Monday, March 17, 2008

When Johnny Comes Marching...

John Adams almost single-handedly started the Revolutionary War after defending the British officers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. Or so the HBO version of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book would have us believe. Only cousin Sam Adams seems more passionately in favor of war with England. Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine are MIA. Still, the acting is stunning, especially in the characters of Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Adams himself.

The newspaper reviews of this show are many and varied.

John Adams

John Adams
Critic Score
Metascore: 78 Metascore out of 100

based on 27 reviews
read critic reviews

Here are three reviews I found thought provoking:

1) Revolutionary role

Paul Giamatti plays emotional, law-loving John Adams
By Tenley Woodman | Sunday, March 16, 2008

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John Adams’ face might not be plastered on beer bottles like his second cousin Sam Adams, but that doesn’t mean he was any less a patriot.

Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) plays the Braintree-born revolutionary and second president of the United States in the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” starting March 18.

Giamatti, himself a native New Englander (New Haven, Conn.), said he hopes to bring understanding to the complicated and often overlooked political figure.

“He’s not iconic like those other guys are,” Giamatti said of Adams’ contemporaries George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. “He was almost too honest and blunt about himself.”

While Samuel Adams stirred up public protests against English rule as a leader of the Sons of Liberty, John Adams represented and won aquittal for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.

“Logic and fact, to his detriment, he was so married to the idea. That affected him all over the place in his life. He idolized the law. That’s a hard place to occupy in the world,” said Giamatti.

The actor is no stranger to playing difficult men. His role as a depressed wine snob in “Sideways” earned him critical praise and he won laughs as Howard Stern’s cantankerous boss in Private Parts.”

“As little known as he seems to be, (Adams) is better known than the other historic guys I have played,” said Giamatti, who has starred in other biopics such as “Man on the Moon” and “Cinderella Man.”

“I had to make a character out of him. I had more freedom playing him than Jefferson or Washington, because he is not so well known,” he said.

John Adams occupied some of the most influential positions in America’s fledgling government. He was a delegate to the first and second Continental Congress and acted as an ambassador overseas to lobby foreign support for the revolution.

But today, Giamatti said, John Adams would be left out of the political fold.

“(To) what extent can somebody be honest in political life? He wasn’t a failure, but his political life was complicated,” he said.

“He was just emotional publically. I don’t know if he could curtail himself. You can’t do that (in today’s political world). I was so amazed about this thing, that Hilary (Clinton) cried. Then I watched it and you can barely see it. You cannot show emotion. You are a psychopath if you show emotion publically,” said Giamatti. Back then, “they probably could get away with more.”

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Ideas triumph in compelling series 'John Adams'

HBO's 'John Adams' proves that American history and intellectual dialogue can also be compelling drama

By David Zurawik

Sun Television Critic

March 16, 2008

The leading man is a short, bald, pot-bellied lawyer with a passion for reading Latin and a habit of making enemies. The leading lady quotes Shakespeare, dresses modestly and seldom looks like she's having fun.

The opening hour unfolds against a backdrop of mud, snow and the endless gray of a New England winter. And all seven hours are filled with talk in historically accurate English accents about big ideas from the 18th century like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This is not exactly the stuff of which TV miniseries are usually made.

And yet, John Adams, a $100 million-plus production about the life and times of America's second president, is one of the most compelling miniseries of the decade. The HBO program, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, has the dramatic sweep of such old-time TV epics as Winds of War, but it also hews absolutely to the Pulitzer Prize-winning work written by David McCullough about Adams and the first 50 years of American life.

Produced by Tom Hanks and directed by Emmy Award-winner Tom Hooper, John Adams proves that true-to-life American history can make for inspired prime-time entertainment. That daring proposition from TV's most acclaimed channel is all the more remarkable coming at a time when many school systems have abandoned teaching students about the national past for fear that it might be deemed boring.

"John Adams is about ideas and it's about one man's political education - and that's rare for television," says Paul Giamatti, who plays Adams. "The language alone was something that made it hard for me to believe that somebody was actually going to put this on television. To have people talking at this high level and with this amount of intelligence is just utterly unique for commercial TV."

