John Adams  

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cover of Cover of John Adams

John Adams

2008, on DVD

You should know

Call me strange, but John Adams has always been one of my favorite founding fathers (note: the previous link is not safe for work).  Also, having grown up in Philadelphia, I have a built-in fascination for the American Revolution.  I've already read David McCullough's 1776, as well as the most recent edition of the letters of John and Abigail Adams, which I still need to review.

When I first heard about the HBO miniseries, I was curious.  When it got such acclaim, from critics, fans, and awards ceremonies, I was dying to see it.  I tried to get my hands on the book (that's how I came across 1776).  But it faded back to a vague "ought to see it some day" until this year's inauguration, when a friend of mine commemorated the date by posting a link to the scene where Washington takes the oath of office.

I was sold. And then, a few weeks later, Chris got me a copy of the DVDs for Christmas.

Update 1/13/10: I've now read the book, and it is excellent.


Overall, excellent.  A compelling, entertaining miniseries that really made you feel for the hero without making excuses for his mistakes.  You can understand everything he does, even when you think -- or know, thanks to history -- that he's wrong.

If you're not familiar with the miniseries, even by reputation, it's the story of the life of John Adams, from the opening shots of the American Revolution (after which he defended the British soldiers in court) to his death on the 50th anniversary of the birth of our nation.  In between, he bristles as a statesman, flails as a diplomat, gets in his own way as a father and husband, becomes President, and outlives most of his family.  Oh, stop it; it doesn't count as a spoiler if it's part of the historical record.

Paul Giamatti really impressed me; I pretty much forgot it was him soon after the action started; likewise Laura Linney.  The two of them really brought forth the dynamic you'd expect to see between John and Abigail Adams.  You can really tell that they love each other very much, they frustrate the heck out of each other, and they are intellectuals equals and partners who keep each other going through this amazing, tumultuous, frightening, wonderful age.

The attention to detail was also amazing.  Apparently, many if not most of the sets were constructed and filmed on a sound stage, with green screens in the background so that matte paintings could be inserted for cityscapes, palace interiors, and so on.  This surprised me; there were scenes where I actually recognized a given block in Philadelphia or Boston.

Some episodes were more compelling than others.  Seeing Adams's adventures in France was more interesting than seeing him disown his son for drunkenness.  I'm sure some disks will get more play than others when it comes to re-watching.  But as a whole, the series is good, quality entertainment.


See it
Whether you get your hands on the DVD, manage to find it on hulu, or wait and see if HBO reruns it, go see it.

The rest of the Internet

The IMDb and Wikipedia pages.
Jack Rakove at the Washington Post fills in some blanks he found in the minseries.
Robert Bianco at USA Today liked the miniseries, except for Giamatti's Adams.
Barry Garron at Reuters, on the other hand, was quite impressed with Giamatti.
David Ansen at Newsweek remarks on how the costumes and sets impact the plot.
Heather Havrilesky at Salon remarks on the bits that are boring or graphic, but still enjoys it.
Edward Cline at Capitalism Magazine was pleased with the miniseries, but felt it failed to live up to its potential.
Maureen Ryan at the Chicago Tribune was pleased with the miniseries.

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