Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Stephen Dillane
Director: Tom Hooper
DVD Release Date: June 10, 2008
Running Time: 501 min
Distributor: HBO Films
“It is no small thing to build a new world, gentlemen.” – Ben Franklin
“I am determined to control events, not be controlled by them.” – John Adams
John Adams, the HBO miniseries based on David McCullough’s bestselling biography, accomplishes something that John Adams, the man, attempted to do for the better part of his political life, speak of his accomplishments, a feat which is achieved here in grand fashion. Most of our knowledge of John Adams is only that he was the 2nd President of the United States, but this miniseries tells a much broader story spanning more than 50 years, showing events before, during, and after his presidency. And what a fascinating story it is.
John Adams is the story of a man more complex than history would allow him to be viewed. John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was a stubborn little man whose moral foundation was built on strong principles far greater than most of those he surrounded himself with. His honesty and outspoken nature were among his best and worst characteristics. Beginning with his unpopular decision to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in the name of the law, a foundation he held very close, most of his decision making prowess came in the form of counsel by his wife, Abigail Adams (Laura Linney). Some of his decisions made in her absence have been widely and rightly condemned as being poor. She was his voice of reason any time he was to let his emotion blindly drive him into doing or saying something out of turn. The movie plays very well as a love story between the two. Separated for the better part of the first 14 years of their marriage, she stood by her man through every adversity encountered in the name of chasing his dream.
The sacrifices made by Adams were greater than those involving his wife and his family. The friendships of the men we came to know as the Founding Fathers were also strained as the country declared its independence and moved forward with the revolution. It was interesting to watch men and their alliances transform as the differing views of how to run a country’s government began to take hold. There was no blueprint for success, there were no definition of boundaries and title; they were making it up as they went along. We now look to our country to guide us but there was no history telling them how things should be run. They simply did what they thought was best as determined by the collective majority of those put into power.
Watching John Adams is like discovering our own history for the first time. I found myself feeling very patriotic. More times than not when we get a movie that involves a part of our American history, it is told in a self aggrandizing manner. John Adams told the story from a much different perspective. It was not afraid to show the trouble these men had in making the decisions that eventually shaped our country into what it is today. It showed each man less God-like than history has made them out to be. It wasn’t easy and mistakes were made. For that I think we should all be more thankful knowing they were ordinary men with extraordinary dreams and the fortitude and drive to realize them regardless of what obstacle stood in their way.
You cannot watch this film without being in awe of the multitude of great performances. Giamatti and Linney were the backbone to be sure, but the supporting members of the story provided a depth that would not have been able to be achieved if it weren’t for the great acting. Tom Wilkinson plays Benjamin Franklin as a man wise beyond his years and just as crazy. Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson is a sophisticated southerner as headstrong in his ideals as the next, and David Morse as General and President George Washington not only bears an uncanny resemblance to our nation’s first president, he commands attention every time he is on screen.
Toward the end of the series, after another bout of frustration with how his legacy is to be upheld, Adams tells his wife that he should have followed his father’s course and been a farming, shoemaking, deacon so as to have avoided what he deemed to be only headaches left in the wake of his political career. The fact of the matter is that when a man makes sacrifices as John Adams did during his life to realize a dream that he may not even live to fully realize, that shows a selflessness of immeasurable proportion that we cannot fully grasp in our present state of affairs. History may not have allowed him to be as iconic a figure as the rest of the Founding Fathers, but for all his shortcomings he had something most of the rest of them lacked. He was honest and driven, yet fallible. That he made no apology for being any of these things made something far more important than any character trait he may have possessed: human.
And there’s the rub.
**** out of ****