Watch or Die: HBO’s John Adams

 **This was a post in progress. 

 Weekly updates appeared as each episode of John Adams aired Sunday nights on HBO.   

 

And remember, faithful viewers, Samuel Adams White Ale is the (un)official beer of HBO’s John Adams.  Real Patriots Drink Samuel Adams.

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*Above: Political Propaganda circa 1776.

PREVIEW: 

Ever since the demise of The Sopranos and Rome, the only thing even remotely worth watching on HBO (or on TV in general) has been the Mormon soap opera, Big Love.  Well, thankfully, the good folks at HBO have got their wits about them once again and will be unveiling the first two parts of their epic 7-part miniseries, John Adams this Sunday, March 16th. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough, HBO’s John Adams will attempt to take the same intimate look at history that made the two-part Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren and, like John Adams, directed by Tom Hooper, such a roaring success, while painting historical events across a sprawling gritty epic canvas like they did with the decadent Rome (which was essentially a 22-part miniseries) in hopes of bringing the past frightfully alive. 

Loaded with a cast of award-winning character actors and familiar faces (check out Danny Huston as Sam Adams, David Morse as George Washington, and Tom Wilkinson as Ben Franklin), and headlined by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams, HBO will give us a glimpse into the events leading up to the American Revolution and the first 50 years of American history.   For many people, their knowledge of this time period comes only from school textbooks or images from the ridiculous musical 1776 or more recently, the historically inaccurate Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot.  HBO has taken on the task of educating and entertaining, a dangerous gambit that could pay off in scores. 

Check out the full length trailer:

Official Site:

http://www.hbo.com/films/johnadams/index.html

For a complete list of cast and crew:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0472027/fullcredits

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REVIEW: 

After each episode aired over the course of six weeks, I posted a review of each part.

**Part One:  Join or Die (March 16, 2008):  The opening episode featured everything you come to expect from an HBO event.  Great acting and stunning attention to detail and authenticity made the first hour a totally engrossing historical document and a surprisingly disarming legal drama.  Great insight is gained by highlighting the truth surrounding the Boston Massacre and other events leading to the American Revolution and through showcasing John Adams’ family life and relationship to his wife Abigail, which seemed frightfully real and relatable.  Kudos must also go to an unbiased look at the historical events, judging them not with a modern compass, yet still allowing them to mirror current political dilemmas. 

Most chilling performance of the episode: Danny Huston, scary as a Huston, spreading propaganda and spirits as Samuel Adams. 

Most interesting detail: John Hancock might’ve been a bit of a scoundrel.

**Part Two:  Independence (March 16, 2008):  The second part opens with an austere shot of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and closes with a rousing reading of the Declaration which was crafted there.  (Afterwards, I must say, I was disappointed to discover much of the Philadelphia shots were done on soundstages and at Colonial Williamsburg and not at the actual locations, which still exist mostly undisturbed though amidst modern urban clutter and awash in post 9/11 security measures that I imagine keep film crews at bay.)  During the second hour, while Tom Wilkinson showboated as Ben Franklin and Paul Giamatti attempted to upstage him for the best lines, I came to realize one of the joys of watching a story unfold in minseries fashion is that like a great novel, even the most minor of characters are given their moments (like young Charles Adams’ inquisitive bravery), and the slow development allows for great insight into human nature, and in this case, into the common humanity of our often mythologized founding fathers.  The production also seems to revel in the minutiae of the times, like barbaric inoculations against small pox and the best way to make manure.  These small details make for a richly rewarding experience that extends beyond the standard views of early American history and the history of great acting through oration that stems back to the ancient Greeks. 

Most chilling performance of the episode: David Morse, in make-up and costume, looking downright eerie as George Washington, and his line delivery as wooden as a hitching post. 

Most interesting detail:  Like Rome before it, the children of colonial American don’t seem to age naturally as six years span the first two episodes and the Adams’ lot don’t age a day spare the youngest from fetus to tot.

