These United States are now up to their 44th President in a hair over 200 years, and there have been quite a range of personalities that have held the highest office, from the wise and well learned, fiscally responsible, and morally sound leaders, to a few who can be proven to possess the polar opposites of those strong qualities. It's probably better to not name names, as everyone has a varying opinion about the merits of each man. Funnily enough, the surveys of historians who judge these Presidents by their varying qualities and lasting effects are equally varying, with a few names consistently hovering near the top or bottom, but many of these long gone great men have their worth and importance bounce around the charts like the ping pong balls in a lottery machine.
The second President of the United States (POTUS), John Adams, is one such man whose stock has varied over time. With the impossible act of following up the extremely popular George Washington, Adams' Presidency was seen with a negative eye in his time in office, and has not been seen as one of the more significant leaders for nearly 30 years according to these pollings. Funnily enough, Adams played a crucial role in crafting the freedom of the Nation so it could even have a President.
'John Adams' covers the life of Adams (Paul Giamatti), following the man from his roots as a lawyer in Boston in 1770, in court defending those accused in the Boston Massacre, to his time as a politician and eventually President, to his death on his farm in 1826, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a turning point in American history in which Adams played a vital role. More than just a founding father to his country, Adams was a father, and a devoted husband to Abigail (Laura Linney), a role which is shown as being more important to John than his public life. This mini-series delves into the frustration Adams had with the political system, the struggles he and his family endured, and the nation that he helped shape.
One only need read a history book, or even a Wikipedia article, to know all that they will learn from this series. That said, even reading those accounts, or having an existing knowledge of the subject matter, will not spoil the drama, as this mini-series breathes life into historical characters in a way rarely done. The career defining, Emmy and Golden Globe winning performances by Giamatti and Linney are almost equalled by the superb (Golden Globe winning, as well) performance by the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, while David Morse is an absolute show-stealer as Washington, and Sarah Polley is a revelation as Adams' daughter Abigail (would that make her AJ?). These superb actors make one forget they are actually watching actors, and even go so far as to be enthralling enough to make one still cheer the successes or mourn the inevitable tragedies that happened 200 years ago.
While the series starts with two emphatic, riveting episodes (that can be considered the first act of the show), the middle three (the second act) are wimpy, slow, and somewhat tiresome. It takes the final two episodes to pull the pieces back together, and salvage the series, with the emotional highs that come from the eventual deaths of many of the characters we have grown to love. It doesn't help matters that the story becomes a real pain to indulge in due to some awful filming techniques and over-stylization that can pull you right out of the tale. The use of slanted, disorienting angles, similar to those found in 'The Third Man,' is excessive, as are the massive number of cuts. I get it, history puts a slant on everything, but for a biopic (should that be biomini-series?), about a world famous man, was this really necessary?
The snake was an early symbol of freedom for America, with the variations of the Gadsden flag, with the segmented snake representing the colonies (from a political cartoon first drawn by Franklin), or the coiled rattler with the iconic "Don't Tread on Me" slogan. I found this piece of history to be doubly fitting in the show for more reasons than to be historically accurate, as Adams is much like a mythological snake of sorts: Leviathan, the creature who must bite its own tail to hold the world together. Throughout much of the show, Adams is the glue to the colony, convincing those who disagree with his views and beliefs, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a symbol of strength in difficult times, though, as portrayed a few times, biting his tongue rather than his tail may have been more advisable. Even the segmentation of the serpent can be viewed by his separation from his family, if one wanted to take it that far.
To quote Abigail, early in the series, "You do not have to quote great men to show that you are one." I suppose to quote this particular line may have a sense of irony to it, but the line sums up the show, and the man on whom it focuses on, quite nicely, as the Adams went on to be a man who would be quoted himself. Greatness is achieved in this mini-series, though this is one where rarefied perfection could have been attained had a few different choices been made on the part of the filmmakers.
While the show itself fell short of perfection, it need not feel lonely, as the video, encoded in a 1080p VC-1 encode, falls short as well. From the opening credit sequence, I knew this release had great potential. The incredibly detailed cloth in the intro looks amazing, to such a degree that we can see the folds, color variations in the strings, and even stains.
Detail (when it wants to be, more on that later) can be superb on this release, and is especially striking in clothing details, where stitching, and even wear and tear, show up loud and clear more often than not. The lighting for the show is very natural and old fashioned, to convey how dark the insides of buildings would be in that period of time, so the show does have a bleak presence. Colors do not pop, and are kept in check, save for a few intentional moments, such as the borderline luminescent red fires in a dark night sky as Britain bombards Bunker Hill. The source is clean, as little white dirt specks pop up very infrequently.
The flaws in the video are all more than one-time deals, as any single little issue over the course of seven episodes would be more than forgivable. The show lacks consistency, unless you count being consistently inconsistent. There is an eternal tug-of-war between the polar opposites in terms of clarity, with sharp, rich detail pulling with all of its effort, while dull, flat shots demand equal representation. This issue affects the black levels, as well, as they can be strikingly rich, especially in solid black clothing, but dark shots in houses at night or the night sky are somewhat weak, and distinguishing detail in those moments can be quite difficult. There are some thick edge halos, and smudged facial details and even some blurred clothing fabric at times, leading me to believe that this release suffers from both DNR and edge enhancement issues. Reds did not replicate well, either, especially in the one sequence where they were the dominant color, the opera house scene in episode four, which was quite distracting. Lastly, this was a very rare issue, but I noticed a couple ugly moments of aliasing, where a clothing article with a tighter pattern would flicker.
While that is quite a laundry list of complaints, one must keep in mind the run time for this show, which is approximately eight hours. 'John Adams' looks quite decent far more often than it does ugly, and while it is not a perfect release by any means, it's by no means awful. Far from it.
The star of this show, aside from the cast, has to be the audio, presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that can certainly hold down the fort.
From the onset of the series, use of the full sound stage is implemented, as a chilling wind sweeps across the room. Streets, crowds, and busy rooms are alive with activity, both from other people, and from environmental silly little noises that put the show in the real world. It's really quite engrossing! The busier the room, the more active the sound design gets, to the point of a rowdy and raucous display, while smaller congregations get a bit more muted and dampened, as they should be. There is some light directionality, though not much, as the show doesn't give too many chances to show off this effect, while localized effects are thrown in here and there, and are especially impressive when cannons fire from any one speaker. Hell, a scene with a fly buzz hitting all the speakers with its bizarre flight pattern made me pause the show to make sure there wasn't some insect in my room. Damn audio bugs...
Dialogue, the epicenter of the show, is sharp, perfectly mixed with the score, never intimidated by the activity of the track around it. Bass is represented when necessary, mostly in the earlier episodes that have the actual action, such as artillery thuds. The bass also kicks in for some atmospheric effect, along with some accents in the score, providing drum beats a bit of oomph. I caught one negative element, in some Congressional scenes, where a cricket's chirp is audible, but can at times sounds like nothing more than high pitched feedback with no pause. Still, this audio mix knows its place. It's subdued when called for, boisterous when required, and pretty damn awesome all the way.
'John Adams' is a superbly crafted series, made real by its brilliant cast and methodical pace. Those who intentionally skipped the DVD release (like I did), waiting for the Blu-ray version need snatch this one up immediately. Strong video and superb audio seal the proverbial deal. To quote the famous flags that flash across the screen in the title sequence, "Join or Die."
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