John Adams Review
History is full of remarkable tales of coincidence to suggest there might be a great maker out there spinning threads of fate from which we surreptitiously dangle; no less than on the grand old stage of the US Presidency, which for over two centuries now has been aligning dots of truly uncanny circumstance for historians to join. For instance did you know that from 1840 to 1960 a US president died whilst in office every 20yrs? Two of those presidents: Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy share so many coincidences that it is downright spooky. Both men are the most famous assassinated leaders in Americas history, both were elected to congress 100yrs apart, both elected to President 100yrs apart, both were succeeded by men named Johnson (who themselves were born 100yrs apart), and where Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, JFK was shot whilst riding a car made by... well, you can guess.
My own favourite story of Presidential fate lies in the life and friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two of America’s most important founding fathers. Adams would become known as “the voice” of the American Revolution, the congressional delegate who argued the most passionately for separation from Britain. Jefferson would become known as “the pen” of the revolution, the author of the United States Declaration of Independence which is now known as the most remarkable revolutionary statement in history.
As fellow congressmen arguing for separation they became close friends, and were crucial to the U.S political scene throughout the earliest years in which the new nation was formed. Both were sent to France as Ambassadors of America during the War of Independence and after returning to America John Adams became the first Vice President of the United States, then eventually the second President. Jefferson was the nation’s second Vice President under Adams, and became America’s third President in 1801. That election was the first campaign fought between delegates of opposing political parties – Adams the Federalist and Jefferson the Republican, and it was a rivalry that tore their friendship apart. In later years they made up and engaged in a fourteen year correspondence that has been lauded by many American historians. The most remarkable coincidence of their lives would be their death, on the same day: July 4th 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the declaration of independence that both men fought so strongly for. They were the only surviving members whose signatures were on that declaration.
Thomas Jefferson has become one of the most celebrated US presidents in history, he’s been carved into mountains and has been the subject of numerous novels, documentaries, films, and even a TV miniseries. John Adams has been relegated to the historical papers and little else, but in 2001 noted author David McCullough wrote a biography of the man that won himself a 2nd Pullitzer prize in 2002. Now HBO have adapted that novel into a similarly award-winning 7 part Mini Series that chronicles the life of the founding father from his early career as a Boston lawyer in 1770 in Part 1, when he became defence attorney to the British Troops that fired into an unarmed crowd in the Boston Massacre, to his appointment in Part 2 as delegate of Massachusetts for the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia 1774, and the subsequent congresses of 1775 – 1789 where Adams nominated George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and become the most vocal supporter of a complete and irrevocable separation from Great Britain. In Part 3 we follow Adam’s disastrous tenure as an ambassador in the court of King Louis, and his more successful posting as an ambassador in Holland. Parts 5 and 6 deal with Adam’s tenure as Vice President under George Washington and his eventual rise to president that was marred by warring factions within his cabinet. The final episode is given to Adams’ retirement to Peacefield, where he eventually rekindled his friendship with Thomas Jefferson.
While the cast list of John Adams may inspire expectations of a multi-million pound HBO epic, the men behind the cameras may not. Director Tom Hooper’s CV includes early stints as director of Byker Grove and Eastenders, and while his work for British TV has been generally well received he’s never took on a project with anywhere near this scope. Telewriter Kirk Ellis also boasts a CV with less than glamourous origins in direct-to-video films, and although he wrote a handful of successful TV film biopics in 2000-2001 he too is untested in a project of the scope and length of John Adams. Their approach to this biopic is one of authenticity and economy over all else. You won’t be seeing any large-scale recreations of famous battle sequences in John Adams, instead you will witness the war of independence as a bystander observing from afar. This approach is likely to frustrate viewers hoping for a more Hollywood style treatment, but it is extremely effective in recreating a time in American history that is often spoken about with rose-tinted glasses.
Right from the first episode those glasses are certainly lifted, 1770 Boston is shown as a city boiling over with sentiments of revolt. Shop windows are smashed in and people are openly mocking British soldiers on the street, which inevitably leads to the Boston Massacre. Some of the most iconic locations in the founding of America receive the same illusion shattering treatment, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia takes place in a rather barren and murky wooden room, where only a small percentage of the total delegates ever seem to gather at any one time, wherein they are often accompanied by a mini-swarm of flies and drenched in sweat. Later when Adams becomes the first president to serve in the Whitehouse the building is situated within rather dreary woods and is still being worked on by black slaves. Adams worked inside the building without any real ornaments or decorations, just plain walls and dusty floorboards – no doubt suiting his pragmatic personality.
