“The Kennedys” Miniseries Review

4 Apr

Television review: ‘The Kennedys’

Despite several strong lead performances, it turns out that even an eight-part miniseries can’t do justice to the story of one of the country’s most dynamic, if flawed, political families.

April 01, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

 

The main problem with “The Kennedys,” the rumor-plagued, eight-part series that was rejected by the History Channel, which had commissioned it, before landing at ReelzChannel, is not one of politics or even accuracy but of scope. It is impossible to tell the story of this iconic family even in eight parts, even by limiting the timeline, as creators Stephen Kronish and Joel Surnow have done, to the years between the beginnings of World War II and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. There is too much back story, too many important events, and too many Kennedys.

Kronish addresses the last of these problems by simply cutting the family in half. “The Kennedys” that the title refers to are Joe Sr. (Tom Wilkinson), Rose (Diana Hardcastle ), John F. (Greg Kinnear) and his wife, Jacqueline (Katie Holmes), Bobby (Barry Pepper) and his wife, Ethel (Kristin Booth). Fourth daughter Patricia is seen briefly in one of the later episodes, married to Peter Lawford and playing hostess to one of his Marilyn Monroe-studded soirees, while Rosemary, the victim of an early lobotomy, appears briefly in flashback. But Kathleen (who died in an airplane crash in 1948); Eunice, who founded the Special Olympics and was married to Kennedy advisor Sargent Shriver; Jean, who eventually became U.S. ambassador to Ireland; and Edward (Teddy), the longtime Massachusetts senator and onetime presidential candidate, are not only not present, they are never even mentioned.

Which is much more troubling than the various scenes of infidelity (Joe’s and Jack’s), election “rigging” (Joe’s), mob connections (Joe’s) and drug use (Jack’s and Jackie’s) that have apparently raised the blood pressure of Kennedy historians, History Channel execs and various industry watchers for reasons that, while watching the actual episodes, is inexplicable. There is nothing in “The Kennedys” that hasn’t appeared before in reputable books, films and articles in the Kennedy-obsessed “Vanity Fair.”

An argument could be made that a channel called “History” might want to avoid docudramas, which rely on artistic interpretation, but if it was the intention of producer Surnow, a political conservative, to sully the Kennedy name, he certainly went about it in a strange manner. Jack and Bobby emerge splendid, smart and heroic despite their flaws, and even Joe, though portrayed as a ruthlessly ambitious father and truly awful husband, appears in the end guilty of little more than old-time campaign tactics and a once-oppressed immigrant’s dream of joining the ruling class.

Casting went a long way toward balancing the script’s inclusion of the unsavory side of being a Kennedy. Wilkinson can do just about anything at this point in his career, and he illuminates equally Joe’s hubris and desperate fear of failure, while, with his perpetually worried eyes, Kinnear plays a JFK in constant pain — from his back, from his father’s expectations, from his own infidelities. Don Draper certainly never felt this guilty about getting a little on the side.

The revelation of “The Kennedys” is Pepper, most recently seen as the snaggletoothed villain in “True Grit,” who delivers an Emmy-deserving performance, slowly building a Bobby who becomes the family’s, and the Kennedy administration’s, spine of steel, aware of the choices and sacrifices he is making and prepared to make them every time. As attorney general, Bobby is the president’s hammer even as he attempts to be his conscience.

The scenes among these three men alone are worth trying to find out if you get ReelzChannel. Unfortunately, they are too often being moved through historical events as if they were chess pieces and are surrounded by a supporting cast not up to their level. Holmes is pretty as Jackie, but her emotions are confined to happy (“I love him”) and sad (“He cheats on me”), with absolutely no nuance and only the occasional flash of spirit, intellect and inner strength that made Jacqueline Kennedy an icon in her own right. As Ethel, Booth is almost unbearably perky in early episodes, although she mellows as the series unfolds; the scenes between Bobby and Ethel are far more poignant and powerful than those between Jackie and Jack. Hardcastle (married to Wilkinson) can’t do much with a Rose who spends most of the series saying her rosary and making pronouncements about God’s will in a broad Eastern accent — it isn’t until the final episode that mention is made of the crucial role Rose played in the political careers of her sons.

But she is just another victim of the genre’s biggest danger. In attempting to be both sprawling and intimate, “The Kennedys” winds up in a narrative no-man’s land. So the tensions of Bobby taking on organized crime, the riots in Mississippi, the Cuban missile crisis and the strained relationship of the brothers with J. Edgar Hoover and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson are treated with the same time constraints and dramatic emphasis as Joe’s endless “recovery” from his stroke and Jackie’s realization that being a first lady is difficult.

While this “greatest-hits” pace does take the potential sting from the more salacious details — Jack’s infidelities are few and far between, Frank Sinatra is blamed for any mob-related fallout, the pep-me-up shots Jack and Jackie receive do little more than pep them up — it also buries the fine performances of its leading men, who too often seem to be simply marching toward their characters’ inevitable doom.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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3 Responses to ““The Kennedys” Miniseries Review”

  1. pawsinsd April 11, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    History Channel now knows it lost a money-maker. Reelz reeled it in. I watched the funeral and got a book to remember those Four Days by. I’d just turned five years old when JFK died and I didn’t even know who he was, only that my mother was crying and a young boy was saluting a casket and a young girl, nearly my age, was placing her hand under a flag to “touch” her father once more. He was our president, so we cried for him. I cried for his children. That’s why the Kennedys are still important in our lives.

    • R Baynes April 19, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

      After seeing this on the History channel in Canada, I have to wonder about the objectivity of the people
      who say it dull, boring,cinematically unsuccessful — etc. etc. Its takes on the various members of the
      JFK administration were original — not an easy task given the number of times this ground was covered Thematically this was a tragedy — not just in terms of death and jury but as a story of a family struggling to cope with conflicinting forces political, religious and domestic over which they had no control –the relationship between Jacquie and Rose Kenned yis multi-faceted and insightfully handled. Of course, many
      of the conversations and situations must have been speculative but that makes the achievement even\
      more impressive.

  2. Marina Dacoran May 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Im not sure why the kennedy’s didnt want this aired. The material is the same old stuff that has been out for years. I actually thought it helped the story showing that jack and jackie were not the perfect couple that their image makers sought to portray them as. I actually liked them and felt that this movie more than any of its ilk made u believe that with all of their faults Jackie and Jack did love each other. I must admit I did not like Ms Holmes portrayal of Jackie and couldnt figure out what accent she was going for because it changed from episode to episode. I think the most eye opening part was how much of a pit bull Bobby was and I now definitely think it played a part in his brothers demise.

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