Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, David Morse, Clancy O'Connor, Sarah Polley, Rufus Sewell, Justin Theroux, Tom Wilkinson, Landon Ashworth, Danny Huston
Michelle Ashford, Kirk Ellis, David McCullough (book)
Join or Die.
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 in the title role and Laura Linney 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 nation's 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.
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0
Runtime: 501 min.
Release Date: 6/10/08
• “David McCullough: Painting with Words” Documentary
• “Facts Are Stubborn Things” Onscreen Historical Guide
• “The Making of John Adams” Featurette
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John Adams (2008)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 3, 2008)
Poor John Adams. As our second president, he gets lost between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Adams only served one term and seems destined to be a semi-forgotten chief executive.
Adams gets more respect via 2008’s John Adams, a seven-part HBO miniseries. The project opens in 1770, as it introduces us to Adams (Paul Giamatti) as an attorney who takes on controversial cases. He earns a reputation for fairness and eventually moves into politics, a position he holds during the War of the Revolution. Post-war, he works as a diplomat, and he becomes Vice President under Washington in 1789.
When Washington retires in 1797, Adams moves into the presidency, but he loses to Jefferson in the election of 1800. The series follows Adams up until his death in 1826. In addition to the various political elements, we also see aspects of Adams’ private life, with an emphasis on his relationship with wife Abigail (Laura Linney).
No one should mistake Adams for a complete history, of course. Even at more than seven hours in length, Adams needs to cut a lot of corners and summarize many aspects of the man’s life. Especially during its early moments, it functions as a “greatest hits” reel, really, which is to be expected, and at least it moves briskly and keeps us interested.
It also improves as it progresses. Its first two chapters come as a bit of a disappointment to me, mostly because they don’t cover ground that seems to be particularly fresh. I won’t say that Adams is a tangential figure through the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but I suspect many viewers will already be rather well acquainted with the events depicted. This isn’t a criticism of the filmmakers, as they needed to touch on these issues; the project would seem incomplete without them. Viewer familiarity simply makes the first two chapters go a little slowly, however.
Once Adams heads to France, however, the program picks up considerably. At that point, we move towards events that haven’t been beaten to death. Indeed, Adams’ work in France usually pops up as a footnote during discussions of the Revolutionary War, since those histories tend to stick with the fighting. Adams’ pursuits overseas offer a different perspective, and a valuable one.
Adams continues to excel after that. It delves into Adams’ life and career in a satisfying manner and brings to life elements of the era that we don’t tend to know especially well. The film also allows Abigail to play a more prominent role. During the first few chapters, she seems life an afterthought, primarily because she and John spend so much time apart from each other. Once they come back more consistently, Linney can grab hold of the part and bring out elements of the character.
As for Giamatti, he starts slowly but builds as he goes. Initially I had problems with him simply because he feels so “modern”. There’s something about him that doesn’t easily allow him to display an 18th century personality in a truly satisfying way.
However, as Adams ages, Giamatti feels more “right” in the role. Perhaps some of this comes from the way that Giamatti seems older than he is. When he plays Adams in his thirties, he comes across as too aged. 44-year-old Linney is also way too old for Abigail in the early chapters; the character starts at 25!
However, Linney has aged better than Giamatti, and she plays such a significantly smaller role that we accept this casting stretch more easily. With Giamatti, it’s not just the age, it’s his demeanor. His casual nature doesn’t quite fit the formal atmosphere of the era. Nonetheless, he either grows into the role or I just got more accustomed to his portrayal. Either way, Giamatti stumbles a bit in the early moments, but he ultimately turns in a satisfying performance.
Really, my only true complaint about Adams comes from the nature of its photography. It uses an awful lot of hand-held photography, apparently in an attempt to capture the immediacy of the faux documentary style. This is distracting from Moment One, especially because it so often serves no purpose. It could work for some of the more active scenes such as the Boston Massacre, but when simple dinner sequences or a parlor conversations bob and weave, the camerawork harms the film.
