By FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK — “The Kennedys” opens on the eve of Election Day 1960 with John F. Kennedy voicing high hopes to supporters as a long presidential race comes to an end.
These sequences are intercut with the weary-looking candidate peering in his bathroom mirror at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., the next morning. Self-reflectively, he pops one pill after another for his multiple ailments and to get himself started.
So this is how this show’s going to go, the wary viewer may be thinking: build him up, then tear him down.
“The Kennedys” arrives in a cloud of such suspicion. Grandly announced last spring by cable’s History channel, the eight-part, $30 million miniseries was abruptly dropped by the network in January amid reports that the real-life Kennedy camp, having gotten wind of an early script, was unhappy about the project.
One warning sign: A key producer and writer of the film is Joel Surnow, who, though best-known as a creator of the action series “24,” is also known to be politically conservative. Was he out to get the Kennedys?
After a few weeks in limbo, this hot potato landed at ReelzChannel, where the first two episodes premiere Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT. (Subsequent segments debut April 5-8, with the two-hour conclusion airing April 10.)
Surprise! Despite the bumpy road that got it here, and the stigma attached, “The Kennedys” turns out to be a solidly entertaining portrait.
A cautionary note to those who may have feared (or hoped) this docudrama would engage in Kennedy-bashing: “The Kennedys” is a flattering, even affectionate portrayal. Whatever creative license the film has taken in its storytelling, its subjects seem to be the beneficiaries as, even when it dwells on the family’s deficits, it does so with a sympathetic touch.
Yes, Jack’s physical problems are showcased. On Election Day, Jackie is seen strapping him into a back brace and, as he descends a staircase, he must take one painful, halting step at a time. At another point, he needs help rising from his chair in the Oval Office.
“My body’s breaking down,” he tells Jackie. “I can’t stand for more than 20 minutes. I can’t sit for more than five. If the public knew the shape I was in, they’d boot me out of here.”
But in this film, the battles Jack wages with his health humanize, not diminish, him.
So does his womanizing, which is an ongoing issue in his marriage, but displayed on-screen very sparingly. His dalliances are mostly talked about.
“Bobby, I’m not a kid anymore, but I keep acting like one,” Jack tells his brother mournfully after Jackie, discovering his latest tryst, has fled to Camp David. “I think she’s finished with me.”
But she’s not, of course. She returns with the kids to the White House, where Kennedy is busy tackling the Cuban Missile Crisis and “saving the world,” as Jackie tells little Caroline.
And a year later, on that fateful flight to Dallas in November 1963, Jack and Jackie declare their love for each other anew.
“The Kennedys” is, if anything, a tribute to this family – its accomplishments, its vision and the awful price exacted for its outsized ambition.
The film’s biggest problem is its cast. Tom Wilkinson is fine as Joseph P. Kennedy, capturing the family patriarch’s ruthless drive and harsh authority, while Barry Pepper is credible as Robert F. Kennedy, Jack’s sensitive and fiercely loyal sidekick.
But Greg Kinnear serves as the latest reminder that no actor has yet copied Jack Kennedy’s magnetism. Kinnear makes JFK likable and earnest. But this Jack has no sex appeal, nor any chemistry with Jackie.
In the equally daunting challenge of portraying the First Lady, Katie Holmes seldom gets no closer to her character than being an attractive, slim brunette.
What saves “The Kennedys” is its writing and the lush production values that give it form.
The time frame of the miniseries starts on Nov. 8, 1960 – when voters chose Kennedy over his Republican rival, Richard M. Nixon – and follows the saga through Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 during his own campaign for president.
But along the way there are frequent, gracefully interwoven flashbacks, looping back as far as the 1930s for background on Joe Sr., as well as sons Joe Jr. (targeted for great things until his death in World War II) and Jack (from whom little was expected with Joe the shining star).
In a scene from 1937, the father dispenses sagely cynical advice to these two lads: “It’s not what you are. It’s what people think you are. And with the right amount of money, you can make `em think whatever you want.”
With that sort of creed, Joe Sr. runs things with an iron hand – not least, Jack’s 15-year push for the White House.
A dirty trick masterminded by Joe clinches Jack’s first political race, for Congress. Years later, Joe makes the necessary, um, arrangements to guarantee that all-important Illinois will be in Jack’s column in his presidential bid – a nasty piece of business about which, according to the film, neither Jack nor Bobby had any knowledge.
It is Joe who – over the objection of both the president-elect and his brother, who was ready to leave politics - insists on Bobby as Jack’s choice for attorney general.
Early in the Kennedy presidency, both Jack and Bobby seem innocents buffeted by circumstances beyond their control (the Bay of Pigs disaster, for example), magnified by their father’s intrusions. Then, in a defining moment, they assert their independence and respectfully send their father on his way.
Like most of what happens on “The Kennedys,” it’s a nice twist in the narrative and, however it may clash with the truth, only burnishes the family legend. The fun, sexiness and magic of Camelot is absent from “The Kennedys,” but this is no sliming. So what was all the fuss about?
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