John Adams HBO Miniseries

John and AbigailExecutive 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!

The Savages

linney hoffman savagesThe Savages is a 2007 film featuring two of my favorite actors, Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as sister and brother Wendy and Jon Savage. 

The estranged pair, both theater people, have been estranged for some time, both having suffered from parents who were never there for them.  Wendy, a playwright, has even written a semi-autobiographical play about their father.  She lives in New York working temp jobs and applying for grants and having an affair with a married man who will not commit to her.  Jon lives in Buffalo and teaches Brecht at a college.

The two are forced to pull together when their father Lenny (Phillip Bosco), who lives in Sun City, Arizona, develops dementia at about the same time the woman he is living with dies.  Over Wendy’s objections, Jon decides to place their father in a nursing home not far from where he lives.  However, Wendy is assigned the unsavory task of accompanying the old man on a cross country flight to Buffalo.

Wendy and Jon must deal with their own personal issues, as well the incapacity of a man they once hated.

There’s no doubt that this is a “slice of life” movie and also an “actor’s drama.”  Those types of movies do not have to be alienating in any way, especially when you have such incredible talent as Linney and Hoffman in the lead roles.  However, I think that even the best slice of life movies must have a hand at the helm that will keep them moving in a direction and I felt that lacking in the script and direction of Tamara Jenkins.

After sleeping on the movie, I did realize that there is somewhat of a character arc for Wendy, but it was so subtle that I didn’t pick it up during the viewing—it only becomes apparent at the end.  It is extremely difficult to see any kind of arc for Jon and yet he has changed at the end of movie, too.  And I must say that Linney and Hoffman give wonderful performances.  The characters are believable, the comedy is very funny, and the drama works extremely well.

I just had the feeling that I was spinning my wheels.  The movie didn’t really seem to go anywhere.  And yet, it had enough of an effect on me that I thought about it overnight and finally saw what I failed to see during the viewing—an actual character development for Wendy.

For fans of good acting, I highly recommend this movie.  For those who cannot take the time to dig the subtlety out of the movie, you might find it tough going.

Mystic River

Mystic River is a hard-hitting blue collar crime movie by the amazing Clint Eastwood and the cast is packed with great actors.936full-mystic-river-photo

Released in 2003, it tells the story of three boyhood friends forever changed by an incident in 1975. Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle are writing their names into wet cement in the slums of Boston, when a car pulls up with two men in it. One of the men gets out and implies that he is a cop. He intimidates Dave until the boy gets into the car with them. Of course, they aren’t cops, but pedophiles and they abuse him for four days until he escapes.

Twenty-five years later, Jimmy (Sean Penn) is running a convenience store, Dave (Tim Robbins) lives near him, permanently scarred by his experience, and Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a police detective.   Jimmy’s 19 year old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum) tells him that she is going out with friends and will be home late. While drinking in a local bar, Dave sees Katie getting drunk and dancing on the bar. He doesn’t get home until 3:00 AM and he is covered in blood, his hand hurt. He tells his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), that he was accosted by a mugger and that he beat the man to a pulp, maybe killed him.

The next morning, a Sunday, Jimmy discovers that Katie has not been home all night and Sean is called to a crime scene that is centered on Katie’s car, parked awkwardly on the street, with the door open and blood on the inside. Katie is found dead in a nearby park, her body marked with lacerations and gunshot wounds. Jimmy and his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney) are inconsolable and he recruits several shady neighborhood characters to investigate the murder at the same time that Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) are also investigating.

While the movie is a murder mystery–and a good one–it goes much deeper than that. Eastwood is concerned with tortured souls, guilt and retribution, and he works the script by Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane) for all it is worth. Penn gives a heartfelt performance that won him the Oscar for Best Actor and Robbins is terrific as the tortured Dave Boyle. All of the supporting performances are deep and well nuanced, especially Laura Linney. The Jersey feel is solid, the lighting moody, and music–composed by Eastwood–perfect for the film’s worrisome and tragic plot.

I thought the movie was a little long and might have benefited from some judicious cutting, but it never left me feeling bored. Justice is not served and Eastwood makes a point of the fact that things do not add up–it is part of the appeal of the movie. And it is usually a fact of life that most filmmakers do not worry themselves over. For Clint Eastwood, however, the fact that life doesn’t add up is the very point of the movie. If you’re looking for an outstanding drama, I highly recommend the film.