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Posted on Mar 13, 2008 in Books and Movies

John Adams Miniseries: Revolution, Politics, and Love

Gerald D. Swick

The scenes among France’s nobility—filmed in Hungary—capture the opulence and decadence of Paris’ ruling class in the time of Louis XVI. When Franklin hands Adams small American flags to pass out at a fundraiser, the scene clearly shows what is usually omitted from discussions about this period of history: support for the American colonials’ cause among the French nobility was "radical chic," a new diversion for them, a deadly business for the rebelling colonists. The irony is not lost on viewers that the American colonials’ success will ultimately lead to a revolution in France and the downfall of the very people who are whooping and waving the starry flag of the rebellion as a sort of party game.

 Dialogue also reflects the attention to detail in this program. Performers speak with the accents and brogues that would have been common in the British colonies, or with the halting English of Africans living there as slaves or freemen with limited access to education. No performer uses a contraction in speech until late in the miniseries, when Europe and the Age of Enlightenment lose some of their hold over American customs.


Beyond the production values and the talent, this miniseries tells two parallel stories inextricably entwined, one about the love between John and Abigail Adams and the other about his political activities.

We know the story of their love for each other because it has come down to us in the prodigious collection of letters they wrote to each other. The film depicts unflinchingly the personal price they both paid for John’s years of public service, a service born of both an abiding sense of duty and a desire for public approbation.

Some of the most affecting scenes revolve around this, such as Abigail’s anguish as she lays beside her husband and realizes he is about to leave her to go to Europe, or her midnight window washing to distract her from his lack of correspondence.

For his part, frustration at being torn between desire and duty is ever-present when he is away from his beloved Abigail and their family. The difference in his appearance is marked when she comes to join him in Paris (a remarkably erotic scene, considering they keep most of their voluminous clothing on).

The rest of the cast turn in performances that range from exceptionally understated to over the top, depending on the historic nature of their character. Not surprisingly, the character of Benjamin Franklin, played by Tom Wilkinson, steals virtually every scene in which he is present. 

David McCullough wrote a bestselling biography that brought John and Abigail Adams to life through meticulous attention to research combined with new insights and a master storyteller’s style. This HBO miniseries gives his work the respect it is due, and the result is an enthralling story for both history buffs and those looking for good entertainment. Hopefully, it may spark conversations about the nature of duty, love and sacrifice.


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