A television series on the Kennedys that is nearly a year away from official release has already spurred heated debate and aggressive pushback over its treatment of the iconic American family.
On Tuesday progressive filmmaker Robert Greenwald released a short video preemptively calling into question the accuracy of “The Kennedys,” an eight-hour miniseries which will air on the History Channel and is being produced by Joel Surnow, the creator of the series “24″ and a well-known Hollywood conservative.
In on-camera interviews, a set of renowned Kennedy historians, including Ted Sorensen — a one-time aide to John F. Kennedy — trash the script, which was obtained in advance by Greenwald. Charging that it is littered with easily documented falsehoods, they insist that the production team drafted a “cartoon” and “caricature” of the former president — downplaying weighty historical episodes in favor of tawdry and salacious material.
WATCH “Stop The Kennedy Smears” — Brave New Films makes the case against the miniseries.
Greenwald told the Huffington Post he counted more than a dozen sex scenes written into the biopic with only scant acknowledgment of the Cuban Missile crisis. Sorenson, in the film, says that the conversations he is depicted to have had with the President “never happened.”
“[T]his one-sided right wing script suffers from a vindictive, malicious approach,” he says. “Even the right-wingers at whom this script is aimed are going to be disappointed when they look for new and interesting accusations.”
The team behind the History Channel series, set to air in January 2011, insists that the early criticism is misplaced.
Steve Kronish, the primary writer for “The Kennedys” and a co-executive producer of “24,” told the Huffington Post that the script Greenwald obtained is in its “evolutionary” stages. Criticism of specific language or assertions, he said, are premature at best and politically motivated at worst.
“My feeling is, if you want to take the position that we are doing a hatchet job on the Kennedy’s why don’t you wait until we show it,” Kronish said. “Then you can decide if we have been salacious or unfair… that is the time to make the criticism. Not when we are in the very beginning stages of this project.”
Insisting that it would be counter-intuitive for him, as “a self-confessed liberal,” to produce a hit piece on the Kennedys, Kronish nevertheless acknowledged that some elements were played up for effect.
“Recognize also that this is not a documentary it is a dramatization,” he said. The majority of the gripes, he argued, were simply a byproduct of the Kennedy story being naturally unsavory.
“I admire Ted Sorenson tremendously,” he said when informed of Sorensen’s critique. “But if anything, I assume he had the same essential problem with all these other guys who wrote their histories and exposed areas of the Kennedy lives that are not flattering… If it turns out that that’s the case we will take it out.”
Revered by Democrats for personifying liberal poise and reviled by conservatives as ethically deprived opportunists, the Kennedy family has already been the subject of countless documentaries.
But when word leaked out in mid-December that the latest film was being placed in Surnow’s hands, defenders of the political dynasty were particularly apprehensive. In addition to close relationships with prominent Republicans, including Rush Limbaugh, Surnow is known for the conservative lens he brings to projects.
“It was around December that one or two people said you have to read this script. The script was around because they were casting it,” Greenwald explained, when asked what drew him to the project. “The question became what to do. So we drew up a list of about 20 reputable historians and we decided to go to them first to see what their take was… We didn’t give them any bias or anything and the results were beyond our expectation.”
In addition to Sorensen, Greenwald tapes four other Kennedy historians whose takes on the script are withering. David Nasaw, a professor of American History at the City University of New York, took umbrage with a scene in which the family patriarch, Joe Kennedy, takes a crucifix off the wall and smashes it over his knee.
“That didn’t happen and it wouldn’t have happened,” Nasaw said. “This film is not only extraordinarily anti-Catholic but it is anti-Irish in a way that I haven’t seen in a long, long time.”
Thurston Clarke, a well-respected journalist and author of two Kennedy related books, said that one scene drafted by Kronish in which Jacqueline Kennedy threatened to flee with the kids to the Cape while JFK stayed in the White House couldn’t possibly have happened because Mrs. Kennedy was already at the Cape. Then there are the gratuitous references to the well-established libido of the family’s males.
“It seems almost likes it’s just a kind of license for them then to switch back to the private lives of the Kennedy’s, which is admittedly fascinating,” says Nigel Hamilton, the award-winning writer author of the book “JFK: Reckless Youth,” and a self-professed Kennedy critic. “But why not put that out on another entertainment channel then and call it the ‘Sex Lives of the Kennedys?’”
For Kronish these criticisms fall somewhere between pointless and moot. The script, he argued, is still a work in progress and will be annotated and vetted by lawyers before it’s finalized. He says that the research he did for preparation was comprehensive, incorporating between 20 and 25 volumes of Kennedy history written by a host of different journalists and biographers. As for instances in which the script clearly gets it wrong — such as an assertion that John F. Kennedy was responsible for proposing the construction of the Berlin Wall — changes will be made or already have been.
The drama around the series, he says, is a politically-motivated response to Surnow’s position on the production team. “A lot of this stuff would not have occurred had he not have been identified as belonging to the conservative political spectrum,” he said. “Joel does belong to the conservative political spectrum. I don’t.”
The History Channel, too, is standing by the production, with a spokesperson calling Greenwald’s concerns “ridiculous” and “based on nothing.” The series has yet to be cast. But in some ways, Kronish welcomes the early attention.
“It is always nice to have a buzz created around what you are doing,” he said. “But I think in this case it would be somewhat similar, I get the feeling, if somebody criticized a piece that you had written before you had written it based on the fact that they got a hold of your notes.”