at the dinner table and in the bathtub. Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson also plays a hefty role in the film, although he isn’t quite as billed as the aforementioned actors. This doesn’t make his performance any less impressive, of course, as he boasts enough power on screen to be believable as the third U.S. president as well as a friend to the less outspoken John Adams.
The series is beautifully shot and composed and the music by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli not only fits the period but also evokes emotion out of all of the sequences, whether it’s from the painful-to-watch surgery of Abigail “Nabby” Adams or even the mini-series opening score, it all mashes and gels well with the series tone. Without a doubt this mini-series will win awards when the award seasons come around again, as it was superbly well crafted and well done.
Having said all of the above praise, however, I will reiterate that the series is very much a history lesson in every sense. It can become incredibly dry and slow at times if you aren’t fully invested in it and even then the relentless strands of dialogue sequences with very little reprieve in-between can become a bit difficult to sit through. But, again, that’s history and that’s what this film accurately portrays; this isn’t a glorified, sex and actionized version of John Adams, it is a faithful adaptation of the story of the family of John Adams. Sure a few liberties are taken in a few instances for the sake of storytelling, but nothing that drastically rewrites anything about the man or his family.
After spending so much time with the actors in this world, it was actually rather bittersweet to see the series come to a close. With all of the characters you grew accustomed to over the seven part series each slip away, one after another, it certainly painted a depressing picture toward the end but also one of great pride and happiness. There was little for the Adams family to not be proud of in their time on this Earth and the HBO miniseries attempts to show us just what was so remarkable about this man who helped set the values that shaped America.
Overall the series is best not watched in the course of two days like I watched it (especially since the series, which runs eight hours, was split into two hours in one day and six in the other) and instead should be spread out further. Still, that was a mistake I made, but it doesn’t make this series anything less of a modern classic. Recommended.
John Adams arrives from HBO Home Video in handsome gold foil packaging with fold out digi-pak trays in a sturdy cardboard surrounding. The foldout digi-pak trays all boast a series of images behind them and disc art that mimics one another. A sturdy rear description of the set detaches from the back via a small cardboard slip that slides over the front, denoting the Blu-ray format. The packaging is very similar to the previous DVD release, with the only difference being it’s shorter and a tiny bit thinner than the previous release.
Technical specifications for the set are respectable; an anamorphic 1.78:1 image is encoded with the VC-1 codec and as impressive as the DVD release was from last year, the gritty nature and golden hued world that John Adams creates looks fantastic. There is some softness at times to the picture, but overall it’s a great looking transfer from start to finish. As impressive as it is to include a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for this mini-series…it really doesn’t require it. It’s a very quiet and subdued track for the most part, dialogue driven and focused in the front channels. A few of the more active scenes spread throughout the room, but for the most part it sticks to the fronts. Included also are French and Spanish 2.0 DTS tracks.
Moving onto the extras we have very little to check out. Each of the episodes feature a “Facts are Stubborn Things” pop-up trivia track that fill the viewer into the historical background of certain elements of the film, both about the Adams family but also about incidental characters or world events that only get a passing reference. If you aren’t up on your history then these can be beneficial, although they do get to be a tad bit intrusive…especially in the first part of the series. I almost shut them off because one was popping up every few minutes it seemed, but by the second part they went from excessive to almost not enough, as their appearance greatly faded after the first part. Subsequent parts had the same element; it didn’t pop up as frequently and instead of seemingly giving the viewer a crash course into Adams life, they instead focused on the passing references and future of some event or individual that wouldn’t be seen in the mini-series. At times I felt them beneficial, as I didn’t feel quite so lost in the historical events that were going on at certain periods (it’s been a long while since I’ve been in a history class and this specific time period was never my strongest point), so if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the time period it might be a good idea to switch these on. First time I’ve actually found one of these trivia tracks useful! In addition, the Blu-ray version is a bit more “enhanced,” but it’s honestly been so long since I originally watched the DVD version of these that I can’t be sure what was new and what wasn’t. There’s an additional Blu-ray bonus with Who’s Who in History, but all it ended up being was a set of character biographies, so it’s not a huge bonus.
The other extras on the set aren’t quite as useful and instead fall more towards the entertaining side. “Painting with Words: A Rare and Personal Glimpse at the Life and Works of Author David McCullough” (39:11) is a documentary on the McCullough, the author who original wrote the book that this miniseries was adapted from. He’s very frank in his discussions about his works and life and overall it makes for an interesting interview. It’s a nice, meaty look at the man’s body of work and the near forty minute run time really benefits the subject matter.
“The Making of John Adams” (29:11) is a simple making-of for the miniseries and features plenty of cast and crew interviews as well as behind-the-scenes footage. This extra, as with the McCullough extra, are both presented in anamorphic widescreen and actually boast better video quality than the miniseries at times. Having said that this making-of doesn’t quite feel like the usual fluff piece, simply because this isn’t the type of production that I think the actors and crew felt like they had to shill and play nice with. It’s a historical piece and as such everyone is free to talk about their characterizations of the historical figures that fill this film, so there’s little pressure to talk about how wonderful everything was.
Overall the extras are a tad on the light side, but in this case quality over quantity is a great way to talk about them as they’re all very much worth watching and checking out. While I doubt this mini-series has much of a chance to be watched more than once by an individual, this set still comes Recommended. The Blu-ray is a nice little bump in the video department, but if you already own the DVD version than you won’t glean too much more from this release.
John Adams arrives on Blu-ray on June 16th