John Adams (HBO Series, 2008)

John Adams (2008) is a seven-part HBO miniseries on the life and career of our second President, John Adams. It stars Paul Giamatti as Adams, Laura Linney as Abigail, Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and a host of others in many minor roles. The series, directed by Tom Hooper (who also directed the acclaimed King's Speech in 2010), is based on the best-selling book by David McCullough.

There are many ways we could evaluate a series of such sweeping scope: casting, cinematography, historical accuracy, willingness (or unwillingness) to deviate from American orthodoxy by portraying the dark sides of the founders. In all these categories, I think John Adams stands up pretty well.

The casting is simply excellent. The title role of Adams is played by Paul Giamatti, who up until this series had primarily been associated with second-tier roles in successful films (The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan), or as the lead character in crappy films, like Lady in the Water. Though Giamatti was by no means an unknown prior to Adams, it is in John Adams that he really comes into his own. His depiction of Adams is powerful without being superficial; in addition, he not only assumes Adams' character flawlessly, but succeeds in doing this as Adams evolves through different stages in his life: the young proponent of justice, the ignored Vice President of Washington, the embittered father of an alcoholic, and finally an old man who has come to terms with his place in history and with his own mortality.

Laura Linney as Abigail is wonderful, and Stephen Dillane (who in my opinion is a very underrated actor) does a phenomenal job in the role of Jefferson.

Of particular interest is the fact that the series does a good job of debunking several cherished American myths in the Liberty narrative. The Boston "Massacre", which opens up the series, is rightly shown for what it was: an attempt on the part of desperate revolutionaries led by Sam Adams to provoke an incident at all costs. Sam Adams and John Hancock are portrayed as the jack-asses they were. Thomas Jefferson, masterfully played by Stephen Dillane, is depicted as a true radical in line with the bloody French Revolutionaries, which of course he was. Even the Washington mythos is brought back down to earth as Washington's administration is shown to be controversial and rife with internal dissent. The film accurately notes John Adams' disillusionment with the outcome of the Revolution in his later years, as well as Adams' anger at how a golden nostalgia seemed to settle over the Revolutionary generation, obscuring the facts of the Revolution and assuming them up into an American mythology.

Not even Adams himself is free from critique here. We see a real man who, though intellectually sharp in his younger days and even rising to brilliance at times, descends to pettiness in his later years and becomes a bitter old man. We see Adams' contributions, but he is by no means a spotless protagonist.

Morally, there is nothing objectionable about the film save for an unfortunate love scene between Adams and his wife Abigail. The love scene is not consummated, but a lot of clothes come off and the scene goes on for long enough to merit concern. If you want to watch the series and just fast forward through this scene, it comes moments after Adams receives his wife in Paris. The scene is meant to highlight the unique nature of the relationship between John and Abigail and demonstrate how difficult their separation had been. Even so, the scene is unnecessary and the point could have been made some other way. There is also a scene of a primitive small pox inoculation that is difficult to watch.


All in all, the series is engaging, easy to sit through, and fairly historically accurate overall, though die-hard revolutionary historians have noted some trifling inaccuracies that one would expect in translating a story of this scope into film (see here). But, because of its wonderful cast, its willingness to debunk prevalent American mythologies surrounding the Revolution, and its ability to engage the audience, I give the John Adams series a 2.5 out of 3, noting that the only reason it does not get a 3 is because of the unnecessary love scene between Giamatti and Linney.

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