**Part Three:  Don’t Tread on Me (March 23, 2008):  Episode three saw Laura Linney acting in her wheelhouse as the outwardly stoic and inwardly tormented wife/mother while her husband was off in Europe trying to secure foreign aid for America’s war effort.  Despite some slow parts, we still got treated to Master & Commander style action early on, a wonderfully graphic leg sawing scene, and a fantastic depiction of the foppish decadence of Versailles and Paris (that would later bring about their own bloody revolution).

Most chilling performance of the episode:  Laura Linney emoting on all cylinders.

Most interesting detail(s):  The French have always been bastards, John Adams was the first arrogant American diplomat, and Holland is mired by flies in the summer.

**Part Four: Reunion (March 30, 2008):  After receiving news of America’s victory over Britain and securing a loan from the Dutch, John Adams sends for Abigail to join him in France with a bawdy Ben Franklin and an overly philosophical Thomas Jefferson.  After the insult of being sent to London as the first ambassador, John Adams and his wife finally come home to be reunited with their children (now grown and finally recast).  Nothing too exciting happens here, though the oddness of King George comes shining through in a brief moment of courtly bizarreness during Adams’ official introduction, and the use of Handel’s Sarabande (most notably utilized in the opening and closing credits of Stanley Kubrick’s oft overlooked masterpiece Barry Lyndon) was sublime.  Later, George Washington is elected the first president, and John Adams plays second fiddle as the first vice president.

Strangest performance(s):  Once a precocious child and slow brewed with resentment over his father’s long absence, Charles Adams has grown into a drunk and is now played in near comical one-note fashion.  As a young man, future president John Quincy Adams is played as a spineless scholar lost inside his own head.  Meanwhile, David Morse still scares the crap out of me as George Washington (just watch him enter the room in that inauguration scene where John Adams is still fumbling at the podium).

Most interesting detail:  George Washington ad-libbed the “so help me God” part at the first inauguration.

**Part Five: Unite or Die (April 6, 2008):  Again utilizing some of the same classical pieces as were used in Barry Lyndon, the opening moments of episode five sucked me right into the political quagmire of early America.  It was especially interesting to see the formation of the nation’s first political parties (Federalists and Republicans), the inner workings of the early Cabinet and Senate under Washington, and Adams’ election to President (which, quick, someone check the history books, has to have been by the smallest margin in Electoral College history).  While the depiction of John and Abigail Adams’ marriage continues to be bread and butter for Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, the representation of John Adams’ relationship to his grown children has devolved into soap opera style melodrama (which is a shame considering how realistically his family life was depicted in the early episodes).  Still, part five ended with John Adams’ fascinating speech after his inauguration that honored the precedent set by Washington on how a President should act while solidifying Adams’ stance as a man who wished to honor his country by upholding the rule of law first and foremost.

Most chilling performance:  Finally arriving on scene, Rufus Sewell was all pomp and ambition as Alexander Hamilton.  Having recently watched a documentary on Hamilton, it is once again clear this was an often misunderstood man who has long deserved a worthy biopic of his own.  Hollywood, what are you waiting for?

Most interesting detail:  Both Washington and Adams had lots of teeth problems in their later ages.

**Part SixUnnecessary War (April 13, 2008):  Much of the political drama involving Hamilton creating the first nationalized army, potential war with France (stopped by Napoleon’s rise to power), and Adams’ alienation of his own party (which led to him becoming the first one term president) had me mildly confused as so much of it seemed glossed over.  Or maybe the lousy sound design in this episode simply cloaked much of what was being said making it hard to understand what was going on.  And despite the best efforts of Laura Linney, many of the scenes involving the slow death of Charles Adams played like a bad Dickens’ story.  However, there were some truly amazing sequences involving Adams inhabiting what would later become the White House while it was still under construction, and I’ll never tire of that Schubert piece on the soundtrack.  There were also some amusing readings of the type of mud-slinging political propoganda that permeated the era in the style of formal letters.

