Are there two more hackneyed or conventional genres than the historical drama and the biopic? The former is often thinly-veiled nostalgia and political ideology, and the latter is rarely more than egotistical awards-baiting. Both are packed full of manipulative dross, with a handful of uniquely interesting, mould-breaking exceptions. Thankfully, the HBO mini-series biopic of John Adams is one of those happy few.
The set up is prime material for partisan misrepresentation. John Adams, a Massachussets lawyer, falls in with the revolutionaries, helping form the continental army, draft the Declaration of Independence, and finally takes the seat of Vice President in the first US government. However, instead of shooting straight for sappy patriotism, the team behind John Adams, headed by director Tom Hooper, craft something that is serious, complex, and nourishing. The depth and scope afforded by the series’ 7 (over an hour long) episodes is immediately impressive, as the focus, style and chronology develops, shifts and progresses throughout.
The first episode, for example, titled Join or Die, is at heart an 18th century courtroom drama. Adams is the only lawyer who would represent the British soldiers who fired the shots that caused the Boston Massacre. This is much to the frustration of the revolutionaries – such as John’s cousin, Samuel Adams – who want to make a stand against the British. John, however, is conflicted between his pride in his people, the heavy taxation of the British and his commitment to the law. Already, the series is filled with complicated motivations and clashing ideals. The British are not stereotyped monsters, and neither are the revolutionaries whitewashed paragons.
This sense of division and disunity becomes an important theme throughout the series, as Adams and his Massachusetts colleagues fight an uphill struggle to convince the other colonies to join in their pledge for independence. The whole span is drawn from reputable stock, being based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical biography. Indeed, the anchoring of the story to Adams’ life allows the series to deviate from tried-and-tested War of Independence storylines, as he is sent to Europe on diplomatic duty, thereby missing the vast majority of the war. This helps to sidestep moments of flag-waving schmaltz, and instead opens up the series’ focus to stretch to satirically present the decadent ceremony of the French court, or the business-savvy dealings of the Dutch.
As it is, the series is educational and informative, displaying great amounts of research, and a meticulous approach to period detail. Of course, that is not to say it is perfect, as there are still forays into dramatic license (wiki link), but the DVD producers have the guts to include a ‘Facts are Stubborn Things’ visual track, which acts as an ongoing, on-screen commentary on the story’s context, touching on the finer points of 18th century wig-making, or early inoculation methods for pox.
But to call John Adams a wooden period drama would be grossly underselling its engaging, effective quality. The central performance by Paul Giamatti is not on the barn-storming scale usually adopted by actors assuming historical roles. The John Adams on view here is an interesting proposition nonetheless – a founding father overshadowed by his companions, a fiercely intellectual, wise and moral man who is in equal parts humble and vain. He is a patriot, but his quest for peaceful equilibrium manifests as flim-flam weakness in the face of the stronger personalities of the time.
These other men, the more familiar names of history, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, all appear. Interestingly they are built up across episodes, from near-cameos to fully-rounded characters. The third episode is all Franklin’s; Tom Wilkinson plays the famous inventor-satirist-statesman as a larger-than-life comic figure, magnetic in his charm and wit. In contrast, Stephen Dillane’s Jefferson and David Morse’s Washington are subtle, internalised roles. The former, in particular, is outright entrancing in his philosophical idealism and keen intelligence. Eclipsing all these great men and their great deeds, however, is Abigail Adams, played wonderfully by Laura Linney. To her husband she is counsellor, advisor and soul-mate; her attempts to raise a young family during the years of war are some of the series most affecting and tender moments. It is a strong role, and provides an empathetic, powerful framework for the story.
Hooper’s direction is sumptuous and versatile; the shifts from sweeping dolly-shots to intimate handheld and steadicam, plus the realistic focus on emulating natural light, manage to communicate the series’ discordant form of revolution and government, and its mixing of the personal and the political. A major mis-step, though, is to be found in Robert Lane and Joseph Vitarelli’s score. Initially fitting in its incorporation of early American folk-song and orchestral motifs, it eventually settles back into Hans Zimmer-style melodrama, bluster and bombast, often jarring with the even-handed, complex narrative.
John Adams is a wholesome meal. It is a character-driven tour through over 50 years of crucial American history, told with style and intelligence. Full of hope in the potential of democracy, yet still aware of the dangers of division and the reality of political affairs, it is also unavoidably relevant.
Extras Besides the ‘Facts Are Stubborn Things’ visual track, which is insightful and eye-opening, there is a featurette and a documentary. However, the review copy only came with the first two discs of this 3 DVD set, which held neither of these additional features.