By joining noble earnestness to politics, HBO's "John Adams" should be as stiffly grand as a gallery of Gilbert Stuart oil paintings, full of proud poses and symbolic objects.
But this lavish seven-part miniseries, premiering Sunday at 8, is so much more than dress-up portraiture. Produced by Tom Hanks, it is reverent enough, and profoundly heroic; and yet it is a living, breathing piece of work that brings American history down to earth. Adapted from David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the second US president, the miniseries doesn't narrate the story of independence - the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill - so much as bare its entrails. While celebrating the birth of a nation, "John Adams" also conveys a daunting, haunting sense of personal risks taken and disaster averted.
Famous lives generally get short shrift on screen, where they're reduced to greatest-hits compilations. "John Adams" has the time and budget (around $100 million) to avoid reductive condensation, and all the familiar chapters of Adams's career from 1770 to 1826 are delivered with a healthy degree of mundanity. Oh, there are Great Moments and windblown flags - see Ben Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) change "sacred and undeniable" to "self-evident" in the Declaration of Independence; hear the thunder, literally, as Adams (Paul Giamatti) pleads for a "new nation" to Congress. But they're surrounded by enough character peculiarities and peach trees, smallpox victims and small talk between Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), to give the miniseries rich texture. In those scenes where we see Adams without his formal wig, scowling or looking affectionately at his wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), his skull so starkly vulnerable, he becomes small and thrillingly real.
The probing camera work takes us inside the epic, too, so that we aren't watching textbook events unfold with distant admiration. In Sunday's first hour, in which Adams defends the British soldiers in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, the camera stays unnaturally close by Adams as he makes his passionate arguments in the courtroom. The proximity forces us to understand why this loyal Massachusetts man has taken on such an unpopular job, as we intimately watch him coax the truth out of those on the stand. Director Tom Hooper lets his actors shine, as he did so marvelously in Helen Mirren's "Elizabeth I" and the child-killer drama "Longford," but he complements them, too, with this kind of immediate point of view. And when he does give us panoramic shots from afar - of the Adams farm in Braintree, for example - they're askew, to keep us out of the classroom mode.
At the end of episode 2, which airs with the premiere on Sunday night, Hooper showcases all his directorial strength with one bold choice. When the long-fretting Congress finally decides to break with Britain, he refrains from using any visual or aural tweaks. Upon the announcement, "The resolution carries," the scene remains perfectly silent for one long moment. The terror of responsibility hangs heavily in the room, while a victorious soundtrack surely would have chased it away.
As Adams, Giamatti 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. Just watch Giamatti's mouth, clamped down so as not to reveal contempt, or open in righteous disgust at a barbaric tar-and-feathering of a British officer, after which he tells Abigail, "Most men are weak and evil and vicious." He plays grumpy as well as he did in "Sideways," particularly in episode 3 when Adams goes to France with son John Quincy and he is uncomfortable with the libertine atmosphere. But then Giamatti also elevates his portrayal of Adams with a phenomenal magnetism.
But one of the best things about "John Adams" is that it's truly a costarring vehicle between Giamatti and Linney. Abigail is not sidelined in the role of supportive wife, even while she is that. Linney is able to create a critical, loving coach who resents her diminished voice as a woman, but who nonetheless helps preen her husband for leadership, urging him not to be so pushy: "Men need to think they have made their own decisions," she tells him. In a scene alone with gentle George Washington (David Morse), she speaks to his conscience about slavery, before entrusting him with carrying her letters to John. Through Abigail's eyes, John Adams is a frog prince, and in her presence he becomes fully sympathetic.
Screenwriter Kirk Ellis uses their marriage to hold the miniseries together and to keep it human-scaled. The dialogue between them, and between all the major figures, is dramatic and witty without being starched. (Only Ellis's lines for Franklin are over-baked, as his aphoristic manner of speaking becomes self-parodic.) Ellis also wisely keeps ideas of liberty and human rights afloat throughout, making sure that it's always clear what Adams is envisioning, and, indeed, exactly what these Americans are fighting for.