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PBS Home Video presents
John and Abigail Adams (2005)

"Statues and monuments will never be erected to me, nor flattering orations spoken, to transmit me to posterity in brilliant colors."
- John Adams (Simon Russell Beale)

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: January 23, 2006

Stars: Simon Russell Beale, Linda Emond, , James Barbour, David Ogden Stiers
Director: Peter Jones

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for nothing objectionable
Run Time: 01h:56m:16s
Release Date: January 24, 2006
UPC: 841887050524
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

As the opening narration of this American Experience episode tells us, John Adams, following his highly contentious defeat to Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election, feared that he would be a forgotten man in American history. In some larger way, I suppose that is at least partially true; he isn't a cultural icon like Washington or Franklin, and he doesn't live on through notoriety like Jefferson. But make no mistake, Adams was a critical part of the struggle for independence, and his wife Abigail was just as fascinating a figure. Their lives are the subject of this episode, which begins in 1774, as Adams joins the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The standard American Experience template is followed, which is in this case re-enactments of various events, interspersed with commentary from historians and biographers. The Adamses are played by Simon Russell Beale and Linda Emond, who also provide readings from the letters and writings of John and Abigail. Beale and Emond do as much acting within the offscreen letter-reading as they do in their onscreen work, which often requires merely looking pensive or thoughtful while the narration or commentary describes events, but they remain watchable and engaging.

The story of the couple is one of sacrifice and dedication; once John began working for independence, he spent vast lengths of time away from Abigail, who was left to raise their children and run the family farm on her own. Abigail estimates that during their first 14 years of marriage, they spent half of them apart. That would not improve, as John would be sent to Europe twice to work on behalf of the fledgling United States, trying to gain needed money and military support. On his first trip, he found that he was superceded in popularity and political smarts by Benjamin Franklin, who better understood how to play the personality games within the French court. A furious Adams was sent home, only to be asked to travel to France again, this time to negotiate a peace treaty with England. Adams had no way of knowing when or if England would agree to negotiate, but he accepted the position, leaving Abigail on her own again. John would initially find little success once again, and he travelled to Holland to try and gain loans from Dutch bankers. Washington's victory at Yorktown changed the picture, allowing Adams greater bargaining power, and he single-handedly got the loans needed to keep the American war effort afloat.

Abigail, meanwhile, had struggled through loneliness, a stillborn child, and family illness, all the while continuing to write her "dearest friend." Their remarkable letters survive them, and the correspondence allows us a unique window into these two people and their relationship. A missed opportunity with this home video release is the lack of any of the letters as extra materials, either read by the actors or presented as text screens.

Following independence, Adams served two terms as George Washington's vice president, chafing at the lack of power in the position. He defeated Thomas Jefferson, formerly a dear friend, in the 1796 election for president, and Jefferson, as vice president (the runner-up took that position then), did his best to sabotage Adams' term, even paying a scandalmonger to slander Adams. Adams and his fellow Federalists made the mistake of passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which curtailed liberties fought for so recently. Adams, as in Paris, lacked the political skills to effectively deal with those aligned against him, but his most signifcant achievement came in keeping the fledgling United States from going to war against a now hostile France. Adams' defeat in the supremely hostile 1800 election came in large part thanks to his seeming indecision regarding France; he had, however, secretly engaged in negotitations to gain a peaceful settlement, news of which did not reach the voters until after the election. I would have appreciated more on the 1800 election, given its reputation; a separate show could probably be made about that particular story, as could a number of other threads within this film.

The remaining time is spent on the Adams' twilight years, which included a remarkable reconciliation with Jefferson, and Abigail's death in 1818. Adams and Jefferson corresponded until their deaths, on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of independence. For those unfamiliar with Adams' story, the film will serve as a decent introduction to a remarkable couple, and will hopefully inspire further investigation into their, and the other Founding Fathers' (and Mothers') lives. The story told here is much richer than even this film indicates, and those interested would do well to dig deeper.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its broadcast ratio of 1.78:1, the film is anamorphically enhanced and looks okay for the most part. Some shots exhibit fairly heavy grain, and some macroblocking is present on occasion. The segments with the commentators look crisp and clear throughout; it is the re-enactments that suffer the most. The transfer is flagged for interlaced playback.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: A solid if unspectacular 2.0 stereo mix does the job, given the emphasis on dialogue and narration.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. The Choice for Revolution: Text-based look at the road to independence (four screens)
Extras Review: A couple of unsubstantial extras are provided. First is a brief making of (3m:15s), which features brief interviews with cast and crew, who are all unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the show. A text-based extra, The Choice for Revolution, features a series of four text screens showing the path to independence. Fairly basic material for those acquainted with the period. A web link to the American Experience site is provided as well.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

A good introduction to a fascinating couple, John and Abigail Adams provides Adams with some of the recognition he so dearly desired, and Abigail receives her due as well. Good performances and engaging commentary from historians and writers tie together a solid entry in the American Experience series.


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