The Kennedys’ Mini-Series: Sorting Fact from Fiction - Brave New Films
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The Kennedys’ Mini-Series: Sorting Fact from Fiction

By Luchina Fisher of – March 31,2011

When the controversial mini-series “The Kennedys,” starring Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear, debuts Sunday night, viewers will finally get a chance to see what all the fuss has been about.

In January, History Channel dropped the $25 million production it had optioned two years earlier, saying in a statement, “After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”

Showtime, FX and Starz all passed on the eight-part drama before ReelzChannel, an Albuquerque-based digital outlet available in about 60 million homes, picked up the U.S. rights, reportedly for a fraction of the cost. “The Kennedys” will also air in over 30 countries, including on Britain’s History Channel, in the coming months.

Much like John F. Kennedy’s assassination, conspiracy theories abound for why the series was dropped by History, whose parent company A&E is owned in part by ABC’s parent company, Disney. But criticism about its historical accuracy hounded the project long before filming began.

Among the critics is liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who led a campaign called “Stop Kennedy Smears” with several prominent historians and JFK adviser Theodore C. Sorensen.

Before his death in October, Sorensen, who saw a version of the screenplay in 2010, said, “Every single conversation with the president in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened.”

“It wasn’t merely stupidity or getting facts wrong,” Greenwald told “They are in fact making things up from whole cloth.”

His biggest objection, he said, is that the drama reduces President Kennedy’s driving motives to “power and sex.”

Muse Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment, the series’ producers, defended “The Kennedys” in a statement earlier this year: “We are proud of the work all of our talent put into the making of ‘The Kennedys’ and the painstaking efforts that went into creating a drama that is compelling while rich in historic detail.”

While most critics have panned the series, calling it “hamfisted,” “cheesy” and “shallow,” the New York Post critic Linda Stasi praised it as “one of the best, most riveting, historically accurate dramas about a time and place in American history that has ever been done for TV.”

Is “The Kennedys” historically accurate or making up the facts? We asked historian David Nasaw, the Arthur Schlesinger Jr. professor of history at the City University of New York, to fact-check a few of the series’ scenes.

1. While ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy Sr., played by British actor Tom Wilkinson, fondles his secretary while dictating a note to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. He suggests that in order to keep the peace in Europe, certain concessions be made to Hitler.

Critic Stasi wrote in her review that the drama rightly portrays Joe’s “anti-Semitic, Hitler-apologist stance.”

  • ‘The Kennedys’
  • Nasaw, who is currently working on a biography of the Kennedy patriarch, said: “Joe was certainly not a Hitler apologist. He, like everybody else in England and the U.S. in ‘38, would have preferred to come to some sort of agreement with Hitler rather than go to war.”
  • 2. Brothers Jack and Bobby Kennedy discuss their sexual drives after their father pressures Jack to marry in 1951. Bobby says he loves Ethel, to which Jack responds, “I love lobster, but not every night. If I don’t have some strange a** every couple of days, I get migraines.”
  • Nasaw: “They all had foul mouths, Joe especially, and they joked with one another all the time. Based on everything I know about the family and their interaction, this is something they would have stayed away from — their sexual escapades. It’s not something the brothers would have discussed with one another.”
  • 3. Joe Sr. kisses his secretary in front of his wife Rose, played by Diana Hardcastle. Resigned, Rose offers a sweater to the young woman.
  • Nasaw: “That’s just crazy. Joe in his own way loved and respected Rose. He would never have put her in that situation. Whether he was carrying on with this secretary or not, I don’t know. What I can say is he wouldn’t have embarrassed Rose like that. That was not part of the relationship. That was something he did behind closed doors. He did everything he could to protect Rose. They had a relationship that was absolutely unique.”
  • 4. Joe Sr. offers Jackie Kennedy a $1 million trust if she promises to stay with Jack, with the caveat that if he loses the presidency, she can leave him and keep the money.
  • Nasaw: “When they began this project, the producer said he was going to do a “Godfather” epic and this family fits perfectly. A lot of these inaccuracies come because he wants to make the Kennedy boys into the Corleone boys, and Joe into the Godfather. If Jackie was going to leave Jack, she was going to get more than $1 million. It doesn’t make sense.”
  • Fact-Checking ‘The Kennedys’
  • 5. Joe Sr. buys off Chicago mobster Sam Giancana in an effort to help win Jack’s presidential election.
  • Nasaw: “I have no evidence whatsoever of that. If you look back on all the literature, only after the assassination is it that these stories come out. People had lots of bad things to say about Joe during his life, but never this one. If you look at his wealth he didn’t need Giancana at all. He had more than enough money.”
  • 6. Joe demanded that JFK make Bobby Attorney General. Both brothers were against it, but neither was willing to stand up to their father.
  • Nasaw: “There was probably a demand. It may even have been a confrontation. The fact was JFK was his own man, and Joe knew it. But if I had two sons, I would tell my son, the president, to make your brother the Attorney General. I don’t see why it would be a surprise.”
  • Later, Nasaw added, “It’s no mystery to anybody in the family that Joe Sr. had his wishes Jack would go into politics, but Jack made the decision.”
  • 7. When Joe Sr. learns that Jack is romantically involved with Inga Arvard, a married Danish woman who has been linked to counterintelligence activities, he places a call to the Secretary of the Navy and has his son shipped overseas when Jack refuses to break off the relationship with Arvard.
  • Nasaw: “That’s entirely false. The absolute last thing Joe wanted was for his sons to go overseas. He dreaded it. The boys wanted to. He didn’t want either one, Jack or Joe Jr., to. Jack was terribly frail and sickly. Joe never thought he would survive. This was something Jack decided against his wishes.