So for reasons I cannot explain, I managed to wrangle an invite to the premier of HBO’s John Adams series, held tonight in the US Capitol building. Star Paul Giamatti, Producer Tom Hanks, and original biography author David McCullough were all on hand for a reception held in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, hosted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and teeming with politicos like Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy and politico wannabes like Chris Matthews. Also lobbyists. After eating lots of finger food – I liked the chicken and artichokes, not so much the beef gristle on a stick – we all trekked down the stairs over to the Cannon House Office Building, where we sat in unbelievably uncomfortable banquet chairs that seemed almost to be stacked on top of one another. We then listened to some blowhard congressman from Adams’ hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts – he pronounced it “Quinzy” – and he proceeded to waste our time as he introduced his faithful congressional colleagues, none of whom you’re ever heard of. But then he introduced Tom Hanks, who I ‘m sure you have heard of, and he apologized for the uncomfortable chairs and told us that this wasn’t how they did it in Hollywood, and said “That’s what you get for living here. What can I say? Move.” He won us over instantly. He told the story of how John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who instigated the Boston massacre, thereby demonstrating that our nation was ruled by law, not men. Then he introduced Adams biographer David McCullough, who was gracious and elegant as he excoriated the rising generation for being historically illiterate. Then the screening began. What we saw was the second episode, which covers the time frame surrounding the Declaration of Independence. It lasted an hour and a half and is presumably the second of six such episodes for HBO, based on McCullough’s book. What’s ironic about this is my family recently watched 1776, the musical version of these events starring a tone deaf William Daniels as John Adams and White Shadow Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson. The HBO series could not be further removed from the singing KITT version. In the first place, nobody sings. Indeed, you wonder if any of them have ever even heard music in their lives. There’s nothing pretty about these people – they’re muddy, sweaty farmers with grit under their fingernails, scraggly wigs, and bad teeth. You can almost smell them from off of the screen. The only exception was Laura Linney, who was a strong, steely presence as Abigail Adams but still looked, even without makeup, like she was regularly getting her eyebrows waxed. Giamatti, on the other hand, somehow managed to be dumpy, short, and commanding all at the same time. He was a revelation as John Adams, as was Tom Wilkinson as an unlikely Ben Franklin. As soon as I saw Wilkinson, I had no idea who he was playing. Then he was addressed as Dr. Franklin, which stunned me. He hadn’t done much to mask his British accent, and I thought I would end up being distracted by having such an iconic actor playing such an iconic historical figure. It didn’t take long to lose him in the role, and the dialect actually helped the process along. That’s because each of these characters had a unique dialect that demonstrated the transition from British English to American English. It was really quite an accomplishment, as I doubt I would have noticed had I not been so keenly attuned to Wilkinson’s natural manner of speech. Every effort was made to keep this thing authentic, which could have turned this into just another museum piece, but instead made it vibrant and immediate. It’s terrifying to watch as Abigail Adams is awakened at night by canons being fired from the ships gathered in Boston Harbor. You’re aghast when you see the foul circumstances that confronted the original Continental Army. (Although I could have done without the gruesome smallpox inoculations. Authentic pus doesn’t earn anybody credit in my book.) Everyone rises to the occasion for this. Stephen Dillane is a perfect Thomas Jefferson – laconic, detached, and more than a little strange. And the guy who played John Dickinson – Cesar Woljnak, or something – he’s not listed in imdb, although I’ve seen him in a bunch of stuff – he was perfect. Absolutely perfect. His final speech where he pleads for Congress to reject independence almost had me rooting for the Redcoats. Some folks with me thought David Morse was too soft as George Washington, but I thought he was entirely adequate. The performances take a back seat to the expert writing, which catches the flavor of McCullough’s heady book without drowning you in detail. They manage to include almost all the language of the entire Declaration in the final frames, but it feels dramatically relevant, not like a recitation. The show is always engaging, It’s heartening to see Tom Hanks putting something like this together. When a guy can do anything he wants in Hollywood and he chooses to do something like this, you know there’s hope for the world. Also, smallpox is gross. I am Stallion Cornell.