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Kennedys, The (Blu-ray Review)

14 Oct, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 10/18/11
New Video
$29.95 three-DVD set, $39.95 three-disc Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper, Tom Wilkinson.

This miniseries depicting the heyday of the Kennedy family in the 1950s and 1960s generated considerable controversy during its production. Political pressures allegedly spurred the History Channel to drop it and it was eventually picked up by the little-known Reelz Channel, where it debuted to great fanfare.

Watching it in its final form, the controversy seems much ado about nothing. There’s not much here that wasn’t otherwise known through documentation or rumor, despite protestations by agenda-driven hecklers trying to sanitize the Kennedy legacy.

The eight-parter focuses on the three key figures driving the Kennedy legacy: Joseph, who has Machiavellian visions for both himself and his children; John Fitzgerald (aka Jack), who would become president; and Robert, attorney general under Jack who would himself run for president.

Joe’s own presidential ambitions were sunk when, as ambassador to England, he sympathized with the movement to appease Hitler. He then formulated a plan for his oldest son to ascend, set back when Joe Jr. was killed during World War II. So he reset the template for son No. 2, which seemed to get a boost from Jack’s hero status after the PT-109 incident (which is referred to in passing but not depicted).

Joe’s political pride over Jack’s rise through the ranks from congressman to senator to president were tempered by other personal tragedies — his daughter Rosemary was lobotomized and left incapacitated in 1941, and another daughter, Kathleen, was killed in a plane crash in 1948.

Then, when his son finally achieves his dream, he can’t share in the joy, isolated from the White House for political expediency and soon felled by a stroke that in turn incapacitated him, depicted as cosmic justice for the perceived mistreatment of his daughter.

The result is something like a Greek tragedy, a mostly entertaining reflection that interweaves the stress of the Kennedys’ public service with the effect it has their private lives. The family story in The Kennedys is one of karmic retribution reaped upon the family for the sins of Joseph, a point the miniseries makes without ever having to mention Ted Kennedy or invoke the name Chappaquiddick.

Dramatically, the plot sets up Bobby as the family’s last hope of wiping away a slate of controversy, corruption and pain that seemed to culminate with the assassination of JFK. Yet his own death during his 1968 campaign shows that fate’s talons can cut deep.

The Kennedys was produced by some of the same people who created “24,” including executive producer Joel Surnow and director Jon Cassar, with music by Sean Callery. And while there’s no mistaking the exploits of Joe and the boys with those of Jack Bauer, there is still plenty of political and personal intrigue to mine.

Rather than present the history of the family as a sweeping narrative, each episode is given its own thematic focus based on specific historical situations. This requires a fair amount of time-shifting with a flashback structure, and at times the writing displays a penchant for simplifying events into soap opera style melodramatics, such as when JFK and Jackie resolve to strengthen their marriage an hour before he’s shot in the head.

Tom Wilkinson makes for an unsympathetic Joe, deliciously smarmy and scheming and prideful in his efforts to change the world, until his stroke turns Wilkinson into basically a statue in a wheelchair for the rest of the miniseries, resulting in some of its most awkward scenes. (A similar effect befell Legend of the Fall’s decision to immobilize Anthony Hopkins).

Still, the best performances are reserved for the guys on top of the bill. Greg Kinnear does a fine JFK impression, and certainly looks the part, while Barry Pepper channels Bobby Kennedy so effectively that his subsequent Emmy win for Best Actor in a Miniseries comes as no surprise. Both men are no strangers to play 1960s historical figures, with Kinnear having played Bob Crane in Auto Focus, and Pepper shined as Roger Maris in 61*.

Character-wise, Pepper has the more challenging task, as Bobby transitions from the political ace supporting the families ambitions to its flag-bearer, and especially as he takes on the weight of enormous guilt he feels over his brother’s death.

Katie Holmes has been savaged in the press for her performances, but I think mostly because it has become fashionable to pick on her. Critics love to vent their various frustrations by piling on easy targets. While Holmes is certainly not of the caliber of her co-stars, she’s not altogether terrible and certainly makes for a fetching Jackie.

Another consideration the production seems to have taken into account his how to avoid covering the same ground as other already famous depictions of events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has been thoroughly dissected in Thirteen Days and The Missiles of October, among others. (This is a relatively minor concern that also affected From the Earth to the Moon and its depictions of the Mercury program and the Apollo 13 mission).

The solution for the Cuban Missile Crisis episode is to present the broad strokes while maneuvering in and around events audiences already should be familiar with by depicting personal moments. The episode also gives us more of Bobby’s perspective while contrasting an America on the brink of war with Jack and Jackie’s own marital troubles after she ferries herself to Virginia after Jack has his advisors yank him out of a piano recital so he can sneak off to a private screening room to watch Spartacus and enjoy the pleasures of his mistress.

There is a lot of political dialogue here that seems like it could apply to circumstances of today, or at the very least make you seriously consider just what has changed over the past 50 years in terms of political attitudes. The script also has a lot of fun depicting the cruel nature of politics in Washington, where normal rules of etiquette and compassion rarely apply.

LBJ, for example, is depicted as a complete tool, relishing his ascension to the presidency by needling Bobby with questions about the proper etiquette of the transition. (As a historical note, LBJ’s question about whether the Chief Justice needs to administer the oath already had an answer in precedent dating back to the Founding Fathers … George Washington’s first oath was administered by a New York State chancellor).

The cruel streak extends through a scene in which Jackie finally leaves the White House — a young widow essentially kicked out of her home as a result of circumstances beyond her control.

The Kennedys was nominated for seven Emmys and won four, for hairstyling, makeup (non-prosthetic) and sound mixing, in addition to Pepper’s acting honor.

The Blu-ray has an extensive 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that interviews the stars and thoroughly examines all aspects of the production, including a nice tour of the Kennedy Oval Office.


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