Rarer yet is the commitment that Hanks and HBO made to a truthful rendering of the past - rather than one cut to fit the flashy fashion of prime-time entertainment, McCullough says.

"What Tom Hanks and the people at HBO did in making this miniseries is phenomenal," he says. "Aside from an enormous amount of money, what they invested in this project is a desire to do something right about the founding time of our country and the secular faith on which our whole way of life is based. And they accomplished that - they never compromised and they never cheapened the history."

Trusted Tom Hanks
Few have mastered the craft of making authentic history come alive for a mass audience like McCullough.

Perhaps most widely known as host of the PBS series American Experience and narrator of Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, McCullough is twice a winner of each of the three most prestigious awards for historical writing - the Pulitzer and Parkman Prizes and the National Book Award. Furthermore, he has managed to rack up eye-popping sales, with his work on Adams now in its 65th printing with 2.7 million sales and 149 weeks on The New York Times best-seller lists.

"When you turn your work - your book - over to someone, you're putting your faith in their interpretation of your text," McCullough says of the transition from print to screen. "Two hours into our first meeting, I knew Tom Hanks was someone who was keenly interested in American history and totally committed to getting it right. And I must say, Tom Hanks never, ever let me down."

Hanks, Hooper and screenwriter Kirk Ellis made dozens of daring choices in their adaptation of McCullough's book, and the reward for their dedication to historical accuracy and detail is an immediate and gripping sense of verisimilitude.

The opening sequence is representative of the way in which the series successfully pulls viewers out of the present and transports them to 18th-century life as it was brutally lived on the ground - rather than in the prettified portraits of Founding Fathers that hang in schools.

Instead of the color and pageantry often used to open historical costume dramas in hopes of grabbing viewer attention, John Adams begins in 1770 with a solitary man on a horse that is gingerly trying to find its way along an icy road in a snowstorm. At least, it looks like a man on the horse. All one can see is a bundle of gray wool sitting in the saddle.

At the risk of tune-out, director Hooper ( Elizabeth I) holds the desolate image until the viewer can almost feel the icy ruts under the horse's hooves and the snow tearing into the face of the man on its back.

The rider is Adams, making his way from his farm outside of Boston to Philadelphia for the gathering that would ultimately draft the Declaration of Independence.

Forget forming a government and founding a nation, just making it from Boston to Philadelphia on horseback in the winter seems a monumental achievement.

Hard realities
"You hear people say of days gone by, 'Oh, that was a simpler time,'" McCullough says. "That's nonsense. Life was hard, harder than we have any idea. Because John Adams was stout, people often think of him as pudgy and soft.

"One of the reasons I began my book as I did - with Adams heading off to Philadelphia in the dead of winter on horseback for nearly 400 miles - was to show what he was made of. No softie does that."

There are several other moments during the miniseries when sticking to accurate depictions of the brutish reality of Colonial life makes for stunningly vivid drama.

One involves a graphic rendering of the horrific pain and degradation inflicted on a victim who was tarred and feathered and carried on a rail.

The second comes when Abigail Adams, at home alone with three children as her husband serves as one of the new nation's first ambassadors to France, decides to have her family inoculated against small pox - a gory and highly unpredictable process at the time.

A warning: Watching the wounds on a smallpox victim being lanced so that the fluid from within can be placed into cuts made into the arms of Abigail and her children may be too intense for the tastes of some viewers. On the other hand, no better testimony could be given to the courage and strength of this extraordinary woman.

"In her supposedly simpler time, Abigail had to keep the farm going, find hired help, cope with inflation and shortages of all kind, all on her own while John was away for months, eventually years, at a stretch," McCullough says."The shadow of death loomed everywhere. Epidemic disease, dysentery and smallpox could and did sweep in any time, taking hundreds of lives. Nobody knew where these horrors came from or how to stop them or when they would be over."

