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[Flashback review] ‘John Adams,’ Second To None

“Giamatti’s performance is captivating, often poignantly so. . . . Tom Wilkinson has a romp playing Ben Franklin. . . . Stephen Dillane’s Thomas Jefferson is a quiet, introspective scholar. . . . David Morse at first seems incongruous in the role of George Washington, but the performance proves canny and haunting, unlike any portrayal of Washington ever.”

by Tom Shales

“John Adams” dramatizes the life of the second president, a Founding Father whose name is familiar but whose persona isn’t. That is about to change. . . .

“Adams” is the kind of classily intelligent production that can be happily recommended to everybody. The filmmakers, including executive producer Tom Hanks, have attempted to re-create and enliven history — and they succeed grandly.

Although the production is immense, and scenic values are enhanced by impressive digital effects, the two most important assets to the production are Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. These exemplary and versatile actors seem to “know” John and Abigail Adams as if they had lived next door to them for years and played cards with them weekly.

Giamatti might seem a curious choice physically, since he’s perhaps plumper and grumpier than the Adams of our mind’s eye. The actor, though, gets inside the character and takes command in the very first scene, during which the stubbornly independent Adams decides to defend British soldiers charged in court with shooting Boston citizens in the street. It’s 1770, and the British still occupy the American colonies, growing more unpopular by the day.

“No Boston jury will ever vote for acquittal,” says John’s relative Sam (Danny Huston). But John Adams stands fast even against mob rage: “I intend to show that this colony is governed by law,” he says, even though he’s a member of the rebellious Sons of Liberty himself.

Linney’s Abigail is always at his side either literally or spiritually (through 54 years of marriage), occasionally making such suggestions to her husband as “mask your impatience with those less intelligent than yourself” — something Adams has a tough time doing.

Dramatizing America’s colonial and revolutionary years is full of pitfalls and has resulted in many a leaden movie. . . . Mythic historical figures can come across as strutting, one-dimensional impersonations. But shrewdly adapting a book by the dedicated David McCullough, writer Kirk Ellis and director Tom Hooper have created characters who live and breathe and also, on occasion, bleed. They talk in complete sentences — a charming habit long since abandoned here in the Colonies — and yet the dialogue never seems stiff and unwieldy, as often happens in historical productions.

Giamatti and Linney give us a married couple harmonious, compatible and on occasion discreetly ardent. In Part 4, Abigail goes to France, after years of separation, to join her husband on a diplomatic mission (basically begging the French for material support). She steps out of a carriage in front of a large crowd and John greets her with formal restraint. One can feel their longing to embrace passionately — which they finally do once protected by the privacy of a palace bedroom.

Sometimes, inappropriately, Giamatti exhibits that look of simmering contempt familiar from such films as “Sideways,” one of his acclaimed performances, and the bitterness seems misplaced here. In Part 3, Giamatti briefly breaks out in the cutes, with Adams coming off as precious and prissy, as if playing the part at an amusement park like Colonial Williamsburg (where some of the film’s scenes were shot; others were done on location in Hungary, about as far from Colonial Williamsburg as one can get).

For nearly throughout, Giamatti’s performance is captivating, often poignantly so. He’s especially touching when being maligned by giggling French snobs, when Adams is painfully aware that he is being mocked for his lack of sophistication and his inability to master the language.

Americans have a tendency to shy away from television they’re told is “good for them.” The miniseries is by no means a preachment or a history lesson. Adams was an adventurer in his way, and on a crossing to Europe must join the crew in battling a ferocious storm at sea. They also spot a British ship and decide it is all right to “engage” it for a brief naval battle, with Adams himself firing a ridiculous shot from a rickety rifle.

Perhaps the most shockingly brutal scene (at least in the first four episodes, as made available to critics) is that of a British prisoner being pounced upon by a mob, then tarred and feathered, a practice depicted in the film in a way that makes it appear far more painful and mortifying than is commonly thought. Similarly hard to watch are scenes of the beautiful Adams children being attacked by some form of pox, breaking out in open sores and being treated by a “bleeder,” while Adams is off on his mission to Europe.

In addition to Giamatti and Linney, the cast is so stellar as to be almost intimidating. Tom Wilkinson has a romp playing Ben Franklin, who feels as lustily at home in the French court as Adams does uncomfortable. “You are not a man for Paris,” Franklin tells Adams. “Paris requires a certain amount of indecency.” Poor Adams, try though he might — and he doesn’t try very hard — remains a fuddy-duddy even in France.

Stephen Dillane’s Thomas Jefferson is a quiet, introspective scholar who at first thinks a “Declaration of Independency” is a bad idea — later changing his tune, of course. David Morse, adept at playing contemporary neurotics, at first seems incongruous in the role of George Washington, heavy makeup caked on his face, but the performance proves canny and haunting, unlike any portrayal of Washington ever.

Production details are impeccable. Scenes set in Holland, where Adams goes in search of funding for the Revolution, are shot and lit like great Dutch paintings of the era. For Adams, however, this is a bleak period in his career, with the Dutch at first refusing his request for a $10 million loan. A fierce cough gets worse and worse, and soon Adams is, like his children back home, being visited by a bleeder (bleeding was apparently the approved treatment for virtually everything).

“Have I failed here as well?” he asks himself, in the depths of despair. When the news come that the British have been decisively defeated at last and the Colonies are no longer under its domain, he weeps in uncontrollable elation.

Divided into seven parts, the miniseries clocks in at something like 10 hours, since most installments go beyond the one-hour point. Whatever, you won’t be watching the clock. “John Adams” can safely be labeled a victory for all the talents who put it together — an entertainment unmistakably relevant in its evocation of a tumultuous era not entirely unlike our own, and a great moment for a medium that is itself in the throes of revolution.

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This originally appeared in the Washington Post on Saturday, March 15, 2008.