John Adams (2008) TV Mini-Series Review

Historians have, for two centuries, portrayed the men who signed America’s Declaration of Independence as proud figures standing alone in their greatness and grand ideals. Many of the documentaries about history spend a great deal of time on the momentous events that defined the course of history but few accurately depict the lives that were a part of those events. The HBO miniseries, John Adams, due out on DVD June 10th does, basically, the opposite.

This miniseries centers around the later life of a single, only slightly more than ordinary, man who became the voice of thirteen colonies struggling for their rights and for liberties that they believed should be recognized as self evident. Executive producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the same duo behind the Emmy award winning HBO miniseries about World War II, Band Of Brothers, have teamed up with Writer/Producer Kirk Ellis. They have valiantly taken on the task of telling the story of the birth of a nation and do the Pulitzer Prize winning book John Adams, by David McCullough, a great deal of justice along with a healthy dose of respect for the man whose life it chronicles and the lives of those around him.

From the opening scenes of the first episode, John Adams is portrayed expertly by Paul Giamatti, in an Oscar-worthy performance, as an awkward and driven man who started out as a lawyer and farmer who believed in the power of the law to be the “great equalizer.” He believed that law was meant to topple corrupt and powerful men and protect and build up the weak, to silence the voices of tyranny and give a voice to those humble men of virtue who could not speak for themselves. He believed that it was his destiny to fight for those laws, and the government meant to uphold them, and keep them impartial. In his own words, in the final address to the courts when he defended the soldiers responsible for the “Boston Massacre” he said, “The law…will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations and wanton tempers of men…On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.”

At the end of episode one, Adams accepts a position as a delegate to a new “Congress” uniting representatives from all thirteen of the American colonies at Independence hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In episode two, along with his cousin, the notorious patriot Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) he joins the likes of Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and George Washington (David Morse) are all caught up in raucous debate as they fight over how best to regain the freedoms they feel that their “Father-country,” Great Britain, has taken from them.

The miniseries brilliantly depicts the difficulties the founding fathers experienced in first attempting to voice their displeasure to an uncaring English parliament and their ruling monarch and also carefully shows how their feelings of abandonment quickly turn to voices asking for revolution. Cries for peace are stilled and a united Declaration of Independence is drafted, first by the hand of Thomas Jefferson, at the request of John Adams, and carefully edited by his colleagues to assure it’s acceptance by the dissenting members of congress. A very emotional scene shows the final vote on the fourth of July, 1776 as twelve representatives approve and one remains abstained, to send their declaration to England. A long, charged silence, shows the full weight of each man’s conviction and the brutal knowledge that their actions will surely mean all out war with the British empire.

Through many of the episodes some narration, usually from historical documents or the many letters that passed between John and his wife Abigail, fills in many of the details as we watch history progress far beyond America’s successful bid for Independence. Each episode is filled with the tender and amazing interaction between Giamatti and Linney as they perfectly display the devotion, respect and essential counsel that Mr. and Mrs. Adams each had for the other. It also amazingly shows the real humanity and living, breathing friendships and venemous disputes that existed between all of the great figures so admired but rarely seen as men who could just as easily walk through your door today and still fill the room with a sense of reverence, no matter their flaws. Obviously intrigue and corruption have their parts, mostly in the form of deceptions and corruption engineered by Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) and his band of “Federalists.”

John Adams is more than a work of entertainment, it is an epic portrayal that should be required viewing in every classroom in America. It is an affectionate and historically accurate, though not perfectly so, tale that is especially poignant today, with America still at war and the disillusionment felt by nearly every American. The call for revolution, for lasting change, is still being heard, today.

The production values are obviously high with significantly intimate handheld camera work that gives a genuine sense of being a real observer accompanied by some of the best editing and a majestic orchestral score that anyone could hope for. Instead of using the typical epic formula of showing a series of panoramic battles and grand speeches writer Ellis uses genuine and accessible conversation peppered with real quotes from each character, some from journals and diaries, to show the true integrity, honor and passion of each person. He also, carefully, winds out the life of the man, from his time as Vice President to George Washington through his own Presidency and beyond, by crafting a heartfelt attachment to Adams family and the trials they suffered after Adams left the office, beaten by his longtime friend and Vice President, Thomas Jefferson.

