Paul Giamatti, center left, and David Morse in the new HBO series <i>John Adams</i>, debuting Sunday night.
It may be a bit of a stretch but just barely to call John Adams the Rodney Dangerfield of early American history.
There probably aren t many people in this country who don t know that men such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington had a hand in the
creation of a new nation back in 1776.
And they ve been widely recognized for their contributions all have their faces on
some form of U.S. currency, and a couple of them are even looking down on us from Mount Rushmore.
But what about their fellow patriot, John Adams? What role, if any, did he play in the
birth of our nation? (And no, he wasn t the guy who made the beer; that was his cousin, Samuel Adams.)
A brilliant new seven-part miniseries on HBO brings the largely unknown story of John Adams vividly to life in a way that history books never have. The series, simply called John Adams, is based on historian David McCullough s 2001 Pulitzer
Prize-winning book, one of the bestselling historical biographies of all time.
Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, the creative team behind the Emmy
Award-winning HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, the new series covers more than 50 years of Adams life, concluding with his death on July 4, 1826.
The first two parts of the HBO miniseries will be shown back-to-back tonight from 8
to 10:45, with the remaining installments on subsequent Sundays beginning at 9 p.m. The story, which is told through the eyes of Adams a n d h i s remarkable
wife, Abigail, reflects the fear and uncertainty surrounding the birth of the American republic.
Today, the success of the revolution against England might seem like a slam dunk, but at the time it was a very risky many called it foolhardy venture against great
odds, a long shot at best.
The portrait that emerges of John Adams is that of a complex and contradictory man. A farmer and lawyer, he was humble, yet very ambitious. And though brilliant and well-read, he could be touchy, vain, and irritable, and he had recurring bouts of
self-doubt and depression.
Though he was no saint, the rule of law was everything to him. He was honest to a fault, and he was also the only one of the Founding Fathers who, as a matter of principle, never owned a slave.
Adams is played in the series by Paul Giamatti (Sideways), who was no doubt chosen for the role because of his considerable acting abilities, but who also bears something of a physical resemblance to his character, who historians tell us was short and dumpy.
His wife was his closest confidant, strong enough to raise their four children on her own during his long absences, and the only one who was able to keep her husband grounded when he sometimes got a little too full of himself. Abigail is
portrayed by Oscar nominee Laura Linney (The Savages).
The young John Adams first gained notoriety following the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770, a deadly street confrontation during which members of an occupying British brigade opened fire on a crowd of colonists who had been pelting them with ice balls and oyster shells.
When the soldiers were arrested and charged with murder, they turned to Adams, known locally as a man of great principle, to defend them.
Though roundly condemned by his friends and neighbors for siding with the bloody British, Adams wound up winning an acquittal for them.
That s just one of many bet-you-didn t-learn-thatin- school moments in the series.
Much of the first two episodes of the miniseries deals with the creation and early sessions of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where Adams served as a delegate from Massachusetts. He developed strong ties there with two other delegates, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane, The Hours) of Virginia and Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton) of Pennsylvania, both of whom would figure prominently in his future, as friends and, at times, political antagonists.
Adams eventually found himself at odds with his more timid colleagues, who wanted nothing more than to avoid conflict by trying to appease Britain s King George III. Some of the more conservative delegates even took to calling the
Massachusetts representatives Boston insurrectionists.
Paul Giamatti, who bears some resemblance to John Adams, in a scene from the seven-part series.
HBO Handout not Blade photo Enlarge
A persuasive orator, Adams gives a powerful speech at one point that helps turn the tide in the Congress. Starting out in a quiet monotone, he s eventually snarling the words of his message.
It is one thing to turn the other cheek, he says, but to lie down on the ground like a
snake and crawl toward the seat of power in abject surrender well, that is quite another thing, and I have no stomach for it.
He later convinces Jefferson to draft the document that would become the Declaration of Independence, then helps Franklin tweak it.
The production is as authentic as any period film in memory.
Much of it was shot at historic Colonial Williamsburg, a 300- acre site in Virginia that features dozens of meticulously restored and furnished buildings dating back to colonial days. And the historical researchers and reenactors at Williamsburg also
served as etiquette consultants to the production, advising the actors how to talk, eat, bow, wear their wigs, and even remove their hats.
Dialogue coaches and experts on regional dialects were brought in to help create the speech patterns used by the actors.
In keeping with the style of the day, speech was more formal, and contractions were
rarely used until the early 19th century.
As the series vividly demonstrates, life in the colonies was not easy, nor was it pretty. A few scenes in early episodes illustrate this point quite graphically.
In one, a customs officer is brutally attacked by colonists, who strip him naked, then douse him with boiling tar and feathers. His screams are agonizing.
At another point, when a smallpox epidemic sweeps through Boston, Abigail makes
the risky decision (of course, John is away at the time) to have her children inoculated. This is done by scraping pus from the wounds of a dying child, then
forcing it into the arms of her children.
It s not a scene for the squeamish.
Subsequent episodes of the series cover Adams time in Europe (where he is appalled at the behavior of the foppish French) and his eventual return to America,
where he becomes the new nation s first vice president and later, its second president.
Along the way, Adams drafts a constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which ends up serving as the model for the U.S. Constitution.
Throughout the series, viewers can see the ongoing balancing act between Adams duty and his ambitions, and between the sacrifices he makes for his country and the neglect of his family. The program entertains as it educates, and in the end, it
leaves little doubt that without John Adams, the history of the United States might have been very different.
In fact, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that were it not for Adams, there might not even be a United States.