John Adams (HBO): Based on David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of the second president of the United States, this HBO miniseries arrives on DVD in the UK after winning several awards and garnering considerable critical acclaim.
For those unfamiliar with the title character, he was one of the key figures in the creation of the United States and its struggle for independence from Great Britain.
An impressive cast features Paul Giamatti as John Adams, Laura Linney as his wife Abigail, Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson, David Morse as George Washington, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin and Rufus Sewell as Alexander Hamilton.
The seven episodes chronicle the key chapters of Adams’ life, which span the first fifty years of the United States:
- Join or Die: The first episode deals with the Boston Massacre and Adams defending British troops because of his belief in a fair trial for everyone. We also see his cousin Sam Adams (Danny Huston) and his involvement in the “Sons of Liberty,” a group opposed to British rule. It also shows the tensions over the Coercive Acts and Adams’ election to the First Continental Congress.
- Independence: The second episode covers the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress towards declaring independence from Great Britain. Adams is depicted as the lead advocate for independence despite all the danger that entails.
- Don’t Tread On Me: The third episode sees Adams travel to Europe during the War of Independence to seek alliances with foreign nations hostile to Britain. He meets up with Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI and then goes on to the Dutch Republic to obtain financial support for the Revolution.
- Reunion: The fourth episode shows Adams being notified of the end of the Revolutionary War before he is sent to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While there, he spends time with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and reunites with Abigail. After being appointed the first United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom he relocates to the British Court of St. James’s but is poorly received by the British. He then returns to Massachusetts for the first presidential election which sees George Washington become the first President of the United States and Adams first Vice President.
- Unite or Die: The fifth episode explores Adams as Vice-President, presiding over the Senate and the strains within George Washington‘s cabinet members, especially Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain and his inauguration as the second president.
- Unnecessary War: The sixth episode explores Adams’s term as president and the bitter rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams’s neutrality alienates both factions and his shaky relationship with his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, is damaged after a breakdown in relations with the French and the signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams disowns his son Charles, who soon dies as an alcoholic vagrant. He eventually prevents a war with France, but loses the election of 1800 to Jefferson and retires back home to Massachusetts.
- Peacefield: The concluding episode examines the last years of his life in retirement which include the tragic deaths of his daughter to cancer and his wife to typhoid fever. However, Adams does live long enough to see his son, John Quincy, elected president. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence towards the end of their lives, and both die mere hours apart, on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
A hugely ambitious project, this miniseries offers us a fascinating insight into the early years of the United States as seen through the lens of one of the key founding fathers.
Director Tom Hooper (who was also behind HBO’s ‘Elizabeth I’) and writer Kirk Ellis have done an amazing job of distilling McCullough’s 700-page book into seven epiosdes that are rich with drama and detail.
Technically, it is first rate with some marvellous cinematography by Tak Fujimoto capturing the candle lit interiors and and outdoor landscapes superbly well.
The sets and locations are also extremely impressive, making clever use of CGI which is nicely woven into the action without ever being distracting.
It was filmed in the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area in Virginia and Hungary for the European locations and also features 125 speaking roles, so it is mounted on a scale unusual even for an HBO project.
However, unlike some historical dramas it goes beyond the settings and costumes to grapple with the underlying themes and and issues at stake in the birth of the United States of America.
Part of what makes the series so attractive is the extraordinary nature of Adams’ life – one that encompassed so many crucial events in a remarkable period of history.
He personally embodied many of the ideals upon which the nation was founded and also had a remarkably strong relationship with Abigail, his feisty wife of 54 years.
Given the importance of the War of Independence you might wonder why it has been so poorly represented on screen but perhaps the shadow of the disastrous Revolution (1985) still hangs over anyone that attempts to pitch a project set in the era.
A good deal of credit then must go to producer Tom Hanks and HBO for attempting such a bold and sweeping project, with a reported budget of $100 million.
It has paid off with plaudits and swept the board at the 2008 Emmy Awards with 17 nominations and 13 wins including, ‘Outstanding Actor’, ‘Outstanding Actress’ and ‘Outstanding Mini-series’ and also won four awards at the 2009 Golden Globes.
This 3-disc, 7 part mini series clocks in at 501 minutes and comes with the following extras:
- David McCullough – Painting with Words: Explore the artistry of this two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and his approach to writing history.
- Making of John Adams: A behind the scenes feature with the cast and crew as they talk about bringing the book to screen, and including an on-set and location tour.
- On Screen Historical Guide: An on screen guide which pops up historically relevant information about John Adams and his time period during each of the 7 episodes.
Overall it is a landmark piece of television and one of the best DVD releases to come out this year.
Appaloosa (EIV): Based on the 2005 novel by Robert B. Parker, this superb western centres around a lawman named Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), two friends who are hired to defend a lawless 1880s town from a murderous rancher (Jeremy Irons). Their efforts are disrupted and friendship tested by the arrival of a woman (Renée Zellweger).
Although it followed the fate of most westerns by dying at the UK box office, is a rich and highly accomplished film, well worth seeking out on DVD.
The extras on the disc include:
- Commentary by Ed Harris and Screenwriter-Producer Robert Knott
- Bringing the characters of Appaloosa to life
- Historic accuracy of Appaloosa
- The Town of Appaloosa
- Dean Semler’s return to the Western
- Deleted scenes
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Life – Season 1 (Universal Playback)
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