Executive Producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman assembled a great team to bring Pulitzer historian David McCollough’s book John Adams to life in this seven part HBO miniseries. It is a beautiful, gritty and moving account of the life of our second President, John Adams and his wife Abigail, beginning on the evening of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and continuing until Adams’ death in 1826.
Adapted by Kirk Ellis and directed by Tom Hooper, the lengthy film might have easily lost its audience, but brilliant performances by Paul Giamatti as John and Laura Linney as Abigail stir interest even in what might have been some long segments.
The son of a “shoemaker and farmer,” Adams’ keen intelligence made him one of the keenest attorneys in Boston. At first repelled by mob violence, he was forced to become a patriot by King George’s harsh measures against the Massachusetts colony. When asked to serve in the first Continental Congress, he went unwillingly, but his commitment to the ideals of freedom gradually molded him into the “firebrand” that pushed and forced the difficult birth of a nation. In all of this, his wife Abigail was the “ballast” that kept him on point, yet his long absences were extremely difficult for her as she raised their three children, sons John Quincy and Charles, and daughter Nabby on their family farm, Peacefield.
Working with Benjamin Franklin, Adams convinced Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration of Independence. Once that great document was complete, he was dispatched to France to assist Franklin with obtaining French assistance in the war with England. When Franklin found Adams’ direct diplomacy to be a liability, he wrote home requesting that Adams be removed from the mission. Seeking assistance from the Netherlands, Adams became gravely ill and suffered from his separation from Abigail and his belief that he was a failure.
The end of the war saw Adams appointed as the first Ambassador to England and he had Abigail join him in Europe while their children were sent off to school. He and Abigail became close friends with Jefferson, who was the Ambassador to France. Although living far away from the new nation, Adams grieved over the forming of political parties, which, he thought, divided the nation. When he returned, however, he was elected George Washington’s Vice President and served in that capacity through two terms before he himself was elected President by a razor-thin margin.
His presidency was marked by the desire of the American people for war with France, which he opposed and during this time, Jefferson became his political enemy, along with George Washington’s adjutant Alexander Hamilton. The Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and Adams, his political back against a wall, signed them into law, against his own better wishes, and clearly against the Constitution of the United States. It would haunt him throughout the rest of his life.
The heart of the miniseries rests with the two principal actors. Paul Giamatti is perfect as John Adams. Not only does he look the part, but his attention to detail is positively absorbing. He ages over fifty years during the course of the show and you see the weight of his decisions on his shoulders, the weight of his separation from his family, and ultimately, his love of freedom.
Laura Linney has toiled virtually unknown for many years now and it is great to see her finally in a leading role that allows her to use all of her talents in the creation of a marvelous character. Most of the story concerns the relationship of John and Abigail and the brilliance of her acting lights the story.
The supporting actors are all pretty good and most of them look the parts they play, which is itself kind of a miracle, but there are some performances that are so understated that one might have wished a bit more liveliness. David Morse, for example, looks the part of George Washington completely, yet his performance is quite understated. Stephen Dillane, however, not only looks the part of Thomas Jefferson, but his understated performance comes off as more studied and deeper. Tom Wilkinson makes a delightful Benjamin Franklin.
More interesting, however, are the children of John and Abigail and the family that surrounds them in their domestic lives. The child actors who play them as children are believable and even affecting in their small roles. Among the adult actors, Sarah Polley is extraordinary as Nabby (Abigail Adams Smith).
I tend to have difficulty with long films. There are notable exceptions, of course, and this is one. The style of art direction, costume, and especially make-up set this drama aside from most. In producing period dramas, the temptation is go overboard and to make everything beautiful, usually so far beyond reality as to be alienating. In John Adams, the producers have labored to create a sense of reality and that is part of what makes this a great film. The skin blemishes, the heat under the wigs, the decaying teeth, the stained clothing, the dirty, muddy streets, candlelight, oil lanterns, and what seems now to be brutal, primitive medicine all play a major role in this creation.
It is both excellent television and excellent film-making. Stick with it and you will be rewarded with an incredible little fact at the end, something that surprised me very much. This is a deeply moving television experience!