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page added: 6/9/08

John Adams
2008 (2008) - Playtone (HBO)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

DVD review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

John Adams

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Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C+

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 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 the miniseries' 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 many should know, was the second President of the United States. The significance of his role in history is often overshadowed by his peers, 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. If both Giamatti and Linney don't win Emmys for these roles, it'll be a shame. Also good here are Tom Wilkinson as Franklin, the understated Stephen Dillane as Jefferson and especially David Morse, who embodies Washington so completely it's striking.

The seven episodes in this miniseries reveal Adams' role in history from his unpopular defense of British soldiers following a shooting in Boston, through his involvement in pushing for American independence, his time overseas as the Continental Congress' representative in Europe during the Revolutionary War, his return and eventual election as the first Vice President and the second President, and eventually the final years of his life. The subtle nuances of his relationships with his wife, his family and Jefferson are interwoven throughout. Particularly good is the series second episode, in which Adams argues passionately for independence before his peers in Philadelphia. Here's a taste:

"I see a new nation, ready to take its place in the world. Not an empire, but a republic! And a republic of laws, not men. Gentlemen, we are in the very midst of revolution. The most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of the world. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children? I am not without apprehension, gentlemen. But the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means."

If rhetoric like that doesn't stir your blood, I'm not sure what will.

Also surprising here is the high 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.

HBO's DVD release presents all seven episodes on three discs, in very good looking anamorphic widescreen video with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. There's a little bit of compression artifacting visible, and colors are muted by artistic design, but the clarity is excellent overall. The sound mix isn't aggressive, but rather more subtle, which is as it should be. 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.

Extras on the set include all the Previously on John Adams episode recaps, an on-screen historical guide (Facts are Stubborn Things) that offers contextual information via subtitles during each episode, and two short documentaries (David McCullough: Painting with Words and The Making of John Adams). The former runs about 40 minutes, and is a profile of McCullough himself. 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). What you get is good, but I do wish there was more.

Packaging for the set is an embossed metallic foil box, which opens to reveal a bound-in digipack containing the three discs. You also get an insert offering free admission to Colonial Williamsburg, where much of the series was filmed. The menus feature tasteful program-themed animation, with music and sound effects from the series.

I wish HBO would release this series on Blu-ray Disc, but until they do, the quality of this DVD release is quite sufficient. If you'd prefer to wait for the eventual (though unannounced) high-def release, I can certainly understand that. However you decide to experience it, John Adams is likely to be the miniseries event of the year. It's simply not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Bill Hunt
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