John Adams mini series standard DVD review - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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post #1 of 5 Old 08-05-08, 06:46 AM Thread Starter
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Richard W. Haines
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John Adams mini series standard DVD review

I didn't purchase the HBO box set of this mini-series. My parents got it and
wanted to watch it so we did. It's anamorphically enhanced standard definition
in the 16:9 ratio with 5.1 stereo sound.

It took a few days to get through the 7 episodes and I had reservations about
it prior to screenings. If I was going to cast this picture, the last candidate I would
consider to play our second President would've been Paul Giamatti. I had seen
him in other films like "Saving Private Ryan" and "Cinderella Man" and thought he
had a whiny voice and comical looking face.

Well I was certainly surprised. It turned out to be a casting coup and Giamatti
turned in a performance so good that it's hard not to think of Adams as a person
outside of this characterization. The same applies for other unlikely actors
including David Morse as Washington (under heavy make up and a false nose)
and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin. Both were superb in their portrayals.
Laura Linney as Abigail and Stephen Dillane as Jefferson were more logical choices
and they also excelled in their roles.

When dealing with the Founding Fathers and Presidents Hollywood took specific approaches
in the past. One tendency was to fawn over them and make them seem like flawless Saints
(Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln"). Another approach was a Post-Modern
Deconstructionist slant where their flaws out numbered their attributes (Nick Nolte in
"Jefferson in Paris") as if to suggest America had no credibility as a democratic republic
because the men that created it weren't perfect.

Neither one was historically nor politically accurate. Writer David McCullough's historical
'novels' like "1776" and "John Adams" took the most enlightened approach. Our Founding
Fathers were politicians and severely flawed as people but through trial and error and
lots of arguing and debating they created a template for a new form of self government
based on a cynical view of politics derived from their unique Western history.
Rather than attempt to create a new type of 'utopia' (which always results in a dystopia as communists, fascists and other statists proved in the last century), they developed a system of limited government with checks and balances within the guidelines of Natural Law. Natural Law consisted of 'self evident' rights that were granted by the Creator rather than a government that might legislate them away as was the case of King George and the colonies.

McCullough was originally going to write a book about Jefferson, Washington and Adams
then decided to focus on the latter since he was the least known and respected of
our first three Presidents. Both the book and movie executive produced by Tom Hanks
retain the book's flavor and show Adams as a great man but a troubled individual. Warts
and all. It's unlikely that we would've won our independence from England without him. However both Washington and Jefferson play critical roles within the narrative
as does Benjamin Franklin.

The film ecompasses Adam's early career as an attorney in pre-Revolutionary colonial
America and includes his successful defense of the British soldiers
during the Boston massacre. It then focusses on the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence and his less illustrious career as a diplomat in France and England. His thorny single term Presidency follows and the final disc contains his later years as a forgotten politician and final reconciliation with rival and
friend Jefferson. While his relationship with Abigail was one of the great partnerships
and romances of the time, his cruel behavior with the rest of his family is also examined
including his heartless rejection of an alcoholic son and disillusionment with his ambitious
son in law. He certainly wouldn't win any 'father of the year' award.

One question no one can now answer is what the Founding Fathers sounded like. Since
they were British, did they have British accents? Or did they have regional ones depending on what colony they resided in. The director, Tom Hooper, dealt with the issue in an ingenious manner. He gave each character a specific accent depending on their status and background. Giamatti and Linney had very slight British accents since they were farmers. Stephen Dillane who has a British accent retains a more pronounced one which suited Jefferson's elitist and philosophical personality. David Morse as Washington utilized a husky and down to earth voice which was at times humble and other times commanding. Tom Wilkinson had the strangest accent as Franklin which sounded a bit rustic, like Davy Crockett. While we'll never know if this is accurate, it seemed to suit each character and they made it work within the context of the narrative.

While the entire series is very well acted if not riveting, they vary in terms of mood
and interest. Certainly the first few episodes are the most fascinating when dealing
with the Revolution. Morse is superb as Washington. Exactly how you would expect
him to be as a man and politician. Wilkinson steals every scene he's in as an aging
and wise rogue. The funniest scene is when Adams in one of his volatile tantrums
storms in to see Franklin in Paris and discovers him playing chess naked in a tub
with a French woman. Adams covers his eyes in embarassment while Franklin
nonchalantly converses with him as if nothing is wrong. I guess one of the problems
with the film is that since it's from Adam's perspective, you miss these characters
when they die off screen and just disappear from the story. I would've liked some
reactions by Giamatti to the loss of these critical figures but it's not contained in the

The Presidency of Adams is chronicled and other than keeping the country
out of a pending war with France (urged by partisans in Congress), it was not
only unremarkable but full of severe mistakes. Adams is put under pressure to prepare
for a possible war and foolishly signs the "Alien and Sedition Act" which called for the deportation of Americans of French descent which was a blatant violation of civil rights. He also didn't have the thick skin required for a chief executive and tried to censor the press when they were critical of him. There is an excellent sequence depicting his falling out with Jefferson over these bills which the Vice President argued were at odds with the
Constitution and Bill of Rights. Of course Jefferson himself had a lot of baggage
with his opposition to but economic dependence on slavery. To his credit, Adams was defiantly anti-Slavery and utilized hired hands on his farm or did the work himself with his
family. Abigail is portrayed as an early feminist by Linney and seemed a bit
too contemporary at times but was accurate in spirit.