'A great love story'
In the miniseries that will anchor the next six Sunday nights for HBO, the pain and darkness of such moments are redeemed by an inspirational core narrative celebrating the love of Abigail and John Adams and the triumph of the big ideas that came to define our national identity. McCullough's primary source: the thousands of letters between John and Abigail.

"It is a great love story," McCullough says, "It's a cliffhanger of a story about a man and a woman caught up in one of the most dangerous, tumultuous periods in the whole larger story of our country. Together they were at the heart of what was then called the 'Glorious Cause of America.' They saw themselves as taking part in one of the surpassing dramas in history - which indeed it was."

For his part, Giamatti says he's just happy that the producers and writers "allowed these two characters to be as intelligent as they were."

Such a commitment to intellect, after all, is not exactly what prime-time TV is known for in this era of reality TV.

"The one thing I kept praying after I took the job is that I hope to God they don't chicken out and start rewriting it and trying to dumb it down," Giamatti says. "Aside from the character, aside from the story, aside from everything, it was just the intelligence of this miniseries that I found so exciting."

3) and a bit more critical piece from Chicago:

Entertaining 'Adams' is no history lesson

TV REVIEW | HBO miniseries takes liberties

March 16, 2008

John Adams would no doubt have been pleased to know that he was right.

Granted, Adams was expressing in that 1790 letter his fear that he might be written out of history in favor of a better tale that included beefier parts for Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but he was right when he felt that facts often are altered or omitted when telling a good story.

Just take a look at Adams' namesake HBO miniseries (the first two parts of which air at 7 tonight), in which colonial buildings, clothes, wigs, weapons and toys were painstakingly recreated so the story could be told as authentically as possible.

Too bad Kirk Ellis' script (based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book) wasn't as meticulous with historic details. While "John Adams" succeeds as entertainment, it utterly fails as a history lesson.

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence," Adams (Paul Giamatti) utters during a pivotal scene in which he is making his closing arguments in the trial of the English soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.

The trial is played out as an 18th century version of "Law and Order," with Adams successfully securing acquittals for all the British soldiers involved.

Judging from the first four episodes of the series, which follow Adams from the Boston Massacre to George Washington's inauguration, "John Adams" is well-acted, well-scripted, entertaining television. Unfortunately, Ellis is all too willing to sacrifice truths the moment they get in the way of plot or pacing.

I wonder why. Yes, the truth is a bit more complicated, but it's often equally engaging: Capt. Thomas Preston (played by Ritchie Coster), who commanded the British men involved in the Massacre, was tried and acquitted in a separate trial. Adams did represent the other eight soldiers, but unlike in the HBO series, two of the eight actually were found guilty of murder. Thanks to Adams' superior skills in the courtroom, he was able to argue the plea down to manslaughter based on a technicality.

Giamatti spends the first two episodes playing Adams as an aloof, lovable, misunderstood statesman. It's only in later episodes that he grows impatient and impolite (particularly when trying to secure the naval assistance of France during our bloody march toward independence). His record of being both pushy and abrasive is well documented. But playing Adams as such would have denied Giamatti any sort of character arc.

Character is the least of the concerns here. If one knew little or nothing about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, you would be inclined to believe based on this teleplay that Adams did everything but pluck the goose feather for the quill to write the Declaration.

His complex, on-again-off-again friendship with Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) comes almost as an afterthought in the first four episodes. Jefferson is first portrayed as a sensitive artist who watches Franklin (the always wonderful Tom Wilkinson) and Adams take knives to his first draft of the Declaration of Independence as if it were written by a first-time hack. Later, on a diplomatic mission to Paris after the death of his wife and daughter, he is seemingly inconsolable and melancholy (this Jefferson in Paris is in much need of some Prozac).

Adams' wife is treated the most accurately. Laura Linney, one of the most underappreciated actresses of our time, turns in another powerhouse performance as the headstrong Abigail Adams. Though they spend more time apart than they do together, their relationship is the core of the miniseries; Linney plays her as his intellectual equal.

Adams was wedded more to his sense of duty to country than to his wife. For her part, she raised their children and took care of the farm without any help, but even she had her limits. "Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors," she tells him. "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

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