There’s no new DVD column up on MSN this week – it’s a skip week, due to the demands of my recent move (hey! I’ve just become a homeowner!) in the midst of the Seattle International Film Festival. The next column will go live on MSN on June 17, but in the meantime the DVDs keep marching out. This week, the best of the best includes the HBO production John Adams, the seven-part, eight-hour miniseries adapted from the biography by David McCullough and brought to the screen by director Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I) and executive producer Tom Hanks, and incarnated by Paul Giamatti in a performance full of passion and indecision, brave stands and reckless bullheadedness, modesty and vanity. It’s the most nuanced biographical portrait of a historical figure I’ve ever seen on the screen. No dry history lesson, it’s the kind of production that manages to refresh the story of America’s birth and remind us just how revolutionary the very idea of fighting to establish a government of the people, by the people and for the people really was in its time. The script (written largely by Kirk Ellis) plants us in the middle of another world and shows us exactly what was at stake for every American involved in the Declaration of Independence (the passing of which was quite possibly Adams’ greatest achievement), and just how mad it was for a group of frontier states to take on one of the national superpowers of the 18th century. The series also reminds us that, for all its symbolic power, it wasn’t the election of George Washington that defined our democracy. It was the non-violent succession of the executive power from Washington to John Adams, the country’s second elected president.
Most importantly, it gives us figure of flesh and blood, heroism and flaws. Adams is idealistic and thoughtful, often headstrong and impolitic, modest yet vain and even jealous of the adulation heaped on other founding fathers. And if the production lets him off the hook for the Sedition Act (surely the least democratic act of his administration), it also shows just how isolated he was in the White House (a big, draft, half-finished mansion in a meadow of mud), surrounded by a cabinet that had their own, often competing agendas. Jefferson is an intellectual idealist of another kind, investing so much of his identity in the out-of-control French Revolution that he can no longer remain objective when it comes to American diplomacy, and Stephen Dillane plays him not as a commanding and impassioned man, but weary and dissolute. And we get a sense of the power wielded by Alexander Hamilton, the man who would be king, trying to run the country from behind the scenes through party loyalists beholden to his vision rather than their duty to their president.
But it’s the story of John and Abigail Adams (Laura Linney) that remains the center of the production, and the powerful love story of a man whose duty to country separates him from his family and a supportive wife who raises their children and runs their farm alone during the war and then becomes his most reliable counsel as president. Shot entirely with handheld cameras to get an intimate closeness to the characters and the action, it’s a look at a time and place where people express themselves with careful diction and a formal, almost ritualistic manner, directed with a naturalistic, you-are-there immediacy that brings the texture of the world to life. The mix can be startling. When Abigail arrives in France to see husband John after years apart, the meeting is restrained and formal in front of the servants, but when they are alone, John pulls off her knickers like a horny teenager and they skip the foreplay to screw as if they might explode.
The three disc set also features the 39-minute documentary “David McCullough: Painting With Words,” an affectionate profile of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and the more traditional half-hour “Making John Adams,” which includes cast interviews (David Morse, who plays George Washington, turns out to have some very thoughtful insights to their recreation of history) and a fascinating look at how digital effects were seamlessly applied to recreate eighteenth century America. It proves once again that the most impressive special effects are the ones so convincing that you never notice them.