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John Adams (2008)


The mammoth success of David McCullough’s John Adams (2001) was one of publishing’s great shockers. How could a lengthy hardcover about America’s least glamorous founding father sell so many copies?

It wasn’t the Pulitzer that moved units. It was McCullough’s storytelling which transformed Adams’ life from a forgotten textbook paragraph to something deserving of a big-budget, seven-part HBO epic.

British TV director Tom Hooper’s small-screen adaptation of Adams is a flawed yet ultimately triumphant biopic of America’s second president (and first vice president, God bless him). As Adams, Paul Giamatti savors a thick porterhouse of a role, spanning a half century of his subject’s life from young colonist to bitter ex-President. Adams is brilliant, impetuous, maddening, self-obsessed, insecure, short, and bald. Who else were they going to cast?

By now, you’ve seen plenty of histories of early America, even if it was just Schoolhouse Rock! (‘We want no more kings.’) But perhaps none of these other versions have captured the utter messiness of the birth of democracy, or the clashing egos of the men who formed this great union.

McCullough’s Adams is the glue that binds the nation through its first 50 years. Before the colonies declare their independence, Adams declares his own by defending the Redcoats accused of the Boston Massacre. He goes on to wordsmith the Declaration of Independence with his fellow Founding Fathers. He begs European powers for war money. He serves office and hates most of it. He battles with Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and most of the other people on money (or beer bottles). Then he retires, gets old, complains, and dies, famously on the same day as his friend and rival Jefferson (Stephen Dillane).

It’s a big honkin’ story, and even at almost eight hours some moments in history feel clipped. The story still remains consistently compelling, especially Adams’ years in Europe. In one of the series’ most entertaining chapters, Adams lamely attempts to navigate a Versailles that’s so foppish and effete, it makes Coppola’s Marie Antoinette look like Reservoir Dogs. While Adams can get nowhere with his businesslike urgency, boorish Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) has no problem going native with his French hosts, happily playing the role of ‘rustic’ American and enjoying co-ed naked chess games with royalty.

Unfortunately, Hooper’s camerawork often tends toward gimmickry; he tends to position the frame 10 degrees askew to create a sense of unease, but often it just makes you wonder when the Crypt Keeper is going to show up. The settings and make-up (or apparent lack of it), however, are so real you can practically smell the body odor.

And then there are the lead performances, which really carry the eight hours of drama. In addition to Giamatti’s sprit and melancholy, Laura Linney rocks as Abigail Adams. Abigail isn’t your typical wife/mother/spiritual adviser. The blood of a patriot courses through her arteries as mightily as John’s, but she also bears the burden of her husband’s sacrifices in service of his new country. Also notable are Rufus Sewell as a mildly fascist Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who is supposedly portrayed by David Morse but really seems to have stepped directly in from a time machine.

The American Revolution was the most thrilling part of junior high history class, but we cannot conceive the pain and loss it took to make a new country. And revolutions are messy. After watching John Adams, you might feel some comfort that our fractious, chaotic 21st-century Republic was never anything but.

We’re gonna need a bigger eagle.