"John Adams" DVD Review
June 09, 2008 by Zach Demeter
Debuting on HBO a few short months ago in March, John Adams premiered to much critical acclaim for its detailed and (mostly) accurate portrayal of the United States second president John Adams. The series ran for six weeks, culminating in mid-April with the seventh part airing on April 20th. Those that stuck with the series from its two-part debut were immediately engulfed in not only the character of John Adams but the early years of the nation and the many men, Adams included, that helped sculpt it into a nation of liberty and justice for all.
Based on the Dave McCullough book of the same name, John Adams starts out with John Adams trying of the British soldiers involved with the Boston Massacre. With a victory in that controversial case, Adams moved his way through the ranks, allying himself with the likes of General George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and not only acted as representative in France but also found himself as not only a vice president to George Washington but also the nations second president. Starring Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, John Adams is a superb mini-series that paints the nations second president in a light never before seen.
Admittedly by the third installment of this set I was starting to feel a bit weary of the lengthy installments of the John Adams legacy but by the fourth I realized why. History is one of my favorite subjects and even I can grow weary of it all after awhile and it was probably not wise to watch each installment of this right after the other, as it really was a very talkative and character driven movie, with very little action of any kind to break it up. Thatís not a knock against the mini-series, merely an observation; thatís simply the type of mini-series this was and there was no other way to film it. Itís historically accurate for the most part and the role John Adams played in the shaping of the nation was in no way battlefield oriented, so the most exciting elements youíll find in the film occur with him as a lawyer in the first episode of the series.
Considering itís a character piece, John Adams strongest element is its cast. Giamatti and Linney as the Adams are simply superb and two portray a very believable couple in love. This goes hand-in-hand with the description of their partnership as being one of the ďmost moving love stories in American history.Ē They are the center of the mini-series and they play their parts through the ages flawlessly. Iíve no doubt the story wouldnít have felt as powerful with lesser actors in the lead; itís simply an astounding performance the pair give, both when theyíre apart on the screen and especially when theyíre together. Their reunion in the fourth part of the series is especially pleasing to watch, as itís a mixture of their professional faces as well as the intimate ones they have for each other.
The performances donít stop with Giamatti or Linney, however; David Morse as George Washington, however brief, portrays the role of the quiet general with grace, while Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin carries its own amount of prestige and even a bit of sleaze as he commiserates with the French both at the dinner table and in the bathtub. Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson also plays a hefty role in the film, although he isnít quite as billed as the aforementioned actors. This doesnít make his performance any less impressive, of course, as he boasts enough power on screen to be believable as the third U.S. president as well as a friend to the less outspoken John Adams.
The series is beautifully shot and composed and the music by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli not only fits the period but also evokes emotion out of all of the sequences, whether itís from the painful-to-watch surgery of Abigail ďNabbyĒ Adams or even the mini-series opening score, it all mashes and gels well with the series tone. Without a doubt this mini-series will win awards when the award seasons come around again, as it was superbly well crafted and well done.
Having said all of the above praise, however, I will reiterate that the series is very much a history lesson in every sense. It can become incredibly dry and slow at times if you arenít fully invested in it and even then the relentless strands of dialogue sequences with very little reprieve in-between can become a bit difficult to sit through. But, again, thatís history and thatís what this film accurately portrays; this isnít a glorified, sex and actionized version of John Adams, it is a faithful adaptation of the story of the family of John Adams. Sure a few liberties are taken in a few instances for the sake of storytelling, but nothing that drastically rewrites anything about the man or his family.
After spending so much time with the actors in this world, it was actually rather bittersweet to see the series come to a close. With all of the characters you grew accustomed to over the seven part series each slip away, one after another, it certainly painted a depressing picture toward the end but also one of great pride and happiness. There was little for the Adams family to not be proud of in their time on this Earth and the HBO miniseries attempts to show us just what was so remarkable about this man who helped set the values that shaped America.
Overall the series is best not watched in the course of two days like I watched it (especially since the series, which runs eight hours, was split into two hours in one day and six in the other) and instead should be spread out further. Still, that was a mistake I made, but it doesnít make this series anything less of a modern classic. Recommended.
John Adams arrives from HBO Home Video in handsome gold foil packaging with fold out digi-pak trays in a sturdy cardboard surrounding. Say what you will about HBO Home Videoís high prices on their DVD releases (although this set is currently priced at $38.99 on Amazon as of this writing, which is very reasonable for this release), but they certainly know how to package them! The foldout digi-pak trays all boast a series of images behind them and disc art that mimics one another. A sturdy rear description of the set detaches from the back (itís simply shrink-wrapped next to the back; no sticky glue required) and fits comfortably inside the casing, alongside a coupon for free admission (buy one, get one) to the Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, VA.
Technical specifications for the set are respectable; an anamorphic 16x9 image is paired with an English 5.1 track, as well as an alternative Spanish 2.0 track with English, French and Spanish subtitles. The video transfer can look a big fuzzy and grainy at times, but the opening segment of the film with Adams against a snowy and dark background is quite the visual to open the miniseries with. In addition later parts feature beautiful images of the Adams ranch, although none of it quite as a real crispness or depth to it. It doesnít look as good as one would hope, but aside from the touch of haziness, itís a strong transfer all around. The audio is, as expected, a largely front focused track although the court room and congress segments do fill the surrounds on more than one occasion.
Moving onto the extras we have very little to check out. Each of the episodes feature a ďFacts are Stubborn ThingsĒ pop-up trivia track that fill the viewer into the historical background of certain elements of the film, both about the Adams family but also about incidental characters or world events that only get a passing reference. If you arenít up on your history then these can be beneficial, although they do get to be a tad bit intrusiveÖespecially in the first part of the series. I almost shut them off because one was popping up every few minutes it seemed, but by the second part they went from excessive to almost not enough, as their appearance greatly faded after the first part. Subsequent parts had the same element; it didnít pop up as frequently and instead of seemingly giving the viewer a crash course into Adams life, they instead focused on the passing references and future of some event or individual that wouldnít be seen in the mini-series. At times I felt them beneficial, as I didnít feel quite so lost in the historical events that were going on at certain periods (itís been a long while since Iíve been in a history class and this specific time period was never my strongest point), so if youíre feeling a bit overwhelmed by the time period it might be a good idea to switch these on. First time Iíve actually found one of these trivia tracks useful!
The other extras on the set arenít quite as useful and instead fall more towards the entertaining side. "Painting with Words: A Rare and Personal Glimpse at the Life and Works of Author David McCullough" (39:11) is a documentary on the McCullough, the author who original wrote the book that this miniseries was adapted from. Heís very frank in his discussions about his works and life and overall it makes for an interesting interview. Itís a nice, meaty look at the manís body of work and the near forty minute run time really benefits the subject matter.
"The Making of John Adams" (29:11) is a simple making-of for the miniseries and features plenty of cast and crew interviews as well as behind-the-scenes footage. This extra, as with the McCullough extra, are both presented in anamorphic widescreen and actually boast better video quality than the miniseries at times. Having said that this making-of doesnít quite feel like the usual fluff piece, simply because this isnít the type of production that I think the actors and crew felt like they had to shill and play nice with. Itís a historical piece and as such everyone is free to talk about their characterizations of the historical figures that fill this film, so thereís little pressure to talk about how wonderful everything was.
Overall the extras are a tad on the light side, but in this case quality over quantity is a great way to talk about them as theyíre all very much worth watching and checking out. While I doubt this mini-series has much of a chance to be watched more than once by an individual, this set still comes Recommended. The price point and seven part miniseries will take awhile to get through and may end up resulting in just as many rental fees as it would to simply purchase the set.
John Adams arrives on DVD on June 10th