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HBO's 'John Adams' Is An Unflinchingly Realistic Portrait Of Our Country's Formative Years

March 21st, 2008 3:08pm EDT | Andrew Payne By: Andrew Payne favorite Add to My News
John AdamsIt's been nearly 250 years, and not a whole lot has changed.

"John Adams", HBO's 7-part miniseries based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of our country's second president, premiered last Sunday with a pair of installments outlining the events leading up to our country declaring its independence from England.

The series begins with Adams (Paul Giamatti) witnessing the Boston Massacre and his subsequent defense of the British soldiers accused of murder for their actions. Adams takes the case after convincing his wife Abigail (Laura Linney) that in a free country everyone deserves a fair trial.



His defense of the soldiers draws the ire of the renegade separatist group The Sons of Liberty, headed by his cousin Sam (Danny Huston), but gains him the respect of the English government. Adams wins the case, and the Attorney General quickly offers him a lucrative position with the Crown government. Adams refuses, worried about the damage holding such a position could do to his family, especially in the face of the growing dissent in Boston in the wake of the Intolerable Acts.

Adams' dissatisfaction with the Crown grows, and he eventually accepts an offer from his cousin to join him and John Hancock (Justin Theroux) to represent Boston in the Continental Congress.

The series' second part, "Independence," begins in the Congress and shows Adams becoming increasingly disillusioned with the bureaucratic nature of the convention while his citizens are being oppressed. He returns home and witnesses the violence first hand as a group of wounded and dead soldiers pass by his farm after the battle of Lexington and Concord.

Adams departs for Philadelphia, and with the help of Benjamin Franklin he persuades the congress to form the Continental Army to fight the British in Massachusetts. He recommends then-Colonel George Washington (David Morse, in the most ludicrous makeup this side of "Norbit") as Commander-in-Chief, and the future first president accepts.

Shortly thereafter, the congress is faced with a proclamation from King George III that treason will be punished by death. Adams sees this as the perfect time to make a move for Independence and invites Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) to draft a resolution.

The result, of course, is the Declaration of Independence, which the Congress presents to an enthusiastic crowd in front of Independence Hall. Adams, however, is less exuberant writing to Abigail, who is dealing with a smallpox outbreak, that their work has just begun.

This area of history has certainly been tracked by various films before. In fact, the entire second installment mirrors the plot of everyone's favorite Mr. Feeny-starring musical "1776." "John Adams," however, does offer new insight into the formation of our country, particularly in the way it presents the politics of the time.

It's startling to see how closely the ways of the 18th century mirror the modern-day world of lobbying and backroom deals. We see that Franklin and Adams were only able to get the Declaration of Independence through the Continental Congress by coercing an abstention from the representative of New York and conspiring with proud Pennsylvania representative and devout loyalist John Dickinson to effectively have the man call in sick on the day of the vote so he won't be forced to relent his position.

It does not appear as though the political aspects of the film were intended as satire, but the ways in which Adams and Franklin walk a thin line of morality in order to get things done cannot help but conjure up images of present-day ethics scandals.

"John Adams" also refuses to deify the founding fathers, presenting them as real men with a lot of problems rather than simply faces on cash. The title character in particular is painted as a man consumed with pride who essentially abandons his family in favor of the Congress.

Giamatti gives a strong performance as Adams, and Linney brings her usual steely assurance to the role of Abigail. The rest of the cast is up to the depth of the writing as well, allowing the series to double as both historical fiction and an intense character study of the men we only thought we knew.

The miniseries is a very entertaining and unflinchingly realistic portrait of our country's formative years. It continues for the next five weeks on HBO with a new installment airing each Sunday at 9 p.m. The remainder will follow Adams through the Revolutionary War, the formation of the Constitution, his eventual Presidency and death.

Story by Andrew Payne
Starpulse contributing writer


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