**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.
*Above: Political Propaganda circa 1776.
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:
For a complete list of cast and crew:
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 Great acting and stunning attention to detail and authenticity made the first hour a totally engrossing historical document and a surprisingly disarming legal drama.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 Six: Unnecessary 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 Seven: Peacefield (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