In offering such an ultra-realistic view of late 18th Century America and having such relatively little screentime to tell the full story of the slow build towards the War of Independence and the establishing of a Federal government, Hooper and Ellis include an almost bewildering amount of information through the gritty visuals and expository asides. If like me you decide to read up on the real history portrayed in this series and revisit it later on armed with this knowledge, then you will find that John Adams is if anything even more rewarding on subsequent viewings as it is the first. What’s also impressive about each screenplay is that there are no wasted scenes in each episode, every event Adams witnesses or takes part in during the early episodes inform his decisions later on when he becomes President. When we see a rather gruff Adams extolling the need for a strong authority figure, we know this is because he witnessed Boston mobs first hand when Biritsh resentment boiled over back in the 1770s.
The real highlight of Ellis’ screenplays though, which again ties into the remarkable period detail of the show, is the magnificent dialogue. Much like other HBO period pieces such as Deadwood, John Adams recreates a rhythm of speech and articulation that has been long lost through decades of colloquialism. Naturally Ellis has the benefit of being able to draw inspiration and direct quotes from McCullough’s book and the many letters Adams wrote to Jefferson and his wife Abigail, but you’ll be hard pressed to differentiate between the real quotes and Ellis’ own prose, such is the standard of his writing.
John Adams is an intensively dialogue-driven drama, it tells the story of the birth of an independent nation through the context of political discourse, which may sound like a chore if you’re not that interested in politics, but the themes are so universal they should play to any audience. This is politics at its most fundamental, about the fight for a free state, the establishment of civil liberties, and the struggle against foreign influences. When we see an adaptation of men with truly great minds and sophisticated prose discussing the various political machinations of an embryonic America, it can be just as gripping and stirring a great action sequence. In John Adams there are a number of epic oratories that more than prove this point. In fact, Episode Two: Independence does this so well, the series peaks a little too early, and you are left wishing we could have a separate series with the same cast focussing specifically on the movement for and War of Independence.
Of course any biopic stands or falls on the strength of its characterisation, and in this department John Adams is as well realised and enriched as any other. Adams is clearly not the most obvious choice of subjects when it comes to producing a biopic on the most influential of America’s founding fathers, he was “short & stout” and not particularly charismatic, a man of great passion and honesty – which meant he was often a lousy diplomat. He was given to fits of vanity, and tended to harbour grudges a little longer than was healthy, these character flaws were probably exacerbated by the fact he was a colleague and friend to many of America’s all-time greatest minds. This HBO production doesn’t shy away from any of these traits, the Adams on screen is every bit as complicated and humanistic as the man was in real life, but it also captures all the brilliant facets of his character as well, his completely resolute sense of truth and justice and earnestness, his devotion to his country and the exceptional abilities as a public speaker that always made him a leadership figure, despite his less personable qualities.
Although John Adams covers a wide number of complex personal and working relationships in Adam’s life, there are two major relationships that get the main focus. The most obvious and substantial is Adams’ marriage to Abigail, which is historically very well documented by the numerous letters they sent to each other whenever Adams was stationed away from home (as he was a for many years). Whenever Adams wrote to Abigail he would address her as his “dearest friend” and often said she was his ballast, she is portrayed as his intellectual equal and more politically and interpersonally savvy advisor. This drama makes it clear that without Abigail’s judgement, John Adams would probably never have achieved greatness, so in many ways she is shown as America’s Founding Mother. The series also explores the strain Adam’s political exile in France may have had on their marriage, which was the one significant period of time when he wasn’t writing to her. Abigail Adams is also our eyes for the hardships the people of Boston went through during the War of Independence, which she struggled through as a single parent to sickly children.
The other major relationship is of course the friendship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson which is shown as becoming strained after Jefferson’s posting in France, where his political views became more revolutionary, and his democratic ideals become at odds with Adams’ desire for strong central leadership. This eventually spills over into a battle between two formed political parties once Adams is in office and Jefferson is his Vice President. It’s a complex relationship that’s played out beautifully.
