John Adams
Credit: Kent Eanes

You’d have to be a heartless Commie bastard not to enjoy HBO’s seven-part miniseries John Adams. Paul Giamatti, with his expressive potato face and perennial look of frowning aggrievement, stars as Adams. As Giamatti interprets him, Adams seems both intelligent and ordinary enough to pass as all the things he truly was: a shrewd lawyer, a nettlesome Continental Congress debater, a huffy ambassador to France, and, eventually, the second President of the United States. You’ll feel goose bumps of pride when you hear bits of the Declaration of Independence being read aloud during the second installment. The production makes high drama of the tart copyediting done by Ben Franklin (Michael Clayton‘s Tom Wilkinson, so wily) on the Declaration prose of Thomas Jefferson (The Hours‘ Stephen Dillane, beautifully moody): Jefferson leans toward holding certain inalienable rights as being ”sacred and undeniable,” but foxy, irreligious Franklin says flatly that this wording ”smacks of the pulpit” and suggests the pithier ”self-evident.” Eureka! And thus held in our memories forevermore.

The miniseries, based on the best-seller by David McCullough and directed with a minimum of fuss by Tom Hooper (Longford), makes its strongest secondary figure Adams’ wife, Abigail, played with iron-willed delicacy by Laura Linney. Abigail oversees a rustic household and raises four kids through a smallpox epidemic while Adams is off liberating the colonies…and yet still manages to get herself over to France and be gussied up in a knockout wig and powdered makeup for a fancy party or two. She also advises Adams on his legal opinions and can tote a rifle. (Clearly, what this country needs is a feature-film franchise based on the Little House on the Prairie books, with Linney as Laura’s mother.)

This being HBO, clichés come alive in a graphic way: We see a British tea importer literally tarred and feathered. Wilkinson has to work many of Ben Franklin’s familiar aphorisms into his conversation, which could have sounded stilted. However, Wilkinson’s tossed-off yet energetic line readings of ”Fish and guests stink after three days” and his ”hang together or hang separately” motto drive home what a memorable rascal Franklin was. The naked bath-with-French-mistress scene doesn’t hurt either.

And as George Washington, David Morse’s (House) resemblance is uncanny. While at first I thought the actor was doing a lot of unnecessary jaw wiggling, it finally occurred to silly me: Of course, he’s having trouble with his 18th-century teeth! And then I wondered, When did he get those fabled wooden choppers installed?

Who says TV doesn’t make history thought-provokingly exciting? A-

John Adams
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