HBO spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million, and Tom Hanks, America’s favorite armchair historian, worked behind the scenes on a seven-part epic miniseries about John Adams? The president that history books treat as a speed bump between Washington and Jefferson?
Yes. And it’s outstanding.
The miniseries follows the rise of Adams (Paul Giamatti) from his hands-in-manure roots as a humble farmer to his role as ambassador in the grandest palaces of Paris. And it follows his descent from his time living like a squatter in an under-construction White House to his days as a slightly-less-humble farmer.
It’s a warts-and-all portrait of the Founding Father, who, while endlessly watchable, comes across as hard-headed, hot-tempered and not terribly likable.
And it’s an oozing-pustule-and-all portrait of the times. “John Adams” should be seen just for its dramatic scenes of hardship. (Although you might have to look away during the inoculation scene, in which a doctor drags a barely alive smallpox victim from house to house, scrapes off one of his blisters, slices open the Adamses and jabs the pus into their open wounds.)
“John Adams” brings the American Revolution to life like nothing I’ve ever seen, treating the participants as living, breathing people with faults and foibles, as opposed to the saintly types presented in filmstrips and Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.
But the miniseries really shines in the moments between Adams and his wife and adviser, Abigail (Laura Linney), who had as good a mind for politics as her husband, if not better. Linney makes it clear that had Abigail been born 200 years later, SHE’D be the trailblazing candidate stubbornly refusing to get out of Barack Obama’s way.
Giamatti and Linney are almost assured of taking home Emmys in September, and “John Adams” likely will be the leading nominee.
Best of all, there’s still time to catch up via HBO On Demand in time for Sunday’s final installment (9 p.m.), so the next day, you can fool your friends into thinking you’d been watching it all along.