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Review: John Adams (2008)

John Adams (2008)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

Premise: An adaptation of David McCullough’s book. The film is a mini-series of the life of John Adams (Paul Giamatti), the second president of the United States. The film follows Adams from his participation in the American Revolution through his presidency and to his retirement years.

What Works: John Adams is an excellent biopic. The film balances between the micro and macro levels of the story by showing the events through Adams’ point of view. As a result, the film is able to give a rounded and complete view of history, incorporating many of the major events of the revolution, such as the Boston Massacre and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and using them as a backdrop for the immediate, intimate story of Adams’ family and his political career. One of the great elements of the film is its portrayal of the relationship between Adams and his wife, Abigail (Laura Linney). Their marriage does a lot to humanize Adams through humor and intimacy and Adams’ ongoing and turbulent relationship with his sons also grounds the drama in something that is much more immediate and accessible to the viewer. As a historical dramatization, John Adams does a great job of taking the Founding Fathers and presenting these men in such a way that the film reinterprets the culture’s myths and beliefs about these historical figures, making them much more human and allowing us to see ourselves in them. Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) is presented as an adept politician who is very much Adams’ opposite in his willingness to play political games even if they come at some cost to others. George Washington also figures prominently and David Morse plays him as a quiet and reserved man of the highest integrity but ultimately a flawed politician. Stephen Dillane plays Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with Adams is the most interesting with the biggest rises and falls in temperament as the two men differ greatly on how the republic should be run and their political aspirations force them to become rivals. Aside from all of the character work, John Adams also works as a historical film by capturing the flavor of life at the time and portraying the revolution and the culture as brutal and difficult. Like Ken Burns’ documentary The War, the film is able to dismiss the sense of inevitability that often kills suspense in these kinds of films and makes it clear that the revolutionaries could have lost the war. As a result, the film is able to convey an appreciation for the work of these men and maintain the dramatic tension of the story. John Adams demonstrates one of the great opportunities of historical filmmaking: the chance to recreate history in a way that brings the audience closer to the events of history and provide an understanding of where we have come from. 

What Doesn’t: Some of the later episodes in the series are lighter on action or intensity and take a more contemplative tone. That tone works for what is going on in the film, but they require more effort on the part of the viewer than the high tension and action of earlier episodes.

DVD extras: Featurettes and a historical guide.

Bottom Line: John Adams is a terrific piece of historical filmmaking. The film is long but even for those who do not normally watch historical fiction it is a very rewarding and well produced piece of work.

Episode: #218 (December 14, 2008)