David McCullough aims his American histories squarely at the typical smart kid from Junior High; he tames rather than illuminates his subjects. It pegs him below writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis or Jean Edward Smith in this field. But the competitive element is reversed on this 7-part HBO series since films about the American Revolution are so notoriously weak; the bar has been set so low, mere adequacy shines brightly. In the leading roles, Paul Giamatti misses the ebullient energy that must have sustained Adams over the years. His whispered delivery is too Actors Studio and he often looks disconcertingly like James Levine of the Met Opera. Laura Linney goes all Meryl Streep on us here with a self-regarding perf that finds a special smile for every occasion & emotion. At least they make an effect which is more than can be said for Stephen Dillane whose Thomas Jefferson, that towering mass of unknowable brilliance & contradiction, is plain underwhelming. Happily, Danny Huston, Tom Wilkinson & David Morse all get their licks in as Sam Adams, Ben Franklin & George Washington, respectively. Megger Tom Hooper tries a lot of hand-held camera to keep things from turning into waxworks, but it doesn’t exactly help sustain period flavor. Still, how many films on the era get even this much right? And in the sequences in France where Adams, Franklin & Jefferson simply sit and talk; or during the episodes detailing Washington’s unhappy term as President, the material is allowed to engage us on its own merits. And it does, it does.
CONTEST: A well-known piece of classical music is pressed into service (again & again) during the episode that covers Adams' term as President. Name the composer, the piece of music and the famous film (by a most famous director) that prominently featured the same musical movement to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS write-up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: For a unique side-view of much of the action covered here, Jean Edward Smith's magnificent bio JOHN MARSHALL: DEFINER OF A NATION is hard to beat.