During their final years Adams and Jefferson reconciled after a long seperation. The final episode shows the passing of both great men, Jefferson first and then a matter of hours later Adams, on the fourth of July, 1826, exactly fifty years, to the day, after signing the document that forever declared to the world that the United States of America was, and is, an independent and free country.

Tom Hooper (director) / Michelle Ashford, Kirk Ellis (screenplay), David McCullough (book)
CAST: Paul Giamatti … John Adams
Laura Linney … Abigail Adams
David Morse … George Washington
Clancy O’Connor … Edward Rutledge
Rufus Sewell … Alexander Hamilton
Justin Theroux … John Hancock
Tom Wilkinson … Benjamin Franklin
Danny Huston … Samuel Adams
Stephen Dillane … Thomas Jefferson




About Jodie Bass

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By day, I'm a humble computer systems administrator, now, but in my life I've worked as a sound engineer, a radio disk-jockey, a custodian, a short-order cook and a whole host of other fun and educational occupations. No, I'm not a million years old and I don't know everything. I am a happily married father of three lovely girls and my family is the most important thing in my life. So, movie reviews just seemed to come naturally. You can see the connection, can't you?

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  • Patrick

    While I agree it was a decent series, I think it also dropped the ball on history. While trying to focus more on John Adams the man and his family, it purposely skipped over the major historical events, following the line of thought that these events have been extensively covered by countless forms of media, and thus not worth mentioning.

    To the contrary, by skipping over huge portions of the Revolutionary War, the debates in the Contintal Congress, etc- they fail to show the impact these things had on the Adams. The series feels full of holes, as it intended to leave out great chunks of what the creators felt to be fluff- the actual events.

    While beautifully shot, with brilliant performances, costuming, scenery, etc etc- the series loses great steam by not showing every piece of the puzzle, thus not completing the entire picture.

    On a side note, I also felt the series took a very poignant stand on civil rights and womens sufferage. The creators made a very drastic stand to show how addimantly against these things Adams & his wife were, but also took note to make others seem cruel, instead of ambivalent to the issues. I’m not sure it’s quite accurate to make a series on the basis to depict the humility of a “slighty above average man,” while showing a very jaded point-of-view in regards to major social issues. However, if the point of the series was to show the issues through the eyes of John Adams alone, then perhaps it holds true.

    *Shrug* There goes my steam- thoughts?

  • Patrick

    While I agree it was a decent series, I think it also dropped the ball on history. While trying to focus more on John Adams the man and his family, it purposely skipped over the major historical events, following the line of thought that these events have been extensively covered by countless forms of media, and thus not worth mentioning.

    To the contrary, by skipping over huge portions of the Revolutionary War, the debates in the Contintal Congress, etc- they fail to show the impact these things had on the Adams. The series feels full of holes, as it intended to leave out great chunks of what the creators felt to be fluff- the actual events.

    While beautifully shot, with brilliant performances, costuming, scenery, etc etc- the series loses great steam by not showing every piece of the puzzle, thus not completing the entire picture.

    On a side note, I also felt the series took a very poignant stand on civil rights and womens sufferage. The creators made a very drastic stand to show how addimantly against these things Adams & his wife were, but also took note to make others seem cruel, instead of ambivalent to the issues. I’m not sure it’s quite accurate to make a series on the basis to depict the humility of a “slighty above average man,” while showing a very jaded point-of-view in regards to major social issues. However, if the point of the series was to show the issues through the eyes of John Adams alone, then perhaps it holds true.

    *Shrug* There goes my steam- thoughts?

  • Patrick

    While I agree it was a decent series, I think it also dropped the ball on history. While trying to focus more on John Adams the man and his family, it purposely skipped over the major historical events, following the line of thought that these events have been extensively covered by countless forms of media, and thus not worth mentioning.

    To the contrary, by skipping over huge portions of the Revolutionary War, the debates in the Contintal Congress, etc- they fail to show the impact these things had on the Adams. The series feels full of holes, as it intended to leave out great chunks of what the creators felt to be fluff- the actual events.

    While beautifully shot, with brilliant performances, costuming, scenery, etc etc- the series loses great steam by not showing every piece of the puzzle, thus not completing the entire picture.

    On a side note, I also felt the series took a very poignant stand on civil rights and womens sufferage. The creators made a very drastic stand to show how addimantly against these things Adams & his wife were, but also took note to make others seem cruel, instead of ambivalent to the issues. I’m not sure it’s quite accurate to make a series on the basis to depict the humility of a “slighty above average man,” while showing a very jaded point-of-view in regards to major social issues. However, if the point of the series was to show the issues through the eyes of John Adams alone, then perhaps it holds true.