I know I often gripe about the overuse of hand-held in modern film, and I’ll continue to do so as long as it occurs. I don’t think my gripes will change anything, but I have to mention it since it negatively affects so many films.
Despite this questionable cinematic choice, most of John Adams proves to be quite satisfying. It starts a little slowly but it soon becomes a rich, involving vision of early America. This is a dignified examination of its subject.
The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B+/ Bonus B
John Adams appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not excellent, the transfer usually satisfied.
Sharpness offered the least consistent aspect of the disc. Most of the film looked concise and accurate, but some wider shots and interiors could be a bit soft and dull. I didn’t think these were significant intrusions, though. I witnessed no instances of jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement appeared minimal. Source flaws also failed to interfere, though low-light shots could be a little grainy.
Colors stayed fairly subdued for the most part. The period setting didn’t favor a dynamic palette, but the hues looked reasonably accurate and full. Blacks were acceptably dark and deep, while shadows showed generally positive delineation; some low-light interiors seemed slightly murky, but not to an extreme. Overall, I found this to be a satisfactory presentation.
Although I anticipated a low-key affair, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of John Adams provided a surprisingly dynamic affair. The soundfield used the various speakers well. Scenes with battles proved the most involving, as they engulfed the viewer with the sounds of the setting. That side of things worked best, but other sequences also seemed quite good; even common street scenes placed the viewer in the action and consistently satisfied. Surround usage was pleasing throughout the film, as the back speakers bolstered the various settings well.
Audio quality was also good. Speech occasionally was a little metallic, but the lines usually appeared natural, and they never demonstrated intelligibility problems. Music was quite dynamic and lively, as the score showed excellent range and delineation. Effects were also bright and bold, with nice low-end to boot. Though not quite stellar enough to enter “A” territory, I really liked the audio of John Adams.
Given the mini-series’ prominence and success, I hoped for more extensive supplements than what we find here. Spread across all three discs, we find Facts Are Stubborn Things, a subtitle commentary. This feature accompanies all seven episodes of Adams and provides various facts about the people and events depicted throughout the series.
The “Facts” add a lot to the proceedings. They crop up frequently enough to maintain our attention, and they offer good background on the various elements of the series. They really help embellish our understanding of the different components, and they act as nice footnotes. I’m very pleased with this feature.
On DVD Three, two programs appear. David McCullough: Painting with Words runs 39 minutes, 11 seconds as it discusses the author of the book on which the mini-series was based. We find notes from McCullough as he talks about his interest in Adams, writing the book, his family and his career. (A few comments from his wife Rosalee and his daughters also appear, but McCullough himself dominates the piece.) We get a pretty good overview of the author’s life through this interesting and enjoyable program.
Finally, The Making of John Adams runs 29 minutes, 10 seconds and features McCullough, executive producer Tom Hanks, production designer Gemma Jackson, director Tom Hooper, art director David Crank, visual effects producer Steve Kullback, visual effects designer Robert Stromberg, visual effects supervisor Paul Graff, visual effects compositor Katharina Koepke, screenwriter/co-executive producer Kirk Ellis, historical consultant Cathy Hellier, production supervisor Charles Baxter, costume designer Donna Zakowska, special effects coordinator Ken Gorrell, prop master Steven George, and actors Laura Linney, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. The show looks at sets and locations, costumes, production design, props and historical accuracy, and a few other aspects of the mini-series.
“Making” offers a decent featurette, though it never really excels. We learn some good details, but it also engages in a lot of praise and happy talk. There’s enough useful content to make it worth a look, but it’s not a great program.
While John Adams starts slowly and occasionally stutters, overall it creates a winning achievement. It brings out a unique perspective on the early days of America and presents an unsentimental depiction of those events. We find a dignified examination but not one that suffers from the torturous stiffness that so often mars this sort of program. The DVD offers good picture and audio along with a few interesting extras highlighted by a very compelling set of subtitle notes. This is a highly satisfying film and DVD.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.9642 Stars
| Number of Votes: 28