The Series They Tried to Block
By Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal
It’s not likely the audience for “The Kennedys” will be spending much time pondering what it was about this potent, lavishly produced eight-hour miniseries airing on ReelzChannel beginning Sunday night that caused former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen, self-described political activists like the filmmaker Robert Greenwald, and concerned others to go to so much trouble to get the project quashed. That’s because that audience will be too busily enthralled by this dramatization of the Kennedy family saga—too much in the grip of powers like Tom Wilkinson’s altogether unforgettable portrayal of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.—to be concerned with such matters.
That’s not to say the matter doesn’t deserve a minute’s pondering. Those who objected to the film’s depiction of some of the not-so-sunny aspects of the Kennedys’ history—hardly any of them exactly unknown to the world—did after all succeed, for a time, in their efforts to keep “The Kennedys” from being broadcast. The History Channel, which had commissioned the work, suddenly declared, in a January statement, that this work and its dramatic interpretation were not, after all, “a fit for the History brand.” That assertion of fastidiousness must have come as news of note to longtime viewers of the History Channel. This is the same channel that broadcast—as a documentary—a 2004 film called “The Guilty Men” that claimed to prove that Lyndon Johnson had personally arranged for the assassination of John Kennedy. In defense of this special from the fever swamps, History Channel spokespersons argued that it had been “meticulously researched”—and did so till outraged response to the film forced them to reconsider.
“The Kennedys” makes no claim to be a documentary; it’s historical drama with all that the genre invariably brings with it, including invented scenes and dialogue. There is also invented atmosphere—a faintly ominous “Wuthering Heights” mood that pervades this Kennedy White House.
Still, there’s no mistaking the authoritative history on which “The Kennedys” draws. As the narrative moves through key crises of the JFK (Greg Kinnear) presidency—the Bay of Pigs invasion, the integration battles, the building of the Berlin Wall, and, above and beyond all these, the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba—we can practically hear the tapes and see the memoirs on which the scenes are based. No crisis scene, of course, approaches the heart-stopping quality of the one in which Kennedy, his advisers and members of the Joint Chiefs heatedly—and fearfully—hash out U.S. options in the face of imminent threat of nuclear war with the Soviets.
This is the event that establishes Kennedy’s stature and the one, in the series, that seems thereafter to enlarge him in other ways, including the physical. By the time we’ve reached this point—just past the middle of the series—people may be wondering what the great complaint can be about this portrait of the president whose skills and instincts, both psychological and political, made so crucial a difference in averting catastrophe. And one we just barely missed, the narrative usefully—terrifyingly—reminds us with all the persuasiveness one would expect from the show’s executive producer, Joel Surnow, co-creator of “24,” and writer Stephen Kronish, also a “24″ veteran. And this near-catastrophe wasn’t fictional.
The sense of a physically larger Kennedy after the missile-crisis scene is telling—a departure from the earlier parts of this series that focused heavily on his disabilities: The Addison’s disease, and above all the back pain that made it impossible for him to sit or stand for any length of time, and that caused him to seek the services of Dr. Max Jacobson—aka Dr. Feelgood—who regularly injected him with a cocktail of uppers. Without this pharmacological aid, he would not be able to function, Mr. Kinnear’s JFK informs Jackie (Katie Holmes), who is also a Feelgood patient—though only for a time—thanks to the exhausting stresses of life as a busy first lady and wife of a chronic philanderer.
It’s in the philandering department that Mr. Kinnear’s performance as JFK falls seriously short. Not because only a few of the better known of the president’s women show up here—among them Judith Campbell, also, and most dangerously, mistress of the notorious Sam Giancana, mafia boss of Chicago. A fuller list of this president’s dalliances would have required a much longer series.
The problem is Mr. Kinnear’s chronically stricken look in the early episodes—one it’s difficult to associate with John Kennedy, and particularly hard to fathom when Mr. Kinnear’s JFK wears that look even when embarking on a sexual escapade. One scene shows him turning to a night with Ms. Campbell because he’s had a bad day with the Russians, he can’t sleep, his back hurts. All the president’s sexual liaisons emerge as similarly joyless—medicinal treatments of sorts. Somehow, one has the feeling that John Kennedy had a much better time pursuing women than depicted here. One would certainly hope so.
Mr. Kinnear is in most other regards impressive in the role. The same can’t quite be said for Katie Holmes as first lady. She gets Jackie’s whispery tone down all right, but not her class. There’s everything to say for Barry Pepper, who delivers a steadfastly affecting performance as Bobby Kennedy—and for Diana Hardcastle, whose portrayal of the indomitable Rose Kennedy is wonderfully blood-freezing in its grasp of the impenetrable. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., whose notoriety as political pariah (the Nazis had no more useful a friend than this devotee of appeasement) and election fixer needs no describing, has never been portrayed with anything like the searing intelligence and delicacy Mr. Wilkinson brings to this portrait. If an argument were needed for this series to reach a far larger audience than the one available now, that portrayal alone would be enough.
“The Killing”—AMC’s grimly atmospheric six-hour series, beginning Sunday—is based on a highly successful Danish television drama about a murdered teenager, the suspicious involvement of a local politician, and a duo of detectives searching for the killer.
Lead detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), stuck with this case, had been eager to go off to a reassignment and new life elsewhere. Any elsewhere would seem better than the Seattle in which this tale is set—a place of Stygian gloom and teeming rain that never stops. A fitting backdrop for this saga. The carefree working-class couple we see playfully enjoying one another are, it’s clear, not going to be happy long—that darkness all around is hint enough. Their much-loved daughter, supposedly away for the weekend, is missing. Michelle Forbes, who plays Mitch Larsen, the girl’s devoted mother, is a sterling portrait in anguish and guilt. She’d never thought to call her daughter. Her husband, Stan (Brent Sexton), has to hold things together. The other two Larsen children, young boys, try to conceal their panic and grief in the now terrible silence of home.