The one misstep in characterisation with John Adams was in its exploration of Adams’ family life and the rather strained relationships he had with his son Charles that stem from all the years he spent neglecting his family whilst serving his country. This feels like clichéd soap-operatics, in reality John brought is son over to France and Holland alongside John Quincy, although they would later be separated for years. Many historians believe the source of Charles’ alcoholism was down to closet homosexuality, but whatever reason we know that John Adams formerly disowned his son in 1779. Either way, these matters are not dealt with to the same depth as the other important relationships in Adams’ life.
Tom Hooper has managed to assemble a dream team of performers for this mini-series. I remember reading a review at the time of John Adams’ broadcast that criticised the choice of Paul Giamatti for John Adams, which was one of the most astonishing acts of criticism I’ve heard because Giamatti perfectly encapsulates the John Adams that’s written down in Kirk Ellis’s script. Nobody does brooding like Giamatti, here’s an actor who is capable of digging down into the dark recesses of a character’s psyche and animate pain and resentment and insecurity like no other, he may not be the greatest actor out there when it comes to outlandish displays of cheeriness, but in John Adams he shows he can do rousing monologues and bring warmth to a character as well. In many ways the character of John Adams is not unlike Miles in Sideways, and Giamatti is equally effective as both. Laura Linney is for my money just about the most bankable actress working right now and as Abigail Adams she imbues the character with a steely resolve without making the character hard in any way.
Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson is the real casting surprise, mostly known for his stage and UK TV work his controlled laconic performance is completely riveting whenever he is on screen and not only proves the perfect counterpoint to Giamatti’s “busy” performance, but often holds attention over the rest of the cast. There’s a scene later on in the series when Jefferson finally loses his patience with Adams that is so brilliantly underplayed by Dillane that it really resonates far more effectively. If Dillane imbues the role of Jefferson with his own style, David Morse as George Washington completely loses himself in arguably the most iconic role in the series. So true is his performance to the historical accounts of Washington that his appearances are not unlike seeing Christopher Reeves as Superman for the first time. Morse isn’t playing George Washington, he simply IS George Washington. Rounding up the dream team of American icons is Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklyn, who gives an extremely charismatic performance. There are also a number of great little supporting performances as well: Theroux as John Hancock, Rufus Sewell as a rather sly and duplicitous Alexander Hamilton, Zeljko Ivanek as a precautionary John Dickinson, and Danny Huston as the very passionate and reactionary political agitator Sam Adams.
Over the last decade or so, HBO have built up an unrivalled reputation for delivering the very best dramas on television. They’ve completely redefined the boundaries of what you can achieve within the 1-hour serial format with shows like: Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Carnivale, and Deadwood, whereas their miniseries have been so well produced they rival the best of Hollywood. For my money John Adams is as good as anything HBO have produced - and I can’t think of a higher compliment than that!
PresentationI’ve not actually had the opportunity to watch Band of Brothers on Blu-ray yet, but by all accounts HBO did a superlative job with that, and as such I had really high hopes for their release of John Adams. Sadly, this box set doesn’t quite manage to live up to those hopes – it looks pretty good, breathtaking at times, but there are number of completely needless issues bringing the transfer down. John Adams is a rather varied and complicated series when it comes to colour balance and brightness levels, through the 10hours we jump from a wide range of looks, from dark and gloomy interiors and night time settings, to extremely bright and overexposed daytime sequences in Boston that have a rather stark look, to the sumptuously colourful setting of King Louis’ court in France, then back to the earthen tones of pre-developed Washington and finishing up with the richly coloured sun-kissed farm in Peacefield for the closing episode. The Blu-ray handles these changes in colour balance beautifully, it’s muted yet bold when it needs to be and crisp and vivid when needed as well, with no obvious bleeding. Skin tones are similarly varied depending on each scene, but always maintain a very naturalistic look. Contrast runs a touch hot at times, then quite low at others, and brightness levels are rich in the day and very low in night, some scenes have been shot to look very gloomy but otherwise shadow detail is particularly good. Black levels can be a little inconsistent, at times strikingly good, others a little low, but I wonder if this is down to the lightweight cameras used.
