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John Adams Review

 Series Premiere episodes Join or Die and Independence

   It is very hard for an historian (amateur or professional) to review historical films without the review becoming purely about accuracy. It’s equally hard for a film critic to review historical films and not have it become all about entertainment. Both of these creatures, the history critic and the film critic, share the flaw of being critical of someone else’s work instead of producing work of their own. So, as I approach the new HBO series John Adams as both a historian and a person who has worked in film and entertainment, I can indulge in self-loathing on multiple levels.

   The series itself is beautiful to look at. The people at HBO have put in the hours and dollars to get the period right in a way never even attempted before. My inner historian almost wept just to see the Philadelphia troops in their brown (yes brown!) uniforms. The series would be an achievement for art direction and costumes alone. The acting is first rate, with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney bringing long-dead people to life in vibrant and layered performances. David Morse’s portrayal of George Washington made me wish they were been filming him in his own series, while Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson finally captures on film the many contradictions of this complex man.

   My main criticisms of the series must fall on the tone, the pacing and context. In order to seem even and fair, the producers have taken every opportunity to show the flaws of the patriots. The resulting impression is that they were as uncivilized and barbaric as the British always claimed. This de-heroification might be acceptable if we saw it in context with the British abuses that created the Revolutionary movement, but that is not evident in these episodes. Every time that we could have a “lump in our throat” moment about the amazing things that are happening in the series, the director and editor seem to do all they can to nullify it.  For example, while Abigail Adams is portrayed as nearly saint-like, John gets the short end of the stick. All of his anger, pride and verbosity are on display without any of the humor or joy that he also possessed.

    I have spoken with many intelligent people who do not live their lives saturated in 18th century American history as I do (See “Normal” people) and they have complained that while watching they did not understand where they were in history or why things were happening. This is a big flaw for a work like this. Audiences were able to enter the foreign/alien worlds of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or even Braveheart and understand them. For most people the 18th century is a completely foreign country and we need a primer on cultural context.

    For history geeks the pacing of the show is a little slow, but for non history geeks the pacing is confusing and a little slow. I believe the strengths of the series in acting and art direction outweigh the flaws, but do not eliminate them entirely.  

    My final word on John Adams episode 1 and 2 is that they are really exceptional, though imperfect, and by far the best film work ever done on the 18th century. The series flaws are dangerous ones if this is the only history of the era you ever encounter but most audiences will be entertained. Tom Hanks and David McCullough both deserve major recognition and thanks for their extreme efforts to give this important history and this important man a doorway to our lives.

John Adams was produced by HBO and Playtone Films. We recommended it for mature audiences because of violence and minor (but non-sensual) nudity.




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