You have to give it up for HBO. The mini-series as a format is on its death-nell. Network television has no interest in the format any more, or hasn’t for a while. They’d rather have a regular series, or a reality show. But the expense of putting on these sorts of things are of an older school, a school that is now all but vanished. But when HBO wants to do something (with the encouragement of Tom Hanks for sure), it gets done, and so the story of John Adams has been made as a seven part mini-series. Harrumph.
My review is after the jump:
Paul Giamatti stars as the man who would be the second president, and starts with him defending British soldiers for shooting at Americans. He defends them successfully, to some disappointment from the public, but his arguments are sound. The film then launches into his political career where he becomes friendly (as it were) with Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson, perfect casting) and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane). He is always flanked by his wife Abigail (Laura Linney, as always excellent). The series is episodic, to say the least, as each of the seven chapters talks to a different time in his life. The first his lawyer time, then it shifts gears to focus on the revolution, and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, to his time in France, his role as Vice President, his election as President, Jefferson’s election, and then the final chapter focuses on his final years.
In total, the show occasionally is brilliant in getting behind what should be a very boring historical pageant. Giamatti lets you in quite a bit to a man who was full of contradictions. A horrible father and a passionate leader, he has great moments, and the end of the revolutionary episode the series hits a high. But there lies some action, and much of history is in the corners. George Washington is a figure (played by David Morse) but his role is modest, which is for the best as his make- up is as such that you are constantly staring at it, finding the moments where you buy him as Washington, and the others where you just have to eye the make-up. Every once in a while a small turn by someone, Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton, or Danny Huston as Samuel Adams brings it back to life, but John Adams home life takes up a lot of time, and knowing that the president wasn’t a great father is good background, but less interesting foreground.
Though the mini-series deserves points for skipping Adams’s youth and courtship (aka all the boring shit that bio-pics often pad their first acts with), the show hits its stride in those first couple episodes, and the forming of the country, but by the time Adams is president, that thunder has slowed, and the show comes more to a slowdown end. Adams was one of the great founders of the country, but an above average president, which leads the resolution to being less interesting. Adams as a figure deserves this attention, and I was fascinated throughout, but the end result is less fascinating than the occasional highs.
HBO presents the show on three Blu-rays in widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. Each episode comes with a trivia track called “Facts are Stubborn Things.” There’s also a who’s who in history for brief bios of the main characters. Disc three offers a making of (29 min.), and a documentary on the book’s author David McCullough called “Painting with Words” (39 min.) where the author has a chance to talk about himself, his work and his subjects.