Most interesting detail:  John Adams left the “White House” in what was the horse-and-buggy equivalent of a public bus.

**Part SevenPeacefield (April 20, 2008).  Despite the muddled melodrama and politics of the middle acts, the miniseries came to a satisfying conclusion.  Haunting and elegiac cinematography highlight the final entry where we find John Adams pondering his life, legacy, and the future of the nation while spending his final days on his New England farmland.   Sarah Polley finally gets to act as her character succumbs to breast cancer.  Later, we see John Quincy elected the sixth President of these Unites States.  Surely those in the makeup department deserve all the credit in the world as we watch these characters we have come to know so well enter the later years of decrepitude.  While the script wisely populates itself with wondrous quotes and food for contemporary thought, one is left to wonder if the reconciliation through letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and their ultimate deaths both on the 50th anniversary of July 4th weren’t acts of some kind of Divine Providence.  What we’re left with in the modern era is a portrait of the Founding Fathers that paints them as real people, and a reminder that in the grand scheme of humankind, the American Revolution is still relatively recent history.

Most chilling performance of the episode:  Sarah Polley, like a ghost before us, withering away with all the fortitude of a saint.

Most interesting detail:  In 1803, mastectomies were performed without anesthesia!  Sadly, today the only progress against breast cancer seems to be the ability to put people to sleep and numb the pain.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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20 comments on “Watch or Die: HBO’s John Adams

  1. brian says:

    Was Franklin getting a bust done by the sculptor Rodin??? I hope I am wrong, but Rodin was born in 1840…

    Brian, my sources tell me it was the celebrated scuptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (might’ve sounded like Rodin in passing). –DHS

  2. Kirsten says:

    I must disagree with the description of 1776 as a ridiculous musical! If you’ve ever had the pleasure of reading the authors’ notes on it, which explain how much in it is truth and how little is fiction, I think you’d feel a little better about it. Granted, the movie just reeks of early 1970s style, and the new original cut that was recently released makes it way too long (note to restorationists everywhere: editing is sometimes a good thing), but the actual book of the show is an excellent piece of theatrical writing.

    Kirsten, thank you for posting this comment. I must admit a biased loathing of musicals in general, and I found the idea of our Founding Fathers singing and dancing to be particularly silly (and on some level, even insulting). However, I do understand that many find 1776 to be a great musical, and despite the unhistorical song and dance, the rest of it very well may be indeed rather “accurate” in its history. –DHS

    • John says:

      I quite agree. The songs and dancing most certainly never happened, but they add greatly to the movie in a comical way. They are also necessary since they play is a musical. The historical facts, however, are indeed present and wonderfully demonstrated in a most creative way.

  3. Kirsten says:

    I understand–either you buy musical theater and the idea that people burst into song and all know the same dance or you don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either side. Long ago I found a copy of the 1776 script with the author’s historical notes and though they did make some changes for the purposes of dramatic construction, the main points, as well as some of the fine details and many direct quotes, are all from the historical record. I must admit, I’m also a little biased towards the show because the lyricist, who conceived the idea for the show, was a history teacher in the area where I grew up, and did his initial research in local archives. I therefore feel the need to defend him.

    I missed the last episode of the miniseries, but so far I was somewhat lukewarm on it. I missed part IV, but wow, so far based on your description of it, I think I will be greatly offended by the portrait of John Quincy!

    Kirsten, I can see why you have a personal vested interest in defending the lyricist.

    As for episode four of John Adams, John Quincy was barely in it. Basically I think they wanted to show how much influence his father had over his career and life choices, but for me, it would’ve been more interesting to see him as a fully fledged out character (which may still happen in upcoming episodes). His character has certainly been uninspiring thus far, but I have found the rest of the series impeccable. –DHS

  4. Anne Curry says:

    Here is a smartly written and interesting article on John Adams and the current foreclosure crisis. Interesting to note the author Mike Bolen is a descendant of John Adams. http://www.MikeBolen.com

    Anne, aside from the John Adams quote at the end of Mike Bolen’s article, I don’t see how that proposal has much to do with Adams. However, that is fascinating if Bolen is a descendant of Adams as you say. –DHS

  5. mike creager says:

    Does anyone know what the name of the piece is thats playing at the very beginning and end of episode 5? I know I’ve heard it before, but I can’t think of the name or the composer. Please tell me somebody knows.

    Mike, also used in Barry Lyndon, it is a piece by Schubert at the start of episode five, the piano trio I believe. Handel’s Sarabande was used in episode four. –DHS

  6. Ray Soller says:

    That most “interesting detail” to which you refer saying that George Washington ad-libbed the “so help me God” part at the first inauguration is not supported by any contemporary document or subsequent personal memoir. This apparently improvised detail doesn’t appear in print until 65 years after the event. McCullough got it wrong. For starters, please check out the blog, “Boston 1775: Swearing into Office ‘So Help Me God,'” that is posted at boston1775.blogspot.com/2006/10/swearing-into-office-so-help-me-god.html .

    Ray, thanks for pointing that out. As with much of the so-called details of history, we can never really know. It made for a nice dramatic moment, though, whether it really happened or not. –DHS

  7. mike creager says:

    Thank you for the lead DHS; Yes, its Piano Trio No.2 in E flat, Op.100 D.929 – 2. Andante con moto if anyone else is interested. I had been trying to figure this out since watching the episode last Sunday.

    Mike, glad I could help. Thanks for the further details. –DHS

  8. Anna says:

    I was watching the HBO series John Adams tonight and there was a nod at George Washington’s false teeth. It made me laugh because I remembered that those teeth are on display in Baltimore at The National Museum of Dentistry. Not only that, the map that the American delegation in France used to identify the United States of America at the Treaty of Paris, the actual map from George III’s library, is on display at the Maps exhibitions running at The Walters Art Museum. Check it out http://www.visitmybaltimore.com/video/438/

    Anna, cool! Thanks for sharing. I might have to check that out when next in Baltimore. –DHS

  9. Jennifer says:

    “Ridiculous musical”?! “*RIDICULOUS MUSICAL*”?!?!

    Pistols at dawn at twenty paces, sir!

    Jennifer…ahh, shall we go the way of Hamilton and Burr? –DHS

  10. Jennifer says:

    (Sorry, hit “submit” too early…)

    All joking aside…1776 may not have been a total stickler for accuracy. But read the notes that the authors have at the end of the published version of the script. Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards (one of them, I forget which, taught history) did their best to base their version on known facts. Whenever they had to fudge for the sake of playability on stage, they did so with as much consideration as possible for the integrity of events and the actual historical figures. And when they didn’t have hard info, they made the most educated guesses possible.

    I love the one comment they made…basically, “why should people even HAVE to ask if it really happened this way? There were so many conflicting issues and personalities, and our COUNTRY was born from them. And all it usually gets in the schools is a one-dimensional rah-rah session.”

    And that’s one of the strongest things in the show’s favor. Before seeing it, I had no idea of the many differing opinions and personalities that went into the Continental Congress. The fact that many were against independence, not because they were cowards or bad guys, but because they did not want to see blood spilled needlessly, or because they believed they were outnumbered by a greater force than they (which looked pretty true at the time). The fact that slavery was a divisive issue a hundred years before it would erupt into civil war. The fact that men of strong principle would have to compromise that principle for the greater good of independence. The political maneuvering that went on. The problem of individual states’ rights versus federal rights. The fact that so many young men (hell, BOYS) were losing their lives while their country’s fate was being decided.

    This show awakened me to all of these issues, and sparked my interest in learning more about them. And when I read McCullough’s book, I was surprised to see how many quotes from the musical had come verbatim from real life.

    (Great songs, too.)

