Saturday, March 15, 2008

Reviewing "John Adams"

As I've been mentioning (incessantly) lately, HBO's "John Adams" mini-series makes its public debut tomorrow night (Sunday, 8 p.m.). The reviews have started to pour in:

- In the New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore notes - rightly, of course - that JA wasn't single-handedly responsible for bringing about, sustaining and winning the American Revolution - but in a bio-centric film, I don't think anyone ought to be surprised that he's portrayed that way. She criticizes the films' inaccuracies (naturally there are a few), while praising its overall feel: "Eighteenth-century Boston, and much else besides, is beautifully realized: lush and bustling, with ships’ masts looming and halyards clanking. If there’s a film that better captures the look of Colonial America, I haven’t seen it," she writes.

- Writing for the Boston Globe Matthew Gilbert rhapsodizes about the camera work, the acting (Giamatti, he writes, "is riveting. He has the time to let Adams's principled nobility emerge slowly, alongside his vanities and egotism, and he also has time to show a man change over the course of his life, as he gains political footing"), and the tone, which he says "conveys a daunting, haunting sense of personal risks taken and disaster averted." The Herald's reviewer, Mark Perigard, is less effusive, calling Giamatti the film's "biggest liability" and concluding "There are moments when the miniseries manages to convincingly re-create 1770s Boston on what appears to be a USA Network budget. Still, it’s hard to imagine HBO sustaining a large audience for this project. The first two approximately 70-minute episodes stroll at a leisurely pace. The birth of a nation never went through so many undramatic contractions."

- Even Perigard's judgment of Giamatti isn't as harsh as that leveled by the New York Times' reviewer, Alessandra Staley, who declares that the actor "looks like Shrek." She compares him unfavorably to the inimitable William Daniels, the man who (brilliantly, I must add) portrayed Adams in the stage and screen versions of Peter Stone's "1776." Not exactly a fair point of reference, I think. She seemed to have liked the rest of the production, but Giamatti really got under Staley's skin.

- Writing for Slate, Troy Patterson offers up a mixed review, declaring Tom Wilkinson's Ben Frankin "the best thing on screen here" (Staley preferred Stephen Dillane's brooding Jefferson).

- In Newsweek, David Ansen also praises and damns, declaring the first episode drab and "pokey," but assuring us that it gets better. He, like almost every other review, adds a paragraph on the John-Abigail partnership (Linney's portrayal of Abigail, I must note, is universally applauded): "Among the many things that make "John Adams" resonate—its emphasis on the importance of diplomacy in world affairs, its reminder of the contested principles upon which the country was based—is the marriage of John and Abigail, which feels strikingly modern without being anachronistic. It's a lovely, quirky portrait of a union based on true friendship and intellectual equality."

- Other reviews: Louisville Courier-Journal, Connecticut Post, Deseret Morning News, Sioux City Journal, Washington Post (in which Tom Shales gets some major facts wrong - Sam is not, of course, John's brother, but offers high praise for the production).

- J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 links to Ira Stoll's New York Sun review, which takes further issue with historical inaccuracies (I'm guessing we should start putting together an FAQ about the film so that when the reference questions start rolling in we can be ready). Bell also asks whether JA would approve of all this fuss and bother being made about his life. I agree with John's conclusion - publicly he would demur, but he'd be loving every minute of it.

1 comment:

M said...

The Times Allesandra Staley is a moral relativist, she always feels the need to put down anything positive about America. John Adams exemplifying a big part of the moral compass that steered our founding government towards the framework that allowed it to become what was once the beacon of freedom for all the world.

David McCullough wanted our founders to be viewed as the humans they were, with honesty and clarity.. he stated that we should not reference their being human only when discussing whatever flaws they had, but to stress their being human in relation to their extraordinary achievements. I believe that is why Staley and a few others jump on Giamatti, trying to diminish his portrayal because he represents not a mythical John Adams, but something as close to the truth we can get. A man who doesn't look like the easily dismissed caricature of an superstar.. he's real, an everyman, and he helped bring about change. He challenged his fellow men to think about the wider implications of freedom, rights, liberty and the obligations preserving them required of citizens.

Elites don't want us thinking, they want mindless consumers who will do what they are told, or are intimidated into doing.

I loved the first two episodes and eagerly await the third episode next Sunday.