John Adams was one of the unlikeliest founding fathers, more swept up in the events of the American Revolution than out in front of them. Because of that, he's been an ideal subject for two ground-level studies of how America came to be: David McCullough's epic biography John Adams, and HBO's seven-part, nearly nine-hour adaptation of same. As portrayed by Paul Giamatti on HBO, Adams is a preening neurotic, worried about how his peers perceive him. And yet he's hardly unsympathetic. If anything, Adams' foibles help humanize the radical changes of the late 18th century.
John Adams begins with Adams' defense of the British soldiers involved in the "Boston Massacre" and ends with his death on July 4th, 1826—fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration Of Independence. Screenwriter Kirk Ellis rolls through history in episodic fashion, emphasizing the personality clashes behind such landmark events as the first presidential election and The Alien & Sedition Acts. Meanwhile, director Tom Hooper loads up on askew camera angles, and frequently follows his actors at close range, mapping the spaces where Adams argued for an ordered liberty over "barbarism." John Adams makes the American experiment look fragile and tentative, in the hands of a small group of men who couldn't agree on whether to replicate the culture and government of England or to start over with a clean slate.
The miniseries also feels a little shapeless at times, and could probably have been streamlined without losing its message. But like the best TV, it's compulsively watchable, and in spending over an hour in each key era of Adams' adult life, Hooper encourages viewers to note the changing fashions, the appalling dental hygiene, and the subtlety of the performances by Giamatti and Laura Linney (who plays Adams' wife Abigail). John Adams begins with the eerie, apocalyptic sight of men in wigs marching down muddy streets behind "Join Or Die" banners, and it ends in rooms that look warm and domestic and distinctly American. It travels far over the course of five decades, and yet what's most striking about John Adams is that so much about it—like so much about the nation's history—feels unresolved.
Key features: A lengthy documentary about McCullough's life and career, and a behind-the-scenes featurette that delves into the details of costuming, performance, and digital effects that are so skillfully integrated into the final piece.