Detail and grain bring their own issues to the table. For the most part John Adams is relatively free of grain, just a very light fuzzy layer peering out from within the image that probably won’t be noticeable at all on your standard LCD/Plasma display – it does get heavier and sharper in darker scenes, but for the most part John Adams has a very pristine “digital” look. Detail is excellent in close shots, every crevice of Giamatti’s face can be see and the fibres and hairs in the various hairpieces are nicely delineated, however, in mid shots fine detail disappears a from the image in certain scenes of certain episodes, leading to faces that occasionally look rather soft and shiny (I’m trying to avoid using the term waxy), which coupled with the distinct lack of grain leads me to suspect overzealous DNR has been applied. The first and fourth episodes seem to fare the best in this regard, with close ups and mid shots looking nicely detailed throughout. Some of the CG effects shots are also problematic; the introduction of the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles for instance is extremely soft, with so little fine detail that the shot looks quite blurry in places. Don’t get me wrong about the CG though; for the most part it is genuinely seamless, but there are a couple of other CG boosted locations that really show a distinct dip in detail. Unsurprisingly with the varying detail, Edge Enhancements rear their obtrusively heads quite frequently throughout John Adams, sometimes it’s subtly applied, others times there is sharp ringing.
The prints used are in pristine condition, and the VC-1 encode is generally ok, there are tiny speckles of noise and some very light banding to be frequently found in the image, but I suspect only viewers with large projection displays should find these issues distracting during standard playback. Overall, the transfer has that attractively pristine digital look, lovely colours and a fairly solid level of detail. I’m sure most people viewing on a LCD/Plasma will wonder what the hell I’m complaining about, but there are enough issues to stop the image getting an 8/10 rating - 7/10 from me means quite good – even looks glorious at times - but could definitely be better. Either way, you can decide for yourself how strongly you feel about these issues by having a gander at these screengrabs (remember to click on them to view at native resolution):
The sole English audio option on the disc is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that does a more than good enough job with a primarily dialogue driven drama. There are big action setpieces in the series though, and when needed this track opens up a treat and delivers deep, thundering bass and delicate dynamics that effectively brings out every element of the sound. Dialogue is always rendered with utmost clarity, warmth, and smoothness, and the rich score is delicately handled. The soundstage is perhaps not as expansive as you’d find in the latest blockbuster, but the front stereos are used effectively, as are the rear channels when needed. Rounding out the audio options are French DTS 2.0 Surround and Spanish DTS 2.0 Surround tracks.
Optional subtitles are provided in English, English For the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
ExtrasThere’s not much of a selection of extras on these discs, just two made for TV features and a couple of interactive information resources. Here’s the rundown:
The Making of John Adams (29m:12s): I know this was made for regular RC broadcast, but I really wish HBO had produced an extended version for home video release, as John Adams was a really vast and multi-faceted production and 30minutes really isn’t long enough to scratch beyond the surface. I also wanted this to be longer because it’s an excellent making of but you don’t get to hear a tremendous amount from the cast. Individual interviews on this disc would have gone a long way.
This feature is presented in 1080p VC-1, but there are no subtitle options.
David McCullough: Painting with Words (39m:13s): This is a nicely produced look at McCullough’s career, where the famous writer takes us though his inspirations, motivations, and methodology as a writer. McCullough’s a charismatic soul and talks us through why he chose specific subjects for his novels and his idea of what historic literature should be about.
This feature is presented in 1080p VC-1 and optional subtitles in English, English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
Facts are Stubborn Things: Activate this from the menu and you’ll be treated to little pop up boxes with historical facts from each episode of the series. I like how this is implemented because they keep the facts short and sweet, so you can easily sit and watch each episode and soak up this background info without being distracted from the episode itself. I’m not sure if many viewers will have the patience to sit through all 10hrs+ just for this feature alone, though! Please note that the series subtitles cannot be displayed whilst this feature is activated.
Who’s Who in History: This is a pop up panel that appears on the right hand side of the frame during playback, where you can select little mini-bios of the various characters in the series. It’s the same information and people across all discs, and none of the biographies are long enough to provide substantial info, they’re just meant to be at-a-glance entries.