The Revolutionary War period looms so large in our national consciousness, it qualifies almost as American mythology, not history. Yet the Founding Fathers have inspired few, if any, worthwhile film or television treatments. Meanwhile the British Crown spawns endless adaptations, with Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Other Boleyn Girl being only the latest. Perhaps the English enjoy an advantage because sex laces so much of royal history. Taxation without representation will never be as compelling as copulation without procreation.
HBO's seven-part "John Adams" miniseries (premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 16) takes some of the petrified polish off Hollywood's usual gloss on American history. Director Tom Hooper recently filmed an "Elizabeth I" miniseries for HBO, and his "John Adams" evokes the sights, smells and even a little of the steam attending the birth of the nation. Alternatively intimate and remote, exciting and overlong, "John Adams" unquestionably torches the safe, textbook approach to bring historical blood and sweat into your living room.
HBO adapts David McCullough's bestselling biography of John Adams, which rehabilitated the reputation of the nation's second president. In the book, Adams comes across as the kind of relentless personality who makes enemies easily, with the show quoting his memorable line, "I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular." Today, you'd find his type not winning elections but working behind the scenes as campaign managers, White House chiefs of staff or movie producers. Casting Paul Giamatti in the role qualifies as a stroke of genius. The superb character actor has seen the likes of George Clooney overshadow his showbiz career, not unlike the way the likes of George Washington eclipse Adams' place in history.
The first of "John Adams'" seven parts finds the then-lawyer literally on the scene of a historical tipping point: the Boston Massacre of 1770. Adams comes across as such a staunch champion of legal rights that he represents the British soldiers who fired on the Boston citizens. Comparable to Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, "John Adams" captures the tense, powder-keg quality of the period. In a chilling sequence, an angry mob strips, tars and feathers a British customs officer, conveying the colonial grievances, the revolutionary mood and the need for a government to prevent chaos.
Giamatti's Adams serves as both a stunned witness to history as well as an engine that drives it. We feel practically inside his skin for Adams' gradual political education at the Continental Congress, his horrified presence during a harrowing sea battle and his nervous meeting as the United States' first official representative to King George III in the fourth episode. Giamatti's performance feels a little imbalanced, however. As in Sideways, he's a master at conveying introspection and low self-esteem – when wigless, his shaved head looks as vulnerable as an egg. We don't see quite as much of the headstrong John Adams. His wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), tells him he's vain, but we see little of the vanity.
Giamatti finds a terrific acting partner in Linney. When Abigail gently but firmly edits his Boston Massacre closing arguments, they perfectly capture the partnership as a marriage of loving equals. Linney raises Abigail above the long-suffering "behind every great man" kind of cliché, grappling with disease and fear of invasion during Adams' long absences. (The show even includes some modest boudoir scenes that inform us that Giamatti has back hair. Thanks for that.)
At times Hooper's direction feels too self-conscious, putting obstructions between the camera and the actors as if working overtime to suggest the perspective of flies on the wall of history. Most of the supporting players provide rich, surprising work. Tom Wilkinson's irascible Ben Franklin captures his wit without being a cutesy sage stereotype, while Stephen Dillane offers an intriguingly inscrutable portrayal of Thomas Jefferson, whetting our appetite for the stormier moments in his relationship with Adams.
Unfortunately, "John Adams'" least persuasive Founding Father is the daddy of them all. As George Washington, David Morse sports an artificial nose and looks remarkably like the face on the dollar bill – if looks were everything, he'd be a shoo-in for an Emmy. But the actor seems intimidated by playing such a towering figure, and comes across not so much as soft-spoken but tentative and indistinct. Paired with Giamatti's pugnacious Adams, George Washington gets upstaged for once.