|Paul Giamatti as John Adams (left) and Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin|
John Adams, which stars Paul Giamatti as a very grumpy Founding Father, is the kind of miniseries HBO excels at making, a sweeping historical epic that boasts an all-star cast, solid credentials on the creative side and a prize-winning piece of source material. It’s the same basic recipe HBO used for Band of Brothers, which all but guarantees that John Adams will one day make its way to consumers in a nifty gift set and generally be remembered as one of the better outings for the genre of historical fiction. But what makes John Adams a success isn’t just its quality, but the fact the story is being told on TV, which is the only way Americans know anything is real.
The telefilm’s power also has a lot to do with the source material. David McCullough’s biography of Adams and his examination of the man’s relationship with his wife and countrymen in the formative years of the United States wasn’t the first book about Adams, and it won’t be the last, but it has enjoyed the most pop success. This is the book on your father’s nightstand.
That makes it the perfect vehicle for adaptation into a TV-movie by Tom Hanks’ Playtone Productions. Playtone also had a hand in Band of Brothers, and Hanks served as executive producer on both miniseries. It’s not hard to see the draw: They’re both about pivotal moments in American history, but while World War II has become almost fetishized in a wash of everything from TV specials to video games, the Revolutionary era has gathered dust in recent years. The time was perfect for a return to the period in a miniseries that announced its grand intentions from the start, and John Adams is definitely that show. What’s more, John Adams is a continuation of the Playtone/HBO legacy of legitimizing history lessons for a whole new generation and processing our complex collective past in a way that’s easier to digest. John Adams is nothing but Band of Brothers with different costumes: It’s still a tale of a group of men who came together and drew upon their unknown inner strengths to try and change the world.
But the most important thing about John Adams is its packaging. The tale has been further streamlined into a seven-part series for premium cable, which allows viewers to get a handle on a man and time period of which they’re largely ignorant. McCullough’s book hit shelves in 2002, and Adams’ achievements have been laudable for two centuries. But it’s not really until now, this moment when Adams becomes Paul Giamatti in a wig and stockings, that the events of real life take on the weight only TV can give them. John Adams is a genuinely cinematic experience on the small screen, a glorious confluence of costume and casting and the eternal relevance of the necessity of questioning the moral authority of government. Yet all that has been processed and smoothed down and polished for public consumption, just like the exploits of Brothers’ Easy Company, and that makes it not just more understandable but somehow more accessible. The easiest way for us to understand something is to film it. John Adams is a stirring miniseries and amazing look at the history of our nation, but it would be foolish to ignore that such history is now only really spread through communal media. John Adams’ greatest accomplishment is that it’s on TV.
SEE IT:The fifth episode of John Adams airs on HBO at 9 pm Sunday, April 6.