Glory Days: An American dynasty up close, in “The Kennedys.”
“The Kennedys,” an eight-episode miniseries that premières April 3rd, is being promoted by the channel airing it as “the most controversial TV-movie event of the year”—a phrase, you’ll notice, that doesn’t express pride in the quality of the show or speak to its degree of importance. It’s a fairly empty boast, but a useful one for ReelzChannel, where “The Kennedys” landed after being rejected, in January, by the History Channel, where the project originated. Acquiring a “controversial” show has given this widely available but little watched and ineptly named channel an identity—and a small superhero cape to go with it—that it never would have had if the History Channel (and then Showtime and a couple of other outlets) hadn’t declined to run the series. Reelz is half movie-industry fanzine—with programs devoted to movie trailers and top-ten car-chase scenes or Bond girls; a review show with Leonard Maltin; and a few actual movies—and half grab bag of chestnuts, some of them a little wormy at this point, such as “Cheers,” “Becker,” “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and “Ally McBeal.” And now along comes “The Kennedys,” cannonballing into the pool.
Objections to the series, which was developed by Joel Surnow, the bluntly conservative co-creator of “24,” started appearing more than a year ago, when several Kennedy historians and insiders protested its existence—before it actually did exist, or had even been cast. As reported in the Times, Theodore Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter, and the crusading filmmaker Robert Greenwald—whose documentaries shine a light on, for example, the ugliness of Rupert Murdoch, Wal-Mart, and the American contractors who capitalized on the war in Iraq—complained about the scripts-in-progress. Greenwald referred to the work as “political character assassination,” and Sorensen, on a Web site that Greenwald set up, called StopKennedySmears.com, argued that “this one-sided, right-wing script” suffers from “a vindictive, malicious approach.” Visitors to the site were encouraged to sign a petition stating, “Until The History Channel stops running politically motivated fiction as historical ‘fact,’ I will refuse to watch their programming.”
In the end, the History Channel executives gave up the project, releasing a statement that said, “After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Lest anyone fear that the channel had suddenly gone mad and was pretending to be something it isn’t—a straight-up history channel that doesn’t allow artistic license—they offered sugary reassurance: “We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series.” Right: here’s a commendation for you, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
Viewers who never worked for the Kennedys or wrote books about them (or for them: Sorensen helped out, shall we say, with John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage”) may not be experts, but “The Kennedys” doesn’t actually come across to the semi-knowledgeable, Kennedy-steeped American adult as having a political agenda. It has a dramatic agenda, and, in service of that, its creators—Stephen Kronish, who worked with Surnow on “24,” is his writing partner here—made certain choices that were bound to upset interested parties. Among those reportedly in that camp are Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver, who are said to have put pressure on the History Channel’s parent network, A&E, with which they share a web of personal and professional connections, to pull the plug on the show. I suspect that their objections amounted to matters of taste and style: snobbery about the compromises and fakery of docudramas (which I share), a desire not to dwell on the unsavory aspects of their family’s legacy (which I understand), and an intense irritation at not being able to control the narrative as it plays out in public (which anyone can understand). Surely there was also a desire to protect their remaining elders: the miniseries was developed at a time when the last of the parents and aunts and uncles were beginning to die—five of them have gone in the past six years. (Of that older generation only one Kennedy sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and one spouse, Ethel Kennedy, are still alive.)
I can’t say why the History Channel felt the need to run another Kennedy story; there are already hundreds of books, scores of documentaries—some of them produced by the History Channel—and a fair number of docudramas that cover overlapping ground. But if you are going to try to retell the story it’s simply not possible to separate the personal from the political. How, or whether, John F. Kennedy’s character and personal life affected his policymaking is a legitimate subject for interpretation, and a storyteller is free to be wrong—probably bound to be wrong—in the effort to get at some kind of truth or insight. “The Kennedys” focusses, insistently, on the relationships between Joseph P. Kennedy, the family patriarch, and his three oldest sons, the avatars of his political ambitions, and on John F. Kennedy’s relationships with his wife, Jackie, and his brother Bobby. The viewer can only be grateful for the centrality of Joe Kennedy (who is brought to magnificent life by Tom Wilkinson); I swear that my heart beat faster whenever he was onscreen, because of the mixture of fear and admiration that his confidence, unscrupulousness, and determination inspired. (One incident dramatized in the series certainly illustrates Joe’s horror of imperfection: he has his daughter Rosemary lobotomized as a young woman, because she is uncontrollable, and he doesn’t even tell his wife until afterward.) It’s a depiction that fits the most current image we have in our culture of Joe, Sr., behind the wheel of the destinymobile, eyes on the road, with Jack and Bobby sitting sulkily in the back seat, reluctant passengers on a joyless ride. Joe suffered a devastating stroke in 1961, which rendered him speechless and wheelchair-bound until he died, seven years later. For the second half of the miniseries, he’s in that condition; Wilkinson’s fearsomely hard eyes convey Joe’s egocentric rage—and we feel very much like his wife, Rose (Diana Hardcastle), regarding him with both genuine pity and a sense of satisfaction that he can do no more harm.
It may strike some viewers that the series’ juxtapositioning of the personal and the political trivializes history. A scene in which Rose, the doyenne of disapproval, is one-upping the new mother Jackie (Katie Holmes)—“I had all my children at home, as you know”—gives way to Bobby (Barry Pepper) bowing to his father’s will in agreeing to become attorney general, then cuts to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, then to a conversation between Bobby and J. Edgar Hoover (Enrico Colantoni), and then comes back to Rose instructing Jackie to learn to overlook her husband’s womanizing. It’s true that there isn’t quite enough history in the series—if there was a mention of Vietnam during the depiction of J.F.K.’s Presidency, I missed it, and only the highlights of other events are hit. But where “The Kennedys” really fails is in its attempt to make this family—this lively family—seem real. Pepper and Greg Kinnear are merely earnest and blandly likable as Bobby and Jack, lacking the Kennedy spark, and Holmes hasn’t deepened as an actress since her not very deep days in the teen soap opera “Dawson’s Creek.” There’s no chemistry between Holmes and Kinnear; there’s barely even physics—they hardly come into contact with each other. The score, by Sean Callery, who also wrote the music for “24,” suggests dreariness and treachery. Jackie smokes all the time; Jack’s in constant pain; the houses are too quiet—even Bobby’s, which is home to a notably large brood.
If Surnow wanted to burn through any remaining aura of glamour and goldenness that surrounds the Kennedys, he succeeded. Their lives come across as a plodding, forced march—anything but enviable. We come away with a new understanding of the extent of the Kennedys’ dysfunction but without a sense of what made them special or of how they harnessed their talents. But what you see in Wilkinson’s eyes—they’re black holes, devouring everyone in sight—almost makes up for what’s missing from the writing; they, more than any other element in “The Kennedys,” convey the awfulness and the glory of this family’s version of the American dream. ♦