- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

If you want confirmation of Thomas Carlyle’s great-man theory of history, look no further than the new HBO miniseries “John Adams.”

The first two installments of the seven-part drama premiere Sunday night at 8. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by historian David McCullough, “John Adams” chronicles the first 50 years of the United States of America through 50 years in the life of one man. According to the series, the former would not exist without the latter.

Tonight’s first episode, “Join or Die,” begins in 1770 with the Boston Massacre. Tensions are running high in Massachusetts, where many Colonists are angry at being taxed to pay for a government in which they have no representation and resentful that their freedom of trade is strictly limited. One moonlit March night, a group of British troops fires into a crowd of rioters, killing five civilians.

The troops are arrested and charged with murder. There isn’t a single lawyer in the defiant Colony who will defend them until an emissary begs John Adams (played by Paul Giamatti) to take the case. The lawyer has just moved to Boston from the countryside, hoping to increase his practice.

He wins the case, but defending unpopular clients has done nothing for his own popularity or law practice. Yet, “you now have a reputation for impartiality,” one of the rebellious Colonists tells him. They want him to speak out for their cause.

Though the Boston Massacre certainly contributed to the push for independence, it wasn’t the most notable of turning points. Nevertheless, the extended attention it gets here helps establish the character of John Adams, the mood of the Colony’s leaders and how the two ultimately fell into alignment.

While Adams at first admonishes his second cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) and John Hancock (Justin Theroux) for their support of what he sees as barbarism among the crowds of Colonists — who tar and feather a representative of the East India Company — he’s soon traveling with them to Philadelphia to participate in the first and second Continental Congresses.

The miniseries’ second installment, titled “Independence,” begins in 1775 with that second congress. Adams still finds himself a respected but unpopular member of the club. The witty Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) cautions him to be more politic in his pronouncements. “Do you not believe in saying what you think?” Adams asks with some astonishment. “No” the learned Franklin responds, “thinking aloud is a habit responsible for much of mankind’s misery.”

Adams is the most forceful voice for independence in Congress. Slowly, but surely, he persuades the rest of the house, including the quiet, impeccably dressed Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane, who looks remarkably like the man) and the smart Col. George Washington (David Morse).

Much of this second episode consists of congressional debates. It’s a tribute to director Tom Hooper (whose last two HBO films, “Elizabeth I” and “Longford,” won Golden Globes for best miniseries) and screenwriter Kirk Ellis that all this talk manages to seem like one of the most exciting and important things in the world — which, of course, it was.

Most breathtaking, however, is the clear implication that it all could have turned out very differently.

What if Adams, on the advice of his devoted wife, Abigail (Laura Linney), more than a match for her husband, never met with those British troops? What if he gave up after his early debating defeats? What if Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson, whose speech outlining the brutal costs of a war is one of the most moving of the evening, had managed to sway Adams’ supporters?

Watching “John Adams,” with its great-man focus on a small group of men and the life of a single family, you don’t get a firm idea of what the great mass of people were thinking during this important time. It turns out, for example, as Mr. McCullough notes in his biography, that a mere third of Colonists wanted revolution.

There’s little question that “John Adams” is a simplified version of history. It’s compelling, though, in suggesting that America may never have achieved democracy if not for a group of rather undemocratic men.

TITLE:”John Adams”

WHEN:8 p.m. Sunday on HBO

CREDITS: Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay by Kirk Ellis. Based on the biography by David McCullough

RATING:TV-PG (adult content, violence)

WEB SITE: https://www.hbo.com/ films/johnadams/index.html

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