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HBO's "John Adams" a masterpiece

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Although John Adams is not exactly forgotten among the Founding Fathers, compared to many of the others, he hasn’t received his due.

Perhaps his appearance belied his valor. Whereas Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and others cut dashing figures, Adams was round-faced and pudgy. Nor was he particularly distinguished for his oratory, wit or tact. Even today, his face can’t be found on currency.

With Adams, though, there was a lot more than met the eye. Historian David McCullough, who set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, initially feared that Adams would scarcely hold his own against his Virginia colleague. Once the research started, though -- and particularly after reading hundreds of letters between Adams and his wife, Abigail -- McCullough shifted his focus. His book, and the meticulously faithful HBO miniseries, create an honest and stunning portrait of one of America’s most tireless patriots.

“John Adams,” starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, begins its seven-part story in 1770, when Adams agrees to defend a group of despised British soldiers from murder charges for firing on mostly unarmed colonists. Adams convinces the jury that the soldiers were provoked and that the order to fire came from the mob. His courtroom victory, though bad for his legal practice, earned him a reputation for courage and respect for justice.

The miniseries recounts Adams’ experience in the Continental Congress, his service as an ambassador in Paris and London and his return to government (and politics) as the nation’s first vice president and second president. At the same time, it documents the steadfast love and respect between John and Abigail, a self-educated woman with keen insight into human nature as well as current events.

The miniseries is as courageous in its way as Adams was in his. “John Adams” is downright bold in its insistence on authenticity. Filmed in Virginia and Budapest, the production design is absolutely faithful to the colonial period, right down to the muted and even dreary colors that dominated New England. Kirk Ellis, who adapted the biography, stays true to the words and speech patterns of the period. Director Tom Hooper shows a keen eye for the details of colonial life and the mannerisms of the day.

Giamatti is brilliant as Adams. He is fearless in his portrayal, confident that the character’s all-consuming sacrifices for his fledgling nation will more than compensate for his numerous character flaws. Linney, with charm and determination, shows why Abigail was so important to her husband and, indirectly, to the birth of the nation.

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, played by Stephen Dillane, is seen here as reserved and even morose. Jefferson was no shrinking violet. His uncompromising passion for life and his ideals of democracy were both a source of his greatness and an irritant. He shared Adams’ devotion to liberty but differed greatly on how that was to be achieved. A more full-blooded portrayal of Jefferson would also have added additional perspective to the portrait of Adams.

Overall, though, this handsome miniseries is praiseworthy on many levels -- as history, as entertainment and as a way to bring to life for new generations a sense of the sacrifice and heroism needed to establish the U.S. It also is a badly needed reminder that television is capable of so much more than it delivers most of the time, that it can be a rich and rewarding experience.


John Adams: Paul Giamatti

Abigail Adams: Laura Linney

Thomas Jefferson: Stephen Dillane

Benjamin Franklin: Tom Wilkinson

George Washington: David Morse

John Quincy Adams: Ebon Moss-Bachrach

Nabby Adams: Sarah Polley

Samuel Adams: Danny Huston

John Dickinson: Zeljko Ivanek

Executive producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman; Co-executive producers: Kirk Ellis, Frank Doelger; Producers: David Coatsworth, Steven Shareshian; Consulting producer: Graham Yost; Director: Tom Hooper; Teleplay: Kirk Ellis; Based on the book by: David McCullough; Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto; Production designer: Gemma Jackson; Editor: Melanie Oliver; Music: Rob Lane; Costume designer: Donna Zakowska; Set designer: Kathy Lucas; Casting: Kathleen Chopin, Nina Gold.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter