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John Adams(TV) (2008)
John Adams is a sprawling HBO miniseries event that depicts the extraordinary life and times of one of Americas least understood, and most underestimated, founding fathers: the second President of the United States, John Adams. Starring Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man, HBOs American Spendor) in the title role and Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me, Kinsey) as Adams devoted wife Abigail, John Adams chronicles the extraordinary life journey of one of the primary shapers of our independence and government, whose legacy has often been eclipsed by more flamboyant contemporaries like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. Set against the backdrop of a nations stormy birth, this sweeping miniseries is a moving love story, a gripping narrative, and a fascinating study of human nature. Above all, at a time when the nation is increasingly polarized politically, this story celebrates the shared values of liberty and freedom upon which this country was built.
For more about John Adams and the John Adams Blu-ray release, see John Adams Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on June 3, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: Kirk Ellis, Michelle Ashford
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Stephen Dillane, Danny Huston, David Morse, Sarah Polley
» See full cast & crew
John Adams Blu-ray Review
A stirring HBO miniseries finally receives its Blu-ray inauguration...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, June 3, 2009
In an age when 24-Hour News anchors seem fascinated with the notion of a First Lady who has her husband's powerful ear, people would do well to remember Abigail Adams, a faithful wife and loving mother whose letters and counsel would help shape the politics, philosophy, and eventual presidency of the second President of the United States, John Adams. Sorry to burst any staunch traditionalist bubbles: despite what the propagandeers at Fox News would so desperately have us believe (send letters to Ken Brown, care of Blu-ray.com), influential female intellectuals didn't emerge from a twentieth century vacuum. It's precisely this fact that makes renowned author David McCullough's 2001 biography, John Adams, and its subsequent adaptation as a 2008 HBO miniseries so compelling. Ripped from dollar bills and White House portraits, the Founding Fathers of the United States are stripped of their iconic lore and portrayed as human beings; men with wives to answer to, duties to uphold, and history-altering choices to make.
Over the course of seven absorbing episodes, John Adams tracks the rise and influence of one of the most important figures to help nurture America through her infancy. As the miniseries opens, a respected Massachusetts lawyer by the name of John Adams (Paul Giamatti, delivering a career defining performance) is approached to defend a group of British soldiers accused of murdering five colonial citizens during a heated 1770 encounter (a tragedy that would be remembered by a more infamous moniker: the Boston Massacre). Taking the case with the fervent belief that every man deserves a proper legal defense, Adams creates a stir amongst the locals, his cousin Samuel (Danny Huston) included, but ultimately prevails. After the trial, the budding statesman becomes a delegate, increases his political clout, and plays a crucial role in the First Continental Congress, a body of representatives assembled in Philadelphia in 1774 to oppose the British Parliament's Coercive Acts. Moreover, he assists in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, pushes for George Washington (David Morse) to lead the Continental Army, and follows Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) to France in an effort to gain European support for the Revolutionary War.
Through it all, Adams relies on the encouragement and advice of his wife Abigail (Laura Linney, offering up her own career defining performance), left at home to care for their children and overcome her own trials and tribulations. Her letters are invaluable possessions and her every word is near and dear to his heart. After a brief, unsuccessful stint as Ambassador to England, Adams returns home and becomes the first Vice President of the newly formed United States. His role in the Senate is met with harsh opposition, but he perseveres in spite of wavering health and mounting rivalries. By the time he becomes President in 1797, his vision of an independent nation has evolved dramatically: his hopes for productive representation are dashed as lawmakers squabble endlessly, he loses the support of Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell), and has trouble making peace with his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane). Upon losing reelection and returning home to Massachusetts, Adams is left to reflect on his life and ponder the guidance Abigail so diligently provided over the years.
When it comes to storytelling, performances, and period authenticity, John Adams is nothing short of a stunning accomplishment. Giamatti uses his heft and whine as a fifth appendage, granting Adams the sort of flawed resonance befitting a man of the Second President's status and stature. His every cough, his every trail of sweat seems to suggest the actor is in complete control of his faculties, down to the most innocuous motion or expression he can muster. Linney is on fire. She injects such life and vigor behind Abigail's eyes that the actress disappears, leaving only a determined 18th Century woman tasked with the unbearable challenges of the era and blessed with an unshaking devotion to her husband. The scenes between her and Adams' children are heartbreaking: her pain and love shine through a contained countenance while suggesting the full ramifications of every tragedy that befalls her. And when Giamatti and Linney share the screen? Their impact is exponentially increased. The supporting cast is exceptional as well, transforming men who have previously been nothing more than stoic monuments into living, breathing human beings. In short, John Adams is a period masterpiece.
