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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

John Adams [Blu-ray]


(Tom Hooper, 2008)






Review by Leonard Norwitz



Theatrical: Playtone

Blu-ray: Home Box Office



Region: All

Runtime: 500 min

Chapters: 7 p

Size: BD-50

Case: Gatefold Box

Release date: June 16th, 2009



Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1



English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
French: DTS 2.0
Spanish: DTS 2.0



English, English SDH, French, Spanish, none




• Making John Adams – in HD (29:12)

• David McCullough: Painting with Words – in HD (39:13)

• Facts Are Stubborn Things

• Who's Who in History



The Film: 7
I don’t know about you, but the prospect of Paul Giamatti as an eighteenth century founding father and president of our country, a colleague and critic of Thomas Jefferson, a loving husband and proud father was asking a great deal of this viewer. It would truly be an interactive experience, a test I hadn’t enjoined since Bill Murray as Somerset Maugham’s Larry Darrell. How did you do? I still wince at the memory of Giamatti’s impersonation, but I certainly admire the effort and the craft.

I recall the phrase "You're obnoxious and disliked" repeated to Adams in the musical 1776 and thought that Giamatti might make for just such an Adams, though I wasn't sure if I wanted to sit through seven hours of the man. I'm not even sure that I would have been able to manage William Daniels for a similar length of time in a role as conceived by author McCullough and screenwriter Kirk Ellis. "Peevish" is a characteristic I can tolerate only in small doses, so I found myself longing for another scene – any scene – with Tom Wilkinson's Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Dillane's Thomas Jefferson or, most of all, with Laura Linney's steadfast Abigail.

Abigail comes off here, as she did in 1776 (with Virginia Vestoff as Abigail), as her husband's moral and social compass, though Giamatti's Adams demanded he be permitted to go off course whenever it suited his sense of self-importance. Perhaps the casting of Giamatti is meant to enshrine his obnoxicity and dislikability forever. In any case, he certainly made other historical figures that much more readily differentiated, whether it be David Morse's George Washington, standing tall, always the gentleman; or Danny Huston's Samuel Adams, always the firebrand, but with common sense (in the best sense of the phrase) and keen interest; and my personal favorite, Tom Hollander as King George III, who could stand short and tall simultaneously, a feat which seemed to drive Adams crazy.

Ten points for production and for another look at an important period of history. (If you like such things, look into the 2004 PBS series "Liberty: The American Revolution" – a very different sort of documentary on the subject.)


Image: 9/9
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

The DVD was plagued with frightful amounts of edge-enhancement – old habits die hard, apparently – and the Blu-ray corrects almost all of it. Thanks be. I find the image very cinematic: it's rich, strong, with very good shadow detail and very little noise or brightening of night scenes. Interiors of palaces and ornate silky costumes come off very well in this high definition transfer, as do the rustic fabics and leathers of the early days of the Adams farm – we can at last see where all the production money and effort went to. Bit rates are strong and dynamic, averaging about 30 Mbps.



Zoomed segment

DVD TOP vs. Blu-ray BOTTOM
















Audio & Music: 8/8
As we should expect, this series is not going to be big on surround effects, though there are some moments during its few exchanges of gunfire that come alive in this respect. No, the strength of the audio here is, with few exceptions, its unerring sense of space. Whether the salons or palatial halls of France, or the stables of the Adams farm, or in the streets of Boston or the nearby woods where Adams tastes the effects of British justice, or at the bar, defending an unpopular cause, the effect, by way of its uncompressed DTS HD-MA, is transporting. I should mention that this was not the case with the DVD, whose audio was sorely lacking in this respect. Dialogue, which is of prime importance in such a series, is clear and proportional.




Operations: 7
I found access and withdrawal from the "Facts Are Stubborn Things" pop-ups to be more easily managed here than on the DVD, correcting what I felt was a fault previously. They come on with a small flourish now and are neater and cover less of the frame, as expected on Blu-ray. Otherwise, the layout of the menu is similar to the DVD, with the addition of a pop-up episode summary.

Extras: 5
What's this! "Who's Who in History"? – the sole extra feature beyond that which accompanied the DVD set of a year ago – and what an embarrassment it is! Not only are these nothing more than a few words about each of the major characters, but the encompass the same number of lines per character, so that everything is neat and tidy, and pointless. On the other hand, the two major features are now presented in very good HD and both are worth visiting and manage to avoid duplication of coverage.



Bottom line: 7
I suppose the question of purchase depends on how much you admire the series. There is no question in my mind that both picture and audio quality, especially the latter, is much improved in high definition. The Extra Features are much the same, though now in HD. So, there you are.

Leonard Norwitz
June 14th, 2009





About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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