John Adams Review

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He's Like the old Obama


John Adams, it turns out, after soaking up seven episodes of another acclaimed HBO mini-series, was quite a guy. A brilliant lawyer and orator; a man of principle, compassion and action; Founding Father, second official President and, arguably — as is vociferously done here — the driving force behind the constitution of America. He also had a big horse, and a very smart wife. Sadly, he didn’t look like Robert Redford, otherwise history might have cut him some slack. He looked like Paul Giamatti...

Which tells you we’re knee-deep in HBO’s get-real remit. The acting, especially from Giamatti as the irascible Adams and Laura Linney as his wife Abigail, who steered him clear of vanity (it is partly a love story), has the tang of authenticity, even when burdened with great gulps of politicking. The birth of America, and supposedly the heartbeat of democracy, involved a hell of a lot of talking. Then, Adams swerved the battlefield for council chambers packed with the likes of George Washington (David Morse), Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and Benjamin Franklin (a wonderfully curt Tom Wilkinson): actors good enough to make heady debates on liberty compelling.

Meanwhile, British director Tom Hooper (who has just completed The Damned United) lays on the discomforting 18th century verisimilitude. Streets mired in mud, rooms lit by candlelight, swathes of browning teeth, and ugly shaved heads peeping from beneath dusty wigs: all the sumptuous grot of history come alive like an unkempt Barry Lyndon. Indeed, incidental details often leave a more lasting impression than the thump of history in motion: you won’t forget the use of pus in smallpox vaccinations in a hurry.