So why the less than perfect score? For reasons I'll never be able to wrap my head around, director Tom Hooper and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto seem to think the miniseries' story and performances can't hold their audience's attention. To that end, the dynamic duo twist, turn, angle, and shift the image every chance they get. It's apparently not satisfying to watch Adams read over a document: Giamatti is crammed into the right side of the frame, the camera is titled ten degrees to the left, and an expansive void dominates the remaining picture. A street lined with colonial buildings is deemed too boring for modern viewers' finicky tastes: our POV sits firmly on the ground, passersby seem to defy gravity, and gravel looms in the foreground. Watching an argument develop between two opposing forces is deemed too bland for our unfocused eyes: laughably-tight closeups occasionally warp actors' faces, leaving a pack of enraged caricatures where troubled historical figures should reside. As it stands, the filmmakers' incessant tampering (as well as their refusal to leave well enough alone) nearly ruins the entire experience. Thankfully, the aforementioned screenplay and performances are so engrossing that it's entirely possible to filter out Hooper and Fujimoto's visual shenanigans and focus on the story.
Bothersome cinematography aside, John Adams is worth pouring over and soaking up. More than a well-constructed biography, more than a nuanced character study, more than a stuffy period piece, HBO's seven-part miniseries' storyline and astounding performances will grab hold of history buffs and genre newborns alike.
John Adams Blu-ray, Video Quality
John Adams features a slightly disappointing 1080p/VC-1 transfer that isn't as faithful or proficient as HBO's other recent high definition presentations. Regardless of the episode, soft shots and spongy closeups are an intermittent distraction, black levels are inconsistent, and contrast is unpredictable. One moment, a vibrant, three-dimensional image with fine textures galore inhabits the screen... but the next moment, a dull, lifeless mess limps into view, complete with waxy faces, squishy edges, and squint-inducing delineation. It's also worth noting that grain, while present to some degree, appears to have been wiped away in post-production. Grain-haters may rejoice at the news, but anyone sensitive to the effects of noise reduction will cry foul. To be fair, the transfer is still a moderate success: it not only bests its standard DVD counterpart in every way, its palette is often a sight to behold (reds have a particularly striking intensity) and its overall detailing is commendable. More importantly, artifacting, banding, crush, and source noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Slight edge enhancement occasionally invades the proceedings, but even the most severe ringing is negated by the cleanliness of the image. All things considered, John Adams' presentation still ranks above those featured on the majority of miniseries on the market. Still, based on HBO's sparkling Blu-ray track record, I expected a bit more.
John Adams Blu-ray, Audio Quality
At least HBO's full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track lives up to its the studio's lofty lossless standards. Dialogue is crisp, crystal clear, and perfectly prioritized, naturally mingling with everything from the swift breeze of a cool New England spring to the spittled shouts of an angry mob. The rear speakers effectively recreate a variety of period interiors, all of which boast unique acoustic properties and ambient personalities. Voices freely bound about an open community hall, stomping feet smack with moist indifference in the midst of a musty meeting room, and a slew of environmental effects dissipate convincingly regardless of the season or location. Directionality grows a bit lazy during Adams' trips abroad (a party with Franklin is haphazard and imprecise) but, for the most part, accuracy prevails and rules each episode. Moreover, rousing LFE support packs heft into every march and thunder into every cannon. Ultimately, it may not have the requisite razzle-dazzle of more bombastic lossless audio tracks, but it tackles every syllable and gunshot with the same commitment to quality.
John Adams Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The 3-disc Blu-ray edition of John Adams arrives with the same, surprisingly trim special features that graced its 2008 DVD counterpart. There are a few exclusive bonuses to be had (although not as many as the cover suggests... more on that in a moment), but without a single historical or production commentary to be found, the supplemental package is a thorough disappointment.
John Adams Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While its video transfer could be more satisfying and its supplemental package more filling, the Blu-ray edition of John Adams is still worth owning (particularly when you factor in HBO's generous price point). The miniseries itself is meaty and involving, its performances are worthy of any praise thrown their way, and its story is still incredibly relevant to our modern world. Only a series of awkward camera angles threaten to spoil the experience. Add to all that a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio track and you have a release that deserves a home on your shelves.
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