Historians Challenge Joel Surnow’s “Kennedys”
The History Channel recently announced its first scripted miniseries, “The Kennedys,” to be produced by Joel Surnow, the conservative co-creator of Fox’s “24.”
While this is the umpteenth Kennedy project to come before cameras — a few years back, there was even a pilot for a Kennedy series, about JFK’s rise to power, called “Camelot” — this project has become a political flashpoint, not just because it’s Surnow involved but because of the successful effort among conservatives to get “The Reagans” miniseries pushed off CBS to Showtime.
The New York Times highlights the latest volley, from progressive activist Robert Greenwald, whose Brave New Films has in the past taken on health insurers, Afghanistan escalation and Iraq contractors, as well as Fox News, where Surnow once had tried a late-night comedy series with a conservative bent.
Greenwald has gathered comments from a number of historians and biographers, who have read the script have have spotted a number of inaccuracies, as well as what they call flaws in the depiction of the Kennedys. Ted Sorenson, the Kennedy speechwriter, calls it “character assassination.”
One of the more tawdry portions of the script comes when a Secret Service agent tries to get JFK’s attention when he’s having sex in a pool with a young woman.
According to Greenwald’s website, Stopkennedysmears.com, Sorenson says of the script, “There’s character assassination of the doctor who operated on Rosemary Kennedy’s sister, who’s mental retardation was exploited in a mean and vicious way, that every organization in this country concerned with mental illness and the mentally retarded is going to stand up and denounce. There’s character assassination of even Jackie’s parents, showing her mother as being an indifferent mother. Showing her father as being a drunk and a womanizer. I could go on and on, the list and Dr. Martin Luther King is reported in this script to be a womanizer and a phony. It’s just amazing that anyone could be as mean spirited and vindictive.”
Sorenson adds, “… I think there are plenty of people…I know dead people can’t sue…but their relatives can, and their heirs and estates can and I think there will be hell to pay if anyone is ever foolish enough to put this banal, repetitive, old hat lists of libels and slanders on the air.”
Sorenson adds that none of the conversations between him and John F. Kennedy in the script ever happened.
The screenwriter of “The Kennedys,” Stephen Kronish, tells the Times that the script is in a “stage of evolutionary development,” and that it should be judged on the basis of the final product. But he also said that History Channel is requiring a high standard of bibliographic citation and legal clearance.
As polarized as this project is likely to become, pitting two of the most outspoken industry politicos on both sides of the spectrum against each other, it’s hard to accuse the History Channel of having any other agenda than ratings and younger viewers. The History Channel actually was in the crosshairs of conservatives in December, when it ran the documentary “The People Speak,”based on Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States.”
The fact that it’s greenlit yet another Kennedy miniseries — by no means the first to have historians chiding it for inaccuracy — is a bit ironic given that the family is retreating from elective politics. And given that the channel now runs shows about ice truckers and pawn stars, it’s also ironic because History Channel appears to be retreating from … history.
The BraveNewFilms video, with script readings, is below.
Update: Whenever a screenwriter makes liberal use of dramatic license, the giveaway is always the dialogue. My favorite example from a previous Kennedy project is from the 1991 miniseries “A Woman Named Jackie,” and a scene where Marilyn Monroe calls up the White House and Jacqueline Kennedy picks up the phone.
As Howard Rosenberg recounted in the Los Angeles Times back then, “Jackie attacks, mockingly volunteering to step aside if the two of them really want each other: “Then you two can get married and you two can live in this damned White House!”
“Hearing no response from the speechless Marilyn, Jackie continues: “Because if you’re not ready to live in this fish bowl as man and wife, then I suggest you forget all about my husband!” Then she hangs up.
“Cut to an astonished Marilyn: “What a bitch!”"