The 1980s were the golden age of period miniseries ("The Blue and the Gray," "George Washington"). Broadcast networks don't make them anymore, but HBO does. Good thing, too, otherwise viewers would be deprived of the pay-cable network's excellent, engrossing, seven-part mini, "John Adams" (8-10:45 tonight), based on the book by Point Breeze native David McCullough.
Even for history buffs who know the broad strokes of Adams' story -- and unless you read McCullough's book, odds are you don't know the details of the man's life -- HBO's miniseries manages to create tension even in talky scenes that, if they occurred today, would air live on C-SPAN.
Credit for building drama goes to screenwriter Kirk Ellis ("Into the West") and actor Paul Giamatti ("Sideways"). His intellectual, vain Adams is a reluctant rebel, tentative in his support of an American revolution, wary of insurgency and mob rule and defender of the tenets of American democracy.
- When: 8 tonight, HBO; 9 p.m. subsequent Sundays through April 20.
- Starring: Paul Giamatti.
In tonight's first episode, "Join or Die," Adams is the only lawyer in Boston willing to defend British troops responsible for "the Boston Massacre." While New Englanders see Adams in a dim light for mounting a defense, Adams says simply, "Counsel is the last thing an accused person should lack in a free country."
The second episode, "Independence," focuses on Adams' role in the Continental Congress, introducing other key players, including frisky Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson, Oscar nominee for "Michael Clayton"), soft-spoken George Washington (David Morse) and opinionated Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane).
My only regret is that HBO chose to air two episodes on the miniseries' premiere night. The first episode runs 70 minutes and the second clocks in at 90 minutes, which means "John Adams" may test the patience of even the most devoted fans of intelligent oratory.
But taken on its own, the second episode is a fascinating, detailed account of the politics of the congress, and it's here that viewers really get to hear the power of language. His days of reluctance in the past, Adams works up a full head of steam pressing for American independence after attacks on Lexington and Concord.
"It is one thing to turn the other cheek," Adams says, glaring at Pennsylvania representative John Dickinson (Zeljko Ivanek, "Damages"), who urges restraint. "But to lie down in the grass like a snake and crawl toward the seat of power in abject surrender, is quite another."
The tone becomes lighter in episode three, "Don't Tread On Me" (9 p.m. March 23), as Adams travels to France, where his type-A, all-business personality hampers his diplomatic efforts with the pleasure-minded French.
For all the importance of the Founding Fathers, "John Adams" positions Abigail Adams (Laura Linney, Oscar nominee for "The Savages") as a hugely influential, intelligent Founding Mother. Her relationship with John is the film's centerpiece, even though they're often separated by great distances. Today we might even call what they have a "political partnership."
When John writes his closing statement in the Boston Massacre court case, Abigail demurs: "I would not dream of telling you how to conduct yourself in court." And then she does just that, offering a smart, insightful and ultimately persuasive critique of his self-flattering closing statement. Like any smart husband, John rewrites some, but not all, of his summation.
Director Tom Hooper ("Longford") proves himself a fan of slightly odd, off-kilter shots mixed with extreme close-ups that humanize the characters and bring them down from the textbook pedestal. Hooper doesn't shirk from showing hardships of the era (vaccination and amputation scenes are quite graphic) and Adams' personal sacrifices (years away from his wife and children) for the betterment of the infant country.
"John Adams" may be a historic epic, but it's relevant now. With debates over waterboarding and the indefinite detention of prisoners without due process, it's enlightening to hear the words of this elder statesman.
"Do you approve of brutal and illegal acts to enforce a political principle?" Adams challenges his cousin, Sam Adams (Danny Huston), after a Brit is tarred and feathered.
Or this bit of wisdom: "I am for the law, cousin. Is there another side?"