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Blu-ray Review: John Adams

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Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, the seven-part HBO miniseries John Adams is a fascinating look at the Founding Father and second President of the United States. More than just a history lesson of milestones in his life, the story also tells a love triangle between Adams (Paul Giamatti), his wife Abigail (Laura Linney), and the principles that shaped the country he would help create.

The series opens in 1770 on the night of the Boston Massacre, which epitomized the high tensions between the colonists and the British. John reluctantly defends the British soldiers because he believes every man deserves representation in a free society. The love and respect he and Abigail have for each other is evident as he asks her advice regarding his closing arguments. John is approached about running for office, but declines. However, he is compelled to become more involved in politics when he sees a mob tar and feather a British sailor in the streets.

Part Two opens with the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia as the representatives work to devise a unified course of action. Here, Adams crosses paths with Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), George Washington (David Morse), and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), and he is instrumental in getting the Congress to sign on to the Declaration of Independence. Back in Massachusetts, his family deals with small pox.

Part Three finds Adams traveling Europe seeking aid for the Revolutionary War efforts. Years before France’s revolution, the ruling class is decadent. Franklin immerses himself in the lifestyle while John remains resolute about his purpose and rigid in his behavior, which causes the French to request he leave. He then approaches the Dutch for help. His teenage son John Quincy heads to Russia as a secretary for Francis Dana, the American envoy to Russia.

The Revolutionary War ends in Part Four. John heads to Paris for signing of the peace treaty, and calls for Abigail, who he hasn’t seen in five years, to join him. John is made Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and soon after returning to America is elected the country’s first Vice President because he came in second behind George Washington for President.

Part Five reveals John frustrated in the mostly powerless position as Vice President. He presides over the Senate, but only casts a vote during a tie. Washington does not include John in his Cabinet, but later seeks his counsel as the both France and England struggle to bring the new nation into their conflict. The Adams’ children are grown up and beginning to form their lives. The episode concludes with John’s inauguration as President of the United States.

John’s one Presidential term is explored in Part Six. He finds himself at odds and in between the political struggles of Vice President Jefferson and former Treasury secretary/Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton, both of whom worked to undermine his and his re-election bid. John signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts and kept the country out of an all-out war with France.

John’s retirement and remaining years up to 1826 are covered in the final part. He loses his wife and daughter, sees his son John Quincy elected President, and through correspondence repairs his friendship with Jefferson. The men would die hours apart on July 4th.

It’s easy to see why John Adams was showered with awards. History is brought to life by the amazing talents of the cast and crew. Giamatti creates a believable person, infused with passion and imperfections, intelligence and social awkwardness. He and Linney make the love between John and Abigail palpable in every scene. The production design team did marvelous work from the costumes and sets, and the make-up team did an excellent job aging the actors almost 60 years.

The series has one major flaw and it’s the overuse of the Dutch angle that distracted from the visual presentation of the story. I am surprised no one pulled director Tom Hooper and cinematographers Tak Fujimoto and Danny Cohen aside after seeing the rushes because it was more a distraction than anything else.

The video is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The ornate costumes and production design are vividly detailed and the textures can be clearly seen. Even hair strands on wigs are clearly delineated. The brightness of the colors is limited, mainly the outdoors scenes are where the hues would shine, but that stems from the source material. The red on the British uniforms stands out among the dark earth tones of the colonists, but they aren’t vivid enough to pop off the screen. Instead, they blend within the scene. In most scenes, the faces reveal pores and blemishes, but a couple of instances, it looks like they were smoothed over, possibly through DNR.

The audio is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. At the onset, the wind could be heard whipping though the through the rear speaker. The battle sequences fill the sound system sound, and the cannons pound through the subwoofer. Sounds like closing doors offscreen were placed well. The only issue is some of the whispering was hard to hear and required a louder volume.

Two HBO specials are included as Bonus Features. “Making John Adams” covers different aspects about the production, and “David McCullouh: Painting with Words” focuses on the book’s author.

“Facts Are A Stubborn Thing” and “Who’s Who In History” are two enhanced Blu-ray Features offer pop-up historical information, but they have to be selected together. Normally, I don’t want to be distracted when I watch a film, but for the most part I found these to be very helpful in informing what I was watching. However, some that foretold events that would later be seen in the miniseries could have been cut regardless of the fact that they are events hundreds years old.

While thoroughly engaging, the story of John Adams remains regrettably topical as people the world over continue working to remove the shackles of tyranny and oppression under which they live. While not everything presented is historically accurate, John Adams should engage the viewers and may drive them to history books. Not solely to verify what takes place on screen, but to learn the rich history of what has come before them.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS