American Revolution history is one of the great passions of my life. Something about the frilly dress shirts and the bullheaded men who fought for liberty, justice, and independence interests me endlessly. In recent years, though historical dramas have been on the rise, the Founding Fathers have not received very much attention. In a search to find a show or film that matched my interests and didn’t recklessly revise events, I came across John Adams, produced by HBO in 2008. I consider this show to be the best filmic representation of the American Revolution ever made. This masterful mini-series is worth the watch. John Adams is cinematically interesting, historically honest, and utterly immersive.
Cinematic complacency is a sin that we as consumers are beginning to expect certain TV shows not to commit. Recent dramatic television shows, specifically those produced by Amazon, HBO, and Netflix, have not just been narratively but cinematically captivating: the cinematography matches what we normally see in the movies. In 2008, according to personal, rudimentary research, this was not the case. Dramatic TV shows were not expected to meet these standards the way they are today. Breaking Bad, considered one of the Kingpins (pun intended) of raising the bar for dramatic television show standards, had only just started. When John Adams came onto the scene, it was something of a motion picture anomaly. Each episode ran an hour, except for the pilot and finale which ran longer. There had never before been a television series that focused solely on the Founding Fathers, let alone focused on John Adams, the most often overlooked Founder. Most importantly, however, its production value matched that of multi-million dollar Hollywood films.
The costumes, cinematography, and acting reflect the money that went towards making John Adams as accurate and compelling as possible. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney’s transformation into Mr. and Mrs. Adams is helped through the subtle aging of their skin and authentic costumes, done beautifully by Donna Zakowska. Harkening back to my previous section about cinematic complacency, John Adams is anything but, using the camera to convey what goes unsaid. Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs) and Danny Cohen (Les Mis) used primarily handheld cameras during the scenes of the Continental Congress, and cleverly used varied depths of field to isolate the faces of the characters and to explain what goes unspoken. The cast makes John Adams remarkable. Beyond Giamatti, Linney, and Stephen Dillane, who portrays Thomas Jefferson, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton, and truly the whole of the cast wonderfully embody the spirit of the Revolutionary era.
John Adams is a collection of seven films. Each covers a portion of Adams’ life, and you can watch any episode isolated from the others and still be able to follow it entirely. Stand out episodes are the finale, “Part 7: Peacefield” and “Part 2: Independence” which, respectively, humanize the long-since deified move to declare independence and bring attention to the friendly relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Adams in their lonely old ages. John Adams is committed to an honest depiction of the 1700s. For example, this is the only depiction of the era that I have seen which presents the characters with rotting, brown teeth. Gross, to be sure, but honest nonetheless and helpful towards the immersive quality that John Adams possesses. Watching it isn’t watching Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and Tom Wilkinson saunter around 1700s sets. It’s becoming fully immersed in an era too often glorified, and experiencing perhaps the most true-to-life depiction of the forging of America ever made.