Based on David McCullough's bestselling biography, the HBO miniseries John Adams is the furthest thing from a starry-eyed look at America's founding fathers and the brutal path to independence. Adams (Paul Giamatti), second president of the United States, is portrayed as a skilled orator and principled attorney whose preference for justice over anti-English passions earns enemies. But he also gains the esteem of the first national government of the United States, i.e., the Continental Congress, which seeks non-firebrands capable of making a reasoned if powerful case for America's break from England's monarchy. The first thing one notices about John Adams' dramatisations of congress' proceedings, and the fervent pro-independence violence in the streets of Boston and elsewhere, is that America's roots don't look pretty or idealised here. Some horrendous things happen in the name of protest, driving Adams to push the cause of independence in a legitimate effort to get on with a revolutionary war under the command of George Washington. But the process isn't easy: not every one of the 13 colonies-turned-states is ready to incur the wrath of England, and behind-the-scenes negotiations prove as much a part of 18th century congressional sessions as they do today.
Besides this peek into a less-romanticised version of the past, John Adams is also a story of the man himself. Adams' frustration at being forgotten or overlooked at critical junctures of America's early development--sent abroad for years instead of helping to draft the U.S. constitution--is detailed. So is his dismay that the truth of what actually transpired leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence has been slowly forgotten and replaced by a rosier myth. But above all, John Adams is the story of two key ties: Adams' 54-year marriage to Abigail Adams (Laura Linney), every bit her husband's intellectual equal and anchor, and his difficult, almost symbiotic relationship with Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) over decades. Giamatti, of course, has to carry much of the drama, and if he doesn't always seem quite believable in the series' first half, he becomes increasingly excellent at the point where an aging Adams becomes bitter over his place in history. Linney is marvelous, as is Dillane, Sarah Polley as daughter Nabby, Danny Huston as cousin Samuel Adams, and above all Tom Wilkinson as a complex but indispensable Ben Franklin. --Tom Keogh