    *Shrug* There goes my steam- thoughts?

  • Jodie

    Patrick, sure they could have included all those details but then the series would have been called “The Revolutionary War: Some Guy Named John Adams Was There” instead of just John Adams. I think it gave a sense of the man, both the second president and, more important to someone like me, the family man trying to work and provide for his loved ones and the life they led together. It gave a sense of personal accomplishment that felt real. It showed his motivations, his failures and things that so many would never have known about the lives that he touched.

    I also completely agree that their inclusion about issues like their oppositions to slavery and women’s suffrage were well done. The only thing they steered clear of, which would have been pretty crucial, was the fact that they were Unitarians. If you read some of the letters between Jefferson and Adams after they reconciled it is wildly obvious, actually.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • Jodie

    Patrick, sure they could have included all those details but then the series would have been called “The Revolutionary War: Some Guy Named John Adams Was There” instead of just John Adams. I think it gave a sense of the man, both the second president and, more important to someone like me, the family man trying to work and provide for his loved ones and the life they led together. It gave a sense of personal accomplishment that felt real. It showed his motivations, his failures and things that so many would never have known about the lives that he touched.

    I also completely agree that their inclusion about issues like their oppositions to slavery and women’s suffrage were well done. The only thing they steered clear of, which would have been pretty crucial, was the fact that they were Unitarians. If you read some of the letters between Jefferson and Adams after they reconciled it is wildly obvious, actually.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • Jodie

    Patrick, sure they could have included all those details but then the series would have been called “The Revolutionary War: Some Guy Named John Adams Was There” instead of just John Adams. I think it gave a sense of the man, both the second president and, more important to someone like me, the family man trying to work and provide for his loved ones and the life they led together. It gave a sense of personal accomplishment that felt real. It showed his motivations, his failures and things that so many would never have known about the lives that he touched.

    I also completely agree that their inclusion about issues like their oppositions to slavery and women’s suffrage were well done. The only thing they steered clear of, which would have been pretty crucial, was the fact that they were Unitarians. If you read some of the letters between Jefferson and Adams after they reconciled it is wildly obvious, actually.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • Arpee

    I was eagerly waiting for this show, but I gave up 5 minutes into episode 3. The floating camera work that cannot settle in on close shots drove me nuts!! With all the endless list of producers, certainly SOMEONE would have noticed the sloppy camera work. I understand and accept jerky camera moves during a chase scene or other overt action, but when two people are having a quiet conversation over dinner, I don’t understand why the camera has to continually float around as if looking for the correct frame. This floating camera is the reason I never watched “NYPD Blue,” “CSI Miami” and many other shows over the years. These camera operators should be fired. But I am sure they are instructed to do the
    irritating “float.”

  • Arpee

    I was eagerly waiting for this show, but I gave up 5 minutes into episode 3. The floating camera work that cannot settle in on close shots drove me nuts!! With all the endless list of producers, certainly SOMEONE would have noticed the sloppy camera work. I understand and accept jerky camera moves during a chase scene or other overt action, but when two people are having a quiet conversation over dinner, I don’t understand why the camera has to continually float around as if looking for the correct frame. This floating camera is the reason I never watched “NYPD Blue,” “CSI Miami” and many other shows over the years. These camera operators should be fired. But I am sure they are instructed to do the
    irritating “float.”

  • Arpee

    I was eagerly waiting for this show, but I gave up 5 minutes into episode 3. The floating camera work that cannot settle in on close shots drove me nuts!! With all the endless list of producers, certainly SOMEONE would have noticed the sloppy camera work. I understand and accept jerky camera moves during a chase scene or other overt action, but when two people are having a quiet conversation over dinner, I don’t understand why the camera has to continually float around as if looking for the correct frame. This floating camera is the reason I never watched “NYPD Blue,” “CSI Miami” and many other shows over the years. These camera operators should be fired. But I am sure they are instructed to do the
    irritating “float.”

  • Gordon

    Arpee, thank you for the helpful warning about the floating camera. I was looking forward to renting the DVD, but now I won’t waste my money. I agree too many films are shot with an annoyingly wobbly camera (and ditto on NYPD Blue — I hear it was a good show but I found it unwatchable).