Founding father John Adams isn't your typical HBO protagonist. His greatest failing is not a penchant for murder, adultery or multiple wives. He's not even much of a narcissist. Now that's shocking.
The man portrayed in the miniseries "John Adams" (7 p.m. Sunday, HBO) is polite and well-spoken. And his devotion to his formidable wife, Abigail (portrayed here by Laura Linney with her typical fire and intelligence), has made the story of their long marriage a romance for the ages.
Adams' greatest failing was a tendency to offend those whom he wished to win over, yet his passionate tenacity is still impressive more than 200 years later. Despite his temper and his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs -- or maybe because of those qualities -- the lofty concept of America as an independent, democratic nation became a reality.
[Much of Adams' career was founded on the idea that "a man may give offense, and he may still succeed," as he says midway through this handsome miniseries.
The energetic, immediate shooting style of director Tom Hooper, who did a similarly excellent job with the Helen Mirren historical epic "Elizabeth I," makes it clear that, though Adams and his compatriots were sure of the rightness of their cause, the outcome of the American Revolution was a perilous enterprise indeed.
For the colonies to take on Great Britain was "to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper," as Adams puts it in one of his impassioned speeches to the Continental Congress.
Adams witnessed not just the bloody aftermath of the Boston Massacre, but also saw a British citizen tarred and feathered at Boston's harbor. He may not have had Ben Franklin's social prowess or Thomas Jefferson's eloquence, but he's a man who felt great emotion and compassion, all of which Paul Giamatti depicts in a brilliantly understated performance.
Giamatti does fascinating work in a scene in which an ailing, worn-out Adams is told of America's military defeat of Great Britain.
Adams is more shocked than happy; the relief etched on his face shows that he thought there was a good chance the revolution could fail. Despite all he and his family sacrificed to the cause - long separations, lack of money, dangerous journeys - he'd never been fully sure that victory was achievable.
A sense of insecurity and urgency informs Giamatti's performance as Adams; in the first half of the miniseries, he's frequently shown as a man whose proper New England upbringing and innate sense of decorum were the only things that kept his intense emotions from boiling over.
Review by Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune