John Adams

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Jun 08, 2009
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Tom Hooper

Release Date(s)

2008 (June 16, 2009)

Studio(s)

Playtone (HBO)

Review

I confess I haven’t read the David McCullough book upon which this production is based, but I have read McCullough’s 1776.  I found that work to be an exceptionally detailed and insightful historical account, and it’s one I recommend to anyone interested in the early history of the United States.  So when I learned that Tom Hanks and HBO intended to produce McCullough’s John Adams as a seven-episode miniseries, I was eager for its arrival.  Then I forgot about the production for months, until one day I happened to see the poster announcing its debut in the post office of all places.  I ordered HBO high-definition service just to view John Adams in the highest possible quality, and I’m glad I did.  Each Sunday night for a month I was simply riveted by this miniseries.

John Adams, as you should know, was the second President of the United States.  The larger significance of his role in history is often overshadowed by his peers however, particularly George Washington and his friends Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.  But a closer examination of history reveals that Adams (along with Jefferson) was very much the intellectual father of American independence, and his efforts were the glue that held the early States together.  Though he was the first President to actually inhabit the White House, his term was terribly unpopular at the time.  Nevertheless, he was able to keep his country from becoming embroiled in a war with France in 1798, which might have torn the nascent democracy apart.

The cast of this production is exceptional across the board, in particular Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as his dear council and wife, Abigail.  I’ve always liked Giamatti, but he truly shines here.  Great care was taken towards historical accuracy, right down to the lack of make-up and the bad teeth, which makes this performance all the more brave and honest, especially in high-definition.  When I reviewed this miniseries on DVD, I commented that if both Giamatti and Linney didn’t win Emmys for these roles, it’d be a shame.  Well, no shame here: Both DID win (for Best Actor and Actress in a Miniseries) along with the series itself.  Also good are Tom Wilkinson as Franklin, the understated Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and especially David Morse, who embodies Washington so completely it’s striking.

Also surprising here is the exceptional quality of the miniseries’ visual effects work.  Very often, you’ll be seeing an effects shot without ever realizing it.  For example, there’s a scene in which Adams and Franklin are entering a palace in Europe, where they’re walking up a set of stairs in a great hall.  The hall itself is completely digital, but you’d never know that until you view the making-of featurette on this set.  The blending of digital and practical elements here is just superb.

John Adams was intended to be seen in high-definition, and HBO’s long-awaited Blu-ray edition delivers that in spades.  Presented in full 1080p resolution (1.78:1 aspect ratio), the image offers terrific fine detail in everything from fabric textures (apparent on the waving flag right from the start) to skin blemishes.  Color is excellent if subdued due to the production design (appropriate to the era) and contrast is also quite good.  The sound mix has been upgraded to DTS-HD MA lossless, and it’s a wonderfully smooth and natural mix, with great clarity and active use of the surrounds for ambient sound.  As was the case with the DVD, I’m particularly pleased by the presentation of music in the mix.  The score, by Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli, is at times both stirring and lovely.  The series’ theme, which I think of as Don’t Tread on Me because you can hear those words quoted in the music, gives me chills every time I hear it.  Any way you slice it, the Blu-ray is a significant improvement over the previous DVD edition in terms of A/V quality.

The Blu-ray version retains all of the DVD bonus material.  You get all the Previously on John Adams episode recaps, a BD-Java updated version of the on-screen historical guide (Facts are Stubborn Things) that offers pop-up contextual information during each episode, and two short documentaries (David McCullough: Painting with Words and The Making of John Adams), both now in full HD.  The former runs about 40 minutes, and is a profile of McCullough’s life and work.  I think you’ll enjoy watching it – it’s real a charmer.  The latter is about 30 minutes long, and is a more straightforward look behind the scenes at the making of this miniseries (the special effects segment in particular will surprise you, I think).  Available exclusively on the Blu-ray is an additional BD-Java viewing option (Who’s Who in History), which offers additional pop-up biographical details.  As was the case with the DVD, the packaging for the set is an embossed metallic foil box containing the three Blu-rays.  The menus feature tasteful program footage, with music and sound effects from the series.

Though it arrives fully a year after the DVD version, this Blu-ray set was well worth the wait.  I’ll tell you, every time I pop in these discs to check one thing or another, I end up getting sucked in and watching the whole episode.  This miniseries really is that good. John Adams is exceptional television, finally presented the way it was meant to be seen on Blu-ray.  It’s simply not to be missed.  Very highly recommended.

- Bill Hunt

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