BY: LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES – Joel Surnow is adamant that the Kennedy family legacy will survive and even be enriched by his eight-part TV miniseries that starts this weekend.
To those who scoff, the executive producer suggests they watch the drama which, well before it was filmed or aired, was pummeled as a historical distortion by Kennedy associates, admirers and others.
“The Kennedys,” developed over a two-year period for the History channel and then abruptly dropped in January, found a foster home on cable’s ReelzChannel. The $30 million series begins Sunday with a two-hour episode and, in what ReelzChannel CEO Stan Hubbard calls “old-school miniseries treatment,” unfolds in a compressed window through April 10.
Greg Kinnear stars as President John F. Kennedy, Tom Wilkinson as family patriarch Joesph Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy and Barry Pepper as Robert Kennedy.
Among the detractors was former Kennedy administration aide Theodore Sorenson, who before his death last October attacked the miniseries’ script as malicious and vindictive. Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald shepherded a petition drive to get the project shelved.
Surnow dismisses such criticism as unwarranted.
“There are certain people who are still invested in the image of Camelot,” Surnow said. “Yet, ironically, I don’t think we’ve tainted that image. I think that after this miniseries is over these people (the Kennedys) still come off as glamorous and larger than life … but you see them as people.”
A self-described conservative who produced a comedy newscast for Fox News Channel, Surnow himself has been a lightning rod for those cynical about “The Kennedys.” Recalling attacks on Oliver Stone and his “Nixon,” Surnow dismisses the idea that one’s politics should affect artistic options.
“It’s a very limited and small-minded thing to assume that if you’re a Democrat you can’t write a movie about a Republican,” he said. “It’s like saying if you’re a woman you shouldn’t write men, or if you’re black you shouldn’t write about white people. It’s really absurd.”
“I’ve been an agnostic filmmaker and writer my whole life. I just go where the story is,” Surnow said.
What those who tune in will see, according to Surnow, is a scrupulously researched dramatization that examines the powerful American family through the prism of Joe Kennedy’s ambitions and his fraught relationship with eldest sons Joesph Jr. and John.
The choice of the personal over the political is “the entire conceit of the show,” Surnow said.
“We’ve seen all the historical dramatizations of the Kennedys, the assassinations, the Cuban missile crisis. Our idea was to put the politics and events in the background and play out a family drama,” he said, one that shows the Kennedys as “flesh and blood.”
The miniseries singles out Joe Kennedy’s fixation on power and the White House as the key driver behind the family’s public service.
A notable exception is John’s determination to fight in World War II despite a back ailment and against his father’s wishes. But John’s return as a decorated Navy hero leads to a sour scene in which brother Joe — a bomber pilot who had yet to earn a medal despite more than two-dozen missions — derides his achievement.
Joe Jr., depicted as returning to combat in a cynical ploy to ensure he’s presidential material, was killed on a mission in 1944.
Surnow said that sibling rivalry, as with other elements in the drama, is based on the historical record. Among the resources used were “A Thousand Days” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Sorenson’s “Kennedy,” “The Death of the President” by William Manchester, and transcripts of taped Oval Office and Cabinet discussions, said screenwriter Stephen Kronish.
Reelzchannel’s Hubbard said the miniseries is unchanged from the one rejected for the History channel. Asked if he had any reservations about the project, he replied, “Not only no reservations, but I’m still kind of mind-boggled by what the problem is.”
“I expected to see perhaps some elements of Kennedy bashing, abominations of history, maybe even some places where the movie isn’t even that good. But what I saw was the complete opposite. The movie is beyond good,” he said. “It’s not Kennedy bashing by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the Kennedys come out looking really good.”
To support the series’ historical accuracy, Hubbard said, ReelzChannel’s website offers links to background on events and people in the drama that stretches from the 1930s to the late 1960s. The resource also is available as an iPad application.
When the planned History broadcast was killed, the channel said it had concluded “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Kennedy family members had quietly lobbied against the project since it was announced in 2009 and had stepped up their efforts as its History air date neared. There has been no public comment from the family.
Surnow said he received no substantive explanation of the decision he says came not from the channel but its corporate owner, A&E Television Networks, which itself is owned jointly by NBC Universal, the Walt Disney Co. and the Hearst Corp.
“This was all done without anybody having seen it, which is the real travesty of it,” said Surnow.
After all the drama, he said, his hope for the project is relatively modest.
“I just want people to be entertained. At the end of the day, it’s not a history lesson but a very good entertainment.”
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