HBO’s ‘John Adams’ slogs through history
Like a declaration of war against any contenders at this year’s Emmys, HBO’s “John Adams” arrives Sunday, with a cast far beyond the standards of mere mortal television -- Paul Giamatti! Laura Linney! Tom Wilkinson! -- and production values of Spielbergian proportions. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David McCullough, it follows, in seven episodes, the adult life of the man often considered the most influential and, ironically, least well-known of our country’s founders. It is gorgeous, precise and at times poetic.
If only it were more interesting.
I feel like a heretic writing those words, but there they are and I won’t take them back. Historical drama, if it is any good, always serves two masters -- story and period detail. In that order. Unfortunately, so smitten are the creators of “John Adams” with historical earnestness and pedigree they seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story. Which is pretty astonishing considering what a great story it is to tell. Love, war, sex, politics, danger, betrayal, depraved foreign courts, postal issues -- the life of John Adams has it all, and a short, bristling, ill-tempered but still brilliant and yes, sexy, protagonist to boot. A Colonial “House” without the Vicodin addiction.
Yet writer Kirk Ellis and director Tom Hooper seem determined, especially in early episodes, to make it not so. Zealously illuminating the often ghastly nature of the times and “real” temperaments of these famous men and women -- arrogant, exhausted, plagued by fears and insecurities, often physically beset -- they get mired in historic detail and hobble their characters, who become as one-dimensional in their failings as they are so often portrayed in their patriotism.
Yes, it’s interesting, if a bit gruesome, to see early smallpox vaccinations, but not if the price is rendering Abigail Adams mopey and Thomas Jefferson tedious. Which takes some doing.
Things improve in Episodes 3 and 4, but from the moment it opens, “John Adams” is passionate only in its determination to deglamorize the American Revolution. We meet our main character as he defends the British troops involved in the famous Boston Massacre, successfully arguing that they were hectored into firing by a group of miscreants intent on setting off a bloody incident. Giamatti’s Adams is not likable, nor is he meant to be. Grouchy and vain, principled yet sanctimonious, he abhors the way King George III treats the Colonies, but he will not stoop to acts of violence to protest it (a horrifying sequence involved a man being tarred and feathered bolsters his point quite effectively). It is difficult to figure out what, exactly, John Adams wants, except constant reassurance that he is smarter than the average guy. Certainly it isn’t his wife, Abigail (Linney), whose main job seems to be to tease her husband into a better humor by reminding him that his intelligence is so superior he need not be constantly reminding people of it.
The chemistry between Linney and Giamatti is less than zero, even by New England standards, and as for sexual frisson, there is none. It’s too bad, not only because John and Abigail are among history’s great love stories, but because a little sexiness would have gone a long way in firing things up.
With her dimples and sharp chin, Linney makes a very comely Abigail, but she too is laden down with “realism” -- when she isn’t getting her children inoculated for smallpox or up to her elbows in mud, she spends far too much time staring out the window, complaining that her husband doesn’t write her enough, like some mob-capped desperate housewife.
Eventually, of course, Adams becomes a representative to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he is among the first to argue for a complete break with Britain. What precisely has changed his mind, or how this decision has changed him as a man, we will never know, because Giamatti portrays Adams with grim consistency as more irritated than passionate, more concerned with his standing among his peers in history than in the creation of democracy.
It is hard to say a word against Giamatti, because we all loved him so much in “Sideways,” yet he never quite captures the complexities of his subject. Yes, it is true that Adams was arrogant and testy, but he was also witty, passionate and compelling, a man who could, and did, persuade people to do things they didn’t want to do.
Like start a revolution. Of that Adams, we get only the rarest glimpse. Giamatti has the tantrums, the principles and the self-absorption down pat, but he never finds the divine spark. It’s as if he is loath to play Adams as a leading man, despite the name of the miniseries.
Indeed, a strange flatness permeates the entire cast and certainly that Congress. With Wilkinson trying to decide whether Ben Franklin was a vaudevillian or a canny politico, and Stephen Dillane’s Jefferson given nothing much to do, it is hard not to long for the song-and-dance numbers from “1776" just to have something to watch. Only David Morse radiates anything like charisma, but then as George Washington he is allowed to tower and wear a cool uniform (though I’m not sure what’s up with his mouth -- is he going for the false teeth thing?).
Things pick up a bit in the third episode when Adams goes to France, where his Yankee frankness is not appreciated (and a bloodier revolution is still a few years away), and then as he takes his place in the nascent government. Giamatti’s air of resigned irritation makes more sense at this point, and the narrative becomes more concerned with actual story than making certain that you, slothful television viewer, feel the proper gratitude for being a citizen of the 21st century.
There are, of course, some wonderful and moving moments in the first and second episodes. The confused exhilaration after the battles at Lexington and Concord, the what-now? silence that falls over the Congress when the Declaration has passed, the smoky glare of the Battle of Bunker Hill viewed from the Adamses’ farm -- these images beautifully capture both the mundane and the extraordinary and how they conspired to make history. In those moments you see what the filmmakers were striving for and may make “John Adams” worth watching, severe disappointment notwithstanding.
Certainly no one could argue with the production values. If “John Adams” doesn’t make you feel like you-are-there (in Colonial Boston, aboard a heaving ship, among the doomed French aristos), then you need a bigger TV. But for such a glorious production to work true magic, you have to want to be there. And the roiling implacable gut-wrenching force of desire is something this “John Adams” strangely, and sorely, lacks.
When: Part 1, 8 to 9:10 p.m.; Part 2, 9:10 to 10:45 p.m. Sunday; regular time 9 p.m. Sundays
Rating: Part 1: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14); Part 2: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)