No matter how many times you see the credits sequence for John Adams, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting goose bumps from the montage of Revolutionary War–era flags that introduces HBO’s superb miniseries based on David McCullough’s 2001 biography of the second President. The credits quickly establish a vivid you-are-there sense of immediacy that is one of this epic’s two great strengths. The other is the magnificent performance by Paul Giamatti, who fully embodies the passion, intellect and chutzpah for which Adams is famous, and who makes it clear that those qualities—which Adams himself admitted rendered him obnoxious and unpopular—always served the cause of American independence rather than the politician’s own ego.
Screenwriter Kirk Ellis has skillfully isolated the most cinematic moments in McCullough’s sprawling book: More than one of the seven episodes is built around events that McCullough described in just a page or two. The first installment (one of two episodes broadcast on Sunday 16) is an electrifying piece of courtroom drama, while the second could well be the finest dramatization ever produced of the events that culminated in the Declaration of Independence. We meet Adams in 1770, when he’s a 35-year-old lawyer who, hoping to vault beyond his humble origins, has recently moved from the boonies to Boston with his wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), and their young children. Both to build his reputation and because no one else will take the case, he agrees to defend the British soldiers charged with murder in the Boston Massacre. He thereby earns a rep for impartiality that leads his cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) to persuade the attorney to begin a political career that takes him first to Philadelphia and then to the global stage.
Adams clearly supports the American cause from the beginning (“Massachusetts is my country,” he responds when offered a plum job in the British Admiralty court), but no one can blame him for initially harboring doubts about the movement: Many Boston patriots come off as uncouth louts, and the wealthy John Hancock (Justin Theroux) appalls Adams by cheerfully goading a mob into giving a tax collector the tar-and-feathers threatment (which director Tom Hooper presents with the same graphic, almost loving detail that he showed a man being drawn and quartered in 2005’s Elizabeth I). After Adams devotes himself fully to independence and becomes a delegate to the Continental Congress, he’s frustrated by bureaucracy until Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) persuades him that Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and George Washington (David Morse), unlike the other Southern delegates, share his intellectual temperament. As engrossing as the first episode may be, it’s at Independence Hall that John Adams really becomes something special. Wilkinson and Morse masterfully humanize characters who are as iconic as Moses and Jesus, while Dillane shrewdly plays Jefferson—later Adams’s great rival—as both modest and inscrutable.
It’s also in Philadelphia that Giamatti’s performance comes together and Adams emerges as a crusty New Englander with a very un-Yankee lack of reserve. His legendary irascibility appears as he locks horns with stubborn South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (Clancy O’Connor) and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, a Quaker who favored appeasement (and who, thanks to a brilliant turn by Zeljko Ivanek, emerges as a tragic but dignified figure). Adams’s stint in Philadelphia is intercut with scenes in which his wife endures a smallpox epidemic and British assaults on Massachusetts, and it’s soon apparent that Linney’s best scenes are those without Giamatti: Abigail’s perspective on daily life during the Revolutionary War is invaluable (ditto her take on Europe in the fourth episode), but when John and Abigail are together, their dialogue quickly grows too expository (and while their children prove that the Adamses did, in fact, have sex, the perpetual formality of their relationship makes it seem uncharacteristic when we see them do the deed in their fifties).
With the third episode, the miniseries focuses on aspects of Adams’s life that get short shrift in U.S. history classes, most notably his long diplomatic service in Europe. Although a sea battle worthy of a Patrick O’Brian novel vividly communicates the hazards of 18th-century travel, the depiction of Adams’s European years doesn’t convey the full magnitude of the risks he took on behalf of his country. Nonetheless, there are few dramatic productions in any medium that have done a better job of illustrating the challenges America faced as a young nation—or of bringing life to men and women who often seem too distant and exalted for anyone to identify with.