Our family made the choice years ago to have nothing to do with television stations. We own a monitor and a dvd player and with the rarest of exceptions - watching a world changing event or the Red Sox in the World Series - have no regrets. This does mean that we get to watching some of the very few examples of quality programming when they become available on disc, which is why I am providing my reactions to HBO's 2008 miniseries John Adams a year after it aired.
I doubt HBO would have ever attempted such an epic treatment of Adams, although he is certainly in the front rank of our fascinating and flawed patriot founders, had not David McCullough written his engaging and sympathetic popular biography of our 2nd President. What is more remarkable is the relative paucity of films - good, bad or indifferent - dealing with the birth of our nation. The Bicentennial, for pity sake, did not prompt a single effort on the big screen, though the musical 1776 did come out a few years before. We endured the risible Revolution in 1985 and the hatchet job which The Patriot did to revolutionary history in 2000, and precious little else until now. Even 1992's romanticized The Last of the Mohicans which deals with the French and Indian War period is preferable to the history and screenwriting offered by either of these films. None of them truly animates the historical people at the center of these extraordinary events or brings us any closer to connecting with them as human beings as well as actors in the great drama of their time.
Given how low the bar has been set, HBO's John Adams clears it with ease, and on more than one occasion even soars like the French hot air balloon that John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson watch as humanity cuts the umbilical with earth and sails above the enthralled onlookers. For a film that must span more than half a century in seven episodes, it manages for the most part to keep to the spirit and flavor of those times quite convincingly. Liberties are taken with minor characters and time lines, and there are plenty of places where a shrewd and knowledgeable viewer will observe such inaccuracies as the misnamed "bloody pox" or the impossibility of viewing the shelling of Bunker Hill or the passage of Knox's guns from the Adams' farm in Braintree. Even Jonathan Trumbull, the "artist of the Revolution" who makes an appearance as well in the film, meant his paintings to be allegories as well as historical representations, and for the most part where license is taken it does not significantly detract from the overall history.
The very best part about the film - indeed, the part that makes its insufferably stuffy protagonist bearable - is the relationship between John Adams (ably played by Paul Giamatti) and his wife Abigail, played absolutely brilliantly by Laura Linney. I could not take my eyes from her whenever she appeared in a scene, even if she remained silent. She is as much the center of the film as her husband, whether compelled to make the agonizing choice herself to inoculate her family with smallpox while her husband is away at Congress or confiding to Jefferson as they stroll amid chateau topiary that there is much that women might offer the world if men would let them. She is hard as pins without being consumed with bitterness, soft and passionate while better able to govern her emotions than her easily outraged husband. The partnership of these best of friends is borne out in their correspondence and is the key to the success of the series.
The rest of the founders who appear in the film are intriguing, but for the most part less well developed. The sybaritic Dr. Franklin played by Tom Wilkinson is a cagey old fox and skilled in the art of compromise, to whom Adams plays an unwilling straight man in Paris. Stephen Dillane's Thomas Jefferson first appears as almost painfully withdrawn and that weariness never leaves him even as he becomes a force in American politics in his feuds with the Federalists. George Washington as played by David Morse maintains a reserve that is likely true to his character but sometimes feels as wooden as the proverbial false teeth. Others are merely footnotes, although I did find the exchange when Adams is presented to King George III as the first American ambassador to be quite memorizing.
The end result is a very good series, but not a great one. Something still eludes Hollywood and America as a whole about the story of our origins and how best to bring the people and events of those times to life in ways that we moderns can appreciate. It is a bit like the artificial snow that HBO sprayed on the cobbled streets of its Boston set; it leaves us sliding along the surface without truly grasping the moment. We are a bit like John Adams, dashing outside with his leather fire bucket at the first cries of fire, not realizing that it is really the mob, taunting the redcoats to bring on the Revolution.