‘The Kennedys’: After the Debate, the Debut
When the first episode of “The Kennedys,” the costly and controversial mini-series about that American political dynasty, makes its debut on Sunday, a chapter in television history will be closed, but a debate about the balance between accuracy and creative license in historical dramas
Arriving on television shortly after an Oscars race between “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network,” movies that put their own spin on real-life events, “The Kennedys” employs many of the same narrative devices. In chronicling the presidency of John F. Kennedy, it compresses time, consolidates characters and invents dialogue for moments never recorded by history’s pen.
It also dwells on the sexual appetites of the Kennedy men, the use of prescription drugs by the president and his wife, and Joseph P. Kennedy’s interactions with the Mafia, in ways that, depending on your point of view, expose the flaws of historical figures or besmirch the legacy of an American hero.
That would be complicated enough, even without two additional factors. The producer of “The Kennedys,” Joel Surnow, a co-creator of the Fox action series “24,” is an outspoken conservative. (He says that despite his personal politics, the mini-series depicts the family “in an honest yet really reverential and patriotic light.”)
And the History Channel, which commissioned the $25 million series, ultimately rejected it in January after deciding that its “dramatic interpretation” was “not a fit for the History brand.”
Stephen Kronish, who wrote the script (and says he is a liberal), acknowledges that his assignment put him at the center of a paradoxical conflict between truthfulness and telling a good story — a tension exacerbated by an enduring reverence for the central character of the mini-series, President Kennedy himself. “It is a challenge unlike just about any other in our business,” Mr. Kronish said, “when you’re being asked to write dramatic scenes but you’re constricted by what is factually workable.”
That is a challenge amplified by the unique place that President Kennedy and his family continue to occupy in the American psyche.
“Presidents are magic,” said the journalist Richard Reeves, author of several books on the modern presidency. “They walk into a room, and the air changes, and this one, in our lifetimes, above all.”
“The Kennedys,” which will be shown on ReelzChannel, a little-known, film-oriented cable network, has for months been the subject of a heated dispute over its faithfulness to the facts.
Before production began, the mini-series was criticized for a lack of veracity by a group of historians and the Kennedy adviser Theodore C. Sorensen, who were shown early drafts of the scripts after they were obtained by a liberal filmmaker, Robert Greenwald. Historians who consulted on the mini-series had misgivings throughout its production, and reports surfaced that the Kennedy family or its surrogates had sought to have the project shelved.
Filmmakers who frequently work on biographical movies say that success in the genre requires a command of the historical record and the instincts to know when to set history aside.
“At a certain place, you have to leave the research behind and you have to go into the world of drama,” said the director Oliver Stone, whose films include “JFK.,” “Nixon” and “W.”
For these films, about the investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination and the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, Mr. Stone produced heavily annotated screenplays, with numerous footnotes to historical documents, scholarly texts and original interviews — necessary for getting the movies financed and insured, and for responding to claims of inaccuracy or partisan political agendas.
None of which discouraged Mr. Stone from creating what he said were “wholly invented” scenes where he needed them: Nixon being haunted by his dead mother, or comparing Daniel Ellsberg to Alger Hiss.
“That’s all intuition; there’s no evidence of it,” Mr. Stone said. He added: “Every decision that every political leader makes is a result of numerous phone calls, meetings and the ordinariness of life. Very rarely is life as dramatic.”
Dennis Bingham, an associate professor and director of film studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the author of “Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre,” said that fictionalized scenes could be found in practically every biographical film from “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (in 1936) to “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Whether or not audiences forgive these transgressions, Mr. Bingham said, has a lot to do with how they perceive a film over all. “A film that cheats on the actuality may succeed artistically,” he said.
Mr. Bingham said the events of a film like “The King’s Speech,” set in Britain in the 1920s and ’30s, were far enough away in time and, for Americans, in space, that contemporary viewers were unlikely to scrutinize it for its accuracy.
Yet audiences can also forgive “The Social Network,” which portrays the future Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg as a socially maladroit loner, because it “conforms with our own expectations of what he might be like,” Mr. Bingham said.
“If you want to want to find out what Mark Zuckerberg is like in life,” Mr. Bingham said, he is “still young and has the rest of his life to set the record straight.”
But there are no hard and fast rules for how much time must elapse before a biographical film can be made about a person or an event.
Len Amato, the president of HBO Films and a producer of its 2008 film “Recount” about the disputed 2000 presidential election, said, “Generally, distance from the event is your friend.”
But by producing “Recount” as soon as they did, Mr. Amato said, the filmmakers were able to interview many of the people who participated in the events it chronicles. HBO Films is following a similar process for its coming biographical movie “Game Change,” about Senator John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential race.
“We like to speak with everyone,” Mr. Amato said. “Now, everyone doesn’t always take us up on the offer.”
Mr. Reeves said he was not particularly a fan of biographical drama or the historical fiction it perpetrates.
“Is it a legitimate art form?” he said, adding, with some reluctance: “I think probably at this point it is. We accept docudrama in a way now that we didn’t, say, 10 or 20 years ago.”
After viewing “The Kennedys,” Mr. Reeves said he was surprised that its producers cited him as an author whose work they drew upon for its screenplays. “If they did,” he said, “they took the wrong stuff.”
Mr. Reeves was skeptical of several scenes in the mini-series that depicted private conversations among the family members: Joseph P. Kennedy (who is played by Tom Wilkinson) declaring to his sons, “This country is ours for the taking,” or telling Jacqueline Kennedy (Katie Holmes) that he will give her $1 million and allow her to divorce John (Greg Kinnear) if he loses the 1960 election.
And Mr. Reeves said there was so much emphasis on drug use by the president and his wife that “it was like they shot it in a pharmacy.”
But he said over all it was “so ham-handed” and “harmless” that it was unlikely to influence anyone’s opinion about the Kennedys.
“I was hoping it would be very good or just an absolute hatchet job, but it is pretty bland stuff,” Mr. Reeves said. “There’s nothing new in there except stuff that’s made up, and none of that is good enough to make a difference.”
Still, Mr. Reeves argued that the tragic manner of President Kennedy’s death, and the perception still held by many people that life today might be different had he lived, called for some sensitivity to how he was portrayed in these kinds of films.
On this point there was agreement from Mr. Kronish, the screenwriter of “The Kennedys.”
Mr. Kronish said that for Kennedy admirers, a group in which he counted himself: “What they constructed was certainly not made of whole cloth, but it hid a few things. The image that was created was not the full picture of them as people. Images never are.”