HBO's "John Adams" does its viewers a great service in depicting the sometimes ugly reality of the early years of the United States. It also features several great performances, including Paul Giamatti in the title role, and its period details are spot-on.
It also tends to linger on those little details, which makes for a rather sluggish pace, particularly in the first part of Sunday's premiere (parts one and two air back-to-back, and three through seven will air on subsequent Sundays). And, it must be said, the prickly, puritanical John Adams is not the easiest guy to like.
Viewers who get through that early pokiness, though, will find a lot to like in the performances of Giamatti and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and of the dramatization of the turbulent early years of the republic as seen through Adams' eyes.
Based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (which itself is sometimes excruciatingly detailed), "John Adams" covers 50 years in the life of the man who would become the country's second president. It opens in 1770, when the 34-year-old Adams successfully defends the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre -- establishing right off the bat that Adams was not one to bend his principles to fit popular sentiment.
The trial also establishes a less endearing feature of Adams' personality: He knew he was often the smartest man in the room, and he wasn't shy about letting others know it as well. Throughout the four episodes that HBO sent out for review, Giamatti plays Adams as sorely lacking in the interpersonal skills that make for a successful politician; the fact that he succeeds at all is testament to the power of his ideas and the force with which he presented them.
His skills as an advocate become more obvious in part two of the miniseries, most of which is devoted to the second Continental Congress and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Director Tom Hooper ("Longford") and writer Kirk Ellis ("Into the West") manage to take scenes that are, essentially, a bunch of guys arguing and make them riveting, partly because the actual debate was about as far as you can get from the "Schoolhouse Rock" version of history that we learn as kids. Maybe the best scene in any of the first four parts shows the silence that falls over the room when the delegates finally vote for independence and the enormity of what they've done begins to sink in.
"John Adams" is at its best, though, when Giamatti and Linney are on screen together (which are too infrequent in parts two and three, when Adams is engaged in affairs of state). The way Linney plays Abigail Adams -- a woman of fierce intelligence and strong opinions, and probably her husband's most trusted adviser -- it's clear that John is punching above his weight in their relationship. It's also intriguing to watch the ways in which Abigail manages to take part in political discourse and to observe the relative equality of their relationship -- especially given the era in which it takes place. Even in contemporary stories, you don't often see a couple portrayed as partners to the degree that the Adamses were.
The miniseries is peopled up and down with fantastic actors, including Zeljko Ivanek ("Damages") as congressional delegate John Dickinson, David Morse (in some pretty good makeup) as George Washington, Stephen Dillane ("King Arthur") as Thomas Jefferson and Danny Huston ("Children of Men") as Samuel Adams.
Best of all, though, is Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton"), who plays Ben Franklin as an incorrigible thorn in many sides, willing to both play to and undercut people's expectations of him. Early on, his lines are a little heavy with the Franklin aphorisms -- "Fish and visitors smell in three days" and the like -- but Wilkinson handles it all magnificently, never losing the twinkle in Franklin's eye.
Other critics have taken issue with the casting of Giamatti, the go-to actor for rueful, shlubby Everyman roles, apparently thinking him insufficiently presidential. In reading and watching "John Adams," though, that seems to be part of the point: Here was a man who wasn't a part of the aristocracy or merchant class, who had no flair for diplomacy and could be a stern and distant father. That Giamatti should play him seems just about right.
As was the case with HBO's last historical epic, "Band of Brothers," "John Adams" looks and sounds authentic, right down to the powdered wig that keeps slipping off Adams' head. (Both were executive produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's Playtone.) When the atmosphere is so richly detailed, it informs the performances and makes the whole exercise that much more believable. Pacing issues aside, "John Adams" works very well in evoking both the man and the country he helped build.