    Jennifer, I can not agree about the songs. However, thank you for your very thoughftul rebuttle. Your points are well taken. –DHS

  11. DD says:

    First let me say, John Adams, the HBO mini series, was fantastic! Aside from the historical inaccuracies, which could be debated for the next 300 years, I feel it gave John Adams the credit he most righteously earned and deserved. Not that I am a history major, but an avid history buff none the less… I think the point of the series, called “John Adams” was about John Adams, and the significant accomplishments he achieved in life, and to this very day. Having said that, the series is what it is and any misrepresentations will be overlooked by me.

    Secondly, all this correspondence regarding songs from the series… does anyone happen to know the series opener theme song/piece with the violins? If so, please let me know… It will save me some computer time as I have searched and searched for a clue but to no avail… Thanks all!

    DD, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that the series was very good and vindicated John Adams’ legacy without sugar-coating his life. As for the music that plays over the opening credits, it is my understanding that is an original theme done for the show, and IMBD lists the composers as Robert Lane and Joseph Vitarelli. I’m not sure which one is primarily responsible for that particular piece. –DHS

  12. Stacy says:

    Does anyone know the name of the actor that played the older John Quincy Adams? I believe I have seen him in something else but cannot find his character in any list. Thanks!

    Stacy, a source now tells me it was Ebon Moss Bachrach. –DHS

  13. Savannah says:

    I am trying to find a quote said by Thomas Jefferson while talking to Abigail Adams. It was either during part III or IV I cannot remember because I watched them back-to-back. He said something about ‘surviving life, is surviving the pains.’ I’m not quite sure. Could someone leave me this quote?

    Thanks!

    Savannah, I apologize, I am not familiar with that quote. Anyone else out there recall this line? –DHS

  14. Mike O'Donnell says:

    What would the Founding Father’s have said about the events described in a new book I just read, “Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York”? The author, Truxes, doesn’t cast blame on either side. It’s a great book – reads like a novel.

    Mike, thanks for stopping by. I looked the book up on Amazon, and it has peaked my interest. I love the cover of the book–a very atmospheric depiction of a colonial city street. Sounds like a bit of history I was not previously aware of, so thanks for the recommendation. –DHS

  15. Sam says:

    I was curious, after the response is received from the king, I believe in episode two, Franklin says to Adams, “God bless the king, who else could have brought this congress together.” At least something like that, then he says “We shall all hang together or we shall all hang separately.” Did Franklin say this? I thought I remembered someone else making that statement.

    Sam, I don’t recall that specific line from the mini-series. However, doing a quick google search it does seem as if that famous quote is attributed to Ben Franklin. –DHS

  16. Fortress Guy says:

    I found the series to really be slanted at making the founders a bunch of over-flawed men. You are right when you described their portrayal of George Washington as “eerie”.

    I would add that they made Adams mentally unstable and on the verge of a breakdown and Jefferson just downright creepy and, well weird.

    I was not keen on this series. I wrote up my take on it if you want to look:

    http://fortresstakes.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/john-adams-2008/

    PS – I liked 1776.

    Fortress Guy, that’s an interesting take on the series. I, however, liked how they didn’t deify the founding fathers and tried to show us they were real people…neither legends nor just names you find in history books, but real, living, breathing, struggling, flawed and dynamic people. I can see how some might think they took that idea too far, though. –DHS

  17. Larry Murrey says:

    Great and thorough look at the mini series, i nominated you for a BoB award for best blog about a mini series. Top prize is 1000 so good luck

    Well golly, Larry. Thanks. –DHS

  18. Holly says:

    There was a song in one of the first episodes, I can’t remember which one, but it was one where John and Abigail were singing it together, maybe in a church.

    That song is at the beginning of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Do you know the name of this song?

    Thank you.

    Holly, I don’t know that song off the top of my head. I will try to do some research and find out for you. Anyone out there know? Feel free to share! –DHS

  19. Holly says:

    I forgot to click on notify me of follow up comments. Sorry!

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