When John Adams begins acting like a pompous windbag, his wife, Abigail, reproaches him with a single word.
“Ambition,” Abigail warns, when Adams tells her that he will get a lot of attention if he defends British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial.
“Vanity” is what she says to steer her husband away from what she calls “ostentatious erudition.”
“Casting,” she might have told the producers of this new seven-part HBO mini-series, which begins on Sunday evening with a double episode.
John Adams is the weakest part of “John Adams.”
Based on David McCullough’s biography of Adams, the second president, “John Adams” is certainly worthy and beautifully made, and it has many masterly touches at the edges, especially Laura Linney as Abigail. But Paul Giamatti is the wrong choice for the hero.
It’s not his fault. Mr. Giamatti, who starred in “Sideways,” is a gifted actor. Still, in this historical drama, Mr. Giamatti is a prisoner of a limited range and rubbery, cuddly looks — in 18th-century britches and wigs, he looks like Shrek.
And that leaves the mini-series with a gaping hole at its center. What should be an exhilarating, absorbing ride across history alongside one of the least understood and most intriguing leaders of the American Revolution is instead a struggle.
Mr. Giamatti valiantly tries to do justice to the quicksilver contradictions of Adams’s character. This son of a New England farmer was described by Mr. McCullough as “high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed and fiercely stubborn.” Mr. Giamatti manages some parts quite well, but the effort is too labored not to drag on the fabric of the story — especially at first, when viewers who haven’t read many biographies or seen the musical “1776” are likely to be puzzled by this cute, homely man who adores his wife and hollers angrily at his children.
One possible reason Abigail is so often tasked with uttering single-word sketches of Adams’s personality is that Mr. Giamatti cannot make those traits stand out distinctly enough on his own.
It’s not a question of looks; even the portraitist Gilbert Stuart didn’t try to hide that Adams was portly and balding. It’s the screen presence. Charles Laughton was an odd-looking actor who would never be cast as a romantic lead, but he managed to transform himself to suit a wide range of parts, from Henry VIII to Rembrandt to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Mr. Giamatti doesn’t have the same power and flexibility.
Mr. Giamatti is not helped by the precedent set by William Daniels close to 40 years ago, when he played Adams in both the musical and the film version of “1776” and was pitch-perfect in the part. Mr. Daniels made a career playing brilliant, pompous and irascible men (“St. Elsewhere,” “Boy Meets World”), and he was at his peak as the most confounding of the founding fathers. As conceived by Peter Stone, who wrote the book (Sherman Edwards wrote the music and lyrics), Adams is irritable and irritating, but ultimately irresistible; decades before Mr. McCullough wrote his biography, Mr. Stone had captured the vitality, passion and humor that made Adams’s hot temper and vanity endearing.
This series has a “Masterpiece Theater” gravity and takes a more somber, detailed and sepia-tinted look at the dawn of American democracy. It gives viewers a vivid sense of the isolation and physical hardships of the period, as well as the mores, but it does not offer significantly different or deeper insights into the personalities of the men — and at least one woman — who worked so hard for liberty.
“John Adams” begins in 1770 and comes to an end on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the date of Adams’s death at 90 — the same day that Thomas Jefferson died. So the mini-series does not focus solely on the drama and political brinkmanship in Philadelphia at the moment when the members of the Continental Congress debated whether to break with the British crown and assert independence.
Early on, Adams finds common cause with the aristocratic Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) and wise, crafty Benjamin Franklin. George Washington, stiffly portrayed by David Morse in a fake nose, is not very interesting, but Mr. Dillane is a slyly intelligent, brooding Jefferson and steals every scene he is in, even when he has no dialogue.
Some of the more delicious scenes are set in France, at the court of Louis XVI, where Franklin, deliciously played by Tom Wilkinson, wallows impishly in the hedonism — and flattery — of the French nobility, and Adams, summoned there to help pressure France for assistance against Britain, fumes in frustration and Yankee puritanism.
The mini-series pays keen attention to the details of colonial life: a customs agent loyal to the crown is tarred and feathered in Boston Harbor in an excruciating scene in which a mob tears off his clothes, pours hot tar over his naked body, then literally rides him out of town on a rail. Abigail boldly chooses smallpox inoculations for herself and her children — and back then it was a gruesome and crude process that required smearing puss from an infected sore onto a thin blade and cutting it into the patient’s flesh — and one child contracts the disease anyway.
Abigail, the woman who stayed home in wartime, managing the farm and raising four children, is the moral center of the mini-series: hard-working, uncomplaining, thoughtful and devoted to her husband and the cause of freedom, women’s as well as men’s.
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” she wrote in a March 1776 letter to Adams. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”
Some of the dialogue is borrowed from the Adamses’ correspondence during long separations. With words, but also with eloquent gestures and glances, Ms. Linney delicately evokes Abigail’s humor, loyalty and fierce intelligence.
“You do not need to quote great men to show you are one,” she tells Adams.
You do need the right actor. A different one might have made “John Adams” great.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 19, 2008
A television review in Weekend on Friday about “John Adams,” the new HBO mini-series, misidentified the disease one of the Adams children contracts. It is smallpox, not measles.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 21, 2008
A television review in Weekend last Friday about “John Adams,” the new HBO mini-series, misstated the timing of the illness of one of the Adams children. It followed an inoculation for smallpox; it did not precede the inoculation. The review also referred incorrectly to the man who was tarred and feathered by a mob. He was a customs agent, not a tea merchant.