Correction to This Article
This review incorrectly says that John and Samuel Adams were brothers. They were second cousins.

'John Adams,' Second To None

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

When in the course of media events, a network devotes six Sunday nights, more than seven hours of airtime and $100 million to a miniseries, it's likely that the show will be awash with sex and violence.

HBO, however, is about to depart radically from just that sort of thing and take a brave, glorious gamble. "John Adams" dramatizes the life of the second president, a Founding Father whose name is familiar but whose persona isn't.

That is about to change.

Premiering tomorrow night (with the first two episodes airing back to back), "Adams" is the kind of classily intelligent production that can be happily recommended to everybody. The filmmakers, including executive producer Tom Hanks, have attempted to re-create and enliven history -- and they succeed grandly.

Although the production is immense, and scenic values are enhanced by impressive digital effects, the two most important assets to the production are Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. These exemplary and versatile actors seem to "know" John and Abigail Adams as if they had lived next door to them for years and played cards with them weekly.

Giamatti might seem a curious choice physically, since he's perhaps plumper and grumpier than the Adams of our mind's eye. The actor, though, gets inside the character and takes command in the very first scene, during which the stubbornly independent Adams decides to defend British soldiers charged in court with shooting Boston citizens in the street. It's 1770, and the British still occupy the American colonies, growing more unpopular by the day.

"No Boston jury will ever vote for acquittal," says John's relative Sam (Danny Huston). But John Adams stands fast even against mob rage: "I intend to show that this colony is governed by law," he says, even though he's a member of the rebellious Sons of Liberty himself.

Linney's Abigail is always at his side either literally or spiritually (through 54 years of marriage), occasionally making such suggestions to her husband as "mask your impatience with those less intelligent than yourself" -- something Adams has a tough time doing.

Dramatizing America's colonial and revolutionary years is full of pitfalls and has resulted in many a leaden movie -- from the cartoon buffoons of the musical "1776" to the British-as-mad-fiends hysteria of Mel Gibson's imbecilic "The Patriot." Mythic historical figures can come across as strutting, one-dimensional impersonations. But shrewdly adapting a book by the dedicated David McCullough, writer Kirk Ellis and director Tom Hooper have created characters who live and breathe and also, on occasion, bleed. They talk in complete sentences -- a charming habit long since abandoned here in the Colonies -- and yet the dialogue never seems stiff and unwieldy, as often happens in historical productions.

Giamatti and Linney give us a married couple harmonious, compatible and on occasion discreetly ardent. In Part 4, Abigail goes to France, after years of separation, to join her husband on a diplomatic mission (basically begging the French for material support). She steps out of a carriage in front of a large crowd and John greets her with formal restraint. One can feel their longing to embrace passionately -- which they finally do once protected by the privacy of a palace bedroom.

Sometimes, inappropriately, Giamatti exhibits that look of simmering contempt familiar from such films as "Sideways," one of his acclaimed performances, and the bitterness seems misplaced here. In Part 3, Giamatti briefly breaks out in the cutes, with Adams coming off as precious and prissy, as if playing the part at an amusement park like Colonial Williamsburg (where some of the film's scenes were shot; others were done on location in Hungary, about as far from Colonial Williamsburg as one can get).

For nearly throughout, Giamatti's performance is captivating, often poignantly so. He's especially touching when being maligned by giggling French snobs, when Adams is painfully aware that he is being mocked for his lack of sophistication and his inability to master the language.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company