Paul Giamatti is excellent as John Adams; Adams himself was pugnacious and driven to the point that he had to rein himself in to be liked or understood by his peers, and Giamatti conveys that as well as Adams' splendid convictions and peerless intellect. Laura Linney as his wife is almost so perfect an example of a colonial woman that it's caricature; and yet her strength gives truth to Adams' tirelessness in defending his home and family. But in a way it's the extraordinary ensemble that carries this series.
And why not? As Americans we're brought up with these characters in all their lionized glory; wily Ben Franklin, grave and commanding George Washington, idealistic and brilliant Jefferson - and Thomas Payne, and Alexander Hamilton, and Samuel Adams and General Wayne, and so many others. Particularly on my part, I suppose, since I grew up next to Valley Forge Park in a town called "King of Prussia" that was itself a huge monument to the Prussian and French officers who trained the infant Continental Army. I even served in the 1/111th Infantry, who's first commander was Ben Franklin himself, and was a member of the 1st of the 104th Cavalry, the oldest Cavalry unit in continual operation in the United States. America's history was my back yard, in short - and so these men are a part of my child hood myth.
And they are brought to life so vividly. David Morse, an under-rated actor who you've seen in everything from St. Elsewhere to The Green Mile, is in particular, amazing as George Washington. When (then) Colonel Washington is introduced to John Adams, he's just been chatting with Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson - but next to Washington, they fade and pale away. It's as if the world stops breathing and shrinks a little, so that Washington is larger by comparison when he speaks. His few words, carefully chosen, seem so laden with surety and portent; it's no wonder he was universally supported both as commander of the Continental Army, and as first President - even President for life, if he chose. Morse convey his charisma beautifully, subtly, and with incredible dignity.
Too, I was bowled over by Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson. When he hands the Declaration of Independence (and how glad am I that had it read at the last several 4th of July parties?) to Franklin and Adams to read, he sits carefully, poised like a cat on a windowsill, with no part of him moving except his incredibly bright, brilliant eyes, with which he looks for any reaction. When Franklin and Adams suggest a few changes he says with perfect mildness, "Every word was carefully chosen, I assure you gentlemen." That written word can't convey at all the worlds that Dillane lays bare; he is so diffident about it, so mild. And yet he shows no sign of emotion at all, no indication of caring what-so-ever, until Franklin compliments him on his invention of the swivel chair. Then his eyes light up, and he speaks with boyish enthusiasm about using window-shade rollers as the swivel mechanism. In fact, I think I was so struck by this because he reminded me of my grandfather; slim, impossibly grave and subdued, yet given to sudden enthusiasm when talking about the things he has invented or designed. And it says so much about America at that time, too - that Franklin and Jefferson both were not just statesmen and founders of a nation, but enthusiastic inventors, scientists, and scholars too. Can you imagine such a man (or woman) in the Congress today?
I remember what it is about America that inspired my youthful idealism and patriotism. Though time and travesty have dimmed my enthusiasm, and tarnished American honor, it's a work like this that reminds me that we were founded on ideals of such soaring hope and splendid value that the work of a few callow miscreants can not undo it; that American prestige, idealism and commitment to liberty can yet be restored; that this nation, founded by men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor can yet live up to their sacrifice and give worthy service to their noble ambition.