Thursday, April 24, 2008

John Adams on HBO

JOHN ADAMS flew under my showbiz radar until last month when I saw it advertised on a bus shelter. This looks like a good movie, I said to myself, one that I would pay to see instead of waiting for the rental. I was surprised to read in the ad that it was to be a miniseries for HBO. I had canceled HBO years ago after Chris Rock left his talk/sketch show and my kids were staying up later than me. Some of their late night programming is very raunchy.

Paul Giamatti stars as John Adams with Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, David Morse as Washington, Stephen Dillane as Jefferson, Tom Wilkinson as Franklin, and Danny Huston as cousin Sam Adams. The nine-hour series cuts to the chase, the Boston Massacre (1770), so we lose the first 35 years of Adams life. I read the source material, David McCullough’s biography (which is enjoying a revival in paperback and well worth the effort to get through) and was surprised at first that, with nine hours, the producers chose to ignore the young Adams’ life that the author covered in great detail. But the choice to portray young America instead of young Adams is a good one as the period of American history from 1770-1800 is so interesting that it deserves the time devoted to it.

For most people, the presidency would be the peak experience of a life but for Adams, we see through Giamatti’s Emmy-worthy performance, a man living with the dread while he’s in office that history will not treat his term (1797-1801) as our second president kindly due to his nuanced stand between the perennial global rivals, England and France. We also see the very tender lifelong love story between John and Abigail, as history knows from their famous correspondence. The final episode also portrays another famous correspondence, the one beween between Jefferson and Adams. Both men became too old to travel in their post-presidencies and would write long thoughtful letters to each other about everything: their past achievements, the new republic, their places in history.

The best episodes are Part 3, in which Adams travels by sea and takes part in a battle against the Brits as he and his young son (future president John Quincy Adams) journey to France to get support for the new revolution; and Part 4, where John and Abigail are reunited and we see the events leading to the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War.

Outstanding work is done by David Morse as Washington, who is played with a Mona Lisa grin on his face, or is it his bad teeth bothering him? Stephen Dillane as Jefferson is so good that I hope someone will think of him to play Jefferson again in his own miniseries. He’s the great enigma of American history, claiming all men are created equal but owning slaves. Many long shots of the Adams’ house show a white man working in the field, making a subtle point that Adams never owned slaves.

If you don’t have HBO, get it for this or rent it when the DVD comes out. You’ll be glad you did.