The last disc of the movie is a real downer with all of the key figures dying
horrible deaths. Adams daughter gets breast cancer, Abigail has a stroke
and he dies miserably on the 4th of July simultaneously with Jefferson.

The cinematography, set design and CGE are good but low key. This is not
a series with bright colors. It has an overall drab and dark look. There are
scenes with little detail and only a candle for illumination. They shot
in real Williamsburg but the rest of the film was a combination of partial sets
and the rest filled in with computer imagery. I always notice computer generated
effects but they seem to work better in period settings than contemporary ones
probably because you expect less realism. They're fine here and there were only a few instances of digital artifacts.

Curiously, there is a fair amount of graphic gore and grisly images in many episodes.
Some of it is the kind of stuff you'd find in a splatter film. You'll see limbs getting blown
away or sawed off, people being bled which was the remedy for illness back then,
puss filled sores on Small Pox victims with a gruesome innoculation procedure with
young children and most disturbing of all, breast cancer surgery. Those with weak stomachs should be warned about these scenes. Even I was grossed out at times and
I've filmed these type of sequences in my own horror movies.

Aside from that, they accurately depict the ravages of age before the 20th Century when modern medicine was created. People's teeth rotted out and surgeons made their incisions with bare hands without anastesia while the patient screamed in agony.

The stereo sound is good although you may have to ride the center channel
dialogue track. There are many scenes when actors whisper to each other
or speak in a very low throaty voice which I had to strain to hear
above the background noise or music on the other channels. Then in another
scene they'll be shouting at each other in Congress. I would've preferred
a more even recording for this channel.

The suppliments are somewhat disappointing for such an important series.
There's a generic 'making of' documentary which has a few short interviews
with the actors so you can what they look and sound like outside of their accents and
make up but nothing of interest is revealed in their portrayals of these
characters. There's also a piece about David McCullough but
other than the fact that he still types on an electric typewriter with
two fingers, it's not too interesting either. On top of that, much of
the segment shows him singing off key on a piano which was not only
irrelevant but annoying. I wanted more details of how he wrote these
historical novels and the passion he had for the subjects. It's not there
in this puff piece which is not to discredit him as an author. McCullough
is an excellent writer, just not a good interviewee.

Other than the above provisos about the amount of gore and soundtrack
problems, I highly recommend this series to history buffs and anyone
who likes a good story. You get a much better sense of what times
were like back then and the fact that you see our early Presidents
as human beings rather than Saints will allow you to relate to them better
and appreciate our Republic and what it took to create it.

P.S. The volume problem of the center dialogue track in 5.1 mixes
caused me to put that channel on a separate stereo so I could
adjust it without altering the level of the left/right/rear left/rear right
and subwoofer tracks which are on another other amplifier. While
it's possible to alter each channel within my main amp it's easier just
to play with the knob for the volume on a separate one.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-06-08 at 05:05 AM.
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post #2 of 5 Old 08-05-08, 12:19 PM
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Re: John Adams mini series standard DVD review

Thanks for the review Richard...I've heard good things about this series.
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post #3 of 5 Old 08-05-08, 12:25 PM Thread Starter
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Re: John Adams mini series standard DVD review


Check it out. It's not a ponderous history lesson like the earlier
"Adams Chronicles" from the seventies but a real drama and entertaining.
Don't watch it while having dinner however. Some of it is quite gross.
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post #4 of 5 Old 08-05-08, 12:33 PM
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Re: John Adams mini series standard DVD review

Don't watch it while having dinner however. Some of it is quite gross.
I guess it wouldn't be HBO without a little explicit content....
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post #5 of 5 Old 08-05-08, 12:53 PM Thread Starter
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Re: John Adams mini series standard DVD review


I agree and I believe they are filling in the gap that used to exist
in movies when more than half of the releases were rated R for graphic
sex and violence. Today, the demographics of moviegoers are such that
the vast majority of releases are within the PG/PG-13 category so HBO
creates product in the R rated category for adults rather than movies
for the 16-26 demographic that attend megaplexes.
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