Saturday, March 8, 2008


Source Material:

Director: Jim Goddard

Teleplay by: Reg Gadney

Year: 1983

Cast Highlights:
Martin Sheen: John F. Kennedy
John Shea: Robert F. Kennedy
E.G. Marshall: Joseph Kennedy
Geraldine Fitzgerald: Rose Kennedy
Vincent Gardenia: J. Edgar Hoover
Blair Brown: Jacqueline Kennedy
Kevin Conroy: Ted Kennedy
Charles Brown: Martin Luther King
Nesbitt Blaisdell: Lyndon Johnson

In many ways, it's not really possible for me to be a fair judge of this miniseries. I was eleven years old when it premiered, and it formed the basis of much of my early understanding of the Kennedy family. For me, John Shea will always be the definitive Bobby Kennedy and Blair Brown was the ultimate Jackie. On my most recent viewing, I was particularly struck by Nesbitt Blaisdell's depiction of Lyndon Johnson; Blaisdell perfectly nailed LBJ's voice, accent, and mannerisms. Best of all, however, is Vincent Gardenia's J. Edgar Hoover. In Gardenia's hands, Hoover is a villain straight out of Disney. He's dark, depraved, fussy, and bitchy. While I find it hard to imagine that the real Hoover would have been able to stay in power if he acted like such an overt psychopath, Gardenia was a total joy to watch.

The movie also does a good job of covering the many tumultuous events of the Kennedy Presidency. Beginning with election night in 1960 and ending with Kennedy's assassination, it takes its time, analyzing many of the gritty details of RFK's civil rights struggles, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Martin Luther King's rise to prominence, and Hoover's dogged pursuit of the Kennedy men. Given the fact that this was a made-for-TV production, I was particularly impressed by the production quality. It doesn't feel as if the producers skimped on anything, and, while there are a couple of anachronisms, they are very minor.

That having been said, Kennedy doesn't really hold up all that well to scrutiny. While Martin Sheen is an outstanding actor and perfectly nails Kennedy's charm and charisma, he doesn't really look all that much like JFK. Similarly, while his Kennedy accent is decent, it sometimes borders on parody. E.G. Marshall's Joe Kennedy is similarly questionable. In Marshall's hands, Joe Kennedy is thoroughly defanged: he's a charming old codger, not the brutal, verbally abusive, philandering bastard that history records. Even Nesbitt's Lyndon Johnson, which so perfectly hits the mannerisms and look of the man, seems somewhat whiny and petulant, traits that were anathema to the actual LBJ.

Kennedy also tends to get a little worshipful. For example, in the scenes covering the Cuban Missile crisis, the civil rights struggles, and other key moments of the Kennedy presidency, the choreography is very stagy, and the movie occasionally dips into a mawkish nationalism that is somewhat embarrassing to watch. Worst yet, Kennedy's critics are often either ignored, overtly demonized, or soft-pedaled. By undermining the criticisms of Kennedy's policies, the filmmakers strip the human drama that underlay many of his difficult decisions.

The movie also soft-pedals many of the seedier aspects of the clan. For example, Shea displays little of the raw ruthlessness that the real RFK was known for. Worse yet, the movie categorically refuses to deal head-on with JFK's notorious philandering. While the movie makes some oblique references to JFK's sexual escapades, it does so in a "wink-wink, isn't he charming" kind of way. By refusing to condemn its subject for his lack of fidelity, the movie strips JFK of the weaknesses that made him human.

Physical resemblance: 7/10
Historical Accuracy: 7/10
Acting: 9/10
Production Values: 8/10
Cinematography: 8/10
Directing: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

No comments: