TV Review: THE KENNEDYS; A Tedious Blemish On Rose-Tinted Nostalgia

There's a reverence for John F. Kennedy that sits deep in the American psyche. It's commonly said that JFK's assassination in 1963 signaled the end of American innocence, while his administration has come to be seen, by some, as a modern-day Camelot. But time has a habit of whitewashing history, while it's human nature to grasp positives tighter than negatives. The Kennedys is an eight-hour miniseries (airing in four parts) that intends to show a different side to America's First Family, as we see them rise to power while dealing with their personal and professional problems on the world stage. It became a controversial project earlier this year, after original broadcaster The History Channel refused to air it, claiming it wasn't "historically accurate" enough -- an excuse refuted by producer-director Jon Cassar (24), who publicly assured critics every script was checked by a historian for inaccuracies. Whatever the reason for History Channel's cold feet, The Kennedys was shopped around to various networks, before being picked up by the obscure ReelzChannel. It's a strange state of affairs, that has undoubtedly raised The Kennedys' profile, but it's also set unfortunate expectations for a scabrous, acerbic biopic. And while it's true The Kennedys doesn't perpetuate the myth that JFK was a political saint (his womanizing remains a key aspect), on the evidence of the first few hours it's not a damning indictment of the Kennedy dynasty. If anything, it's a slightly tedious mid-afternoon TV Movie. Events open on Election Night of 1960, where Senator John F. Kennedy (Greg Kinnear) is awaiting the results with his virtuous campaign manager brother Bobby (Barry Pepper), beautiful wife Jackie (Katie Holmes), and egocentric father Joseph Snr (Tom Wilkinson.) The first two hours deliver regular bursts of flashbacks, The Godfather Part II-style, that explain how and why JFK is poised to become leader of the free world. Much of his success is down to his doggedly ambitious dad, who failed to reach office himself in 1937 (having committed career suicide by promoting the appeasement of Adolf Hitler.) With his career setback, Joe Snr maneuvered his sons into politics -- particularly his favoured son Joe Jr -- but following Joe's untimely death in the Pacific during WWII, it's second choice Jack who was asked to put aside his own dreams to become his father's groomed puppet. There's a feeling of constraint about The Kennedys. It has a screenplay that unfolds like it's following notes from a Wikipedia article, hoping its intention to show the Kennedy clan in an unflattering light will give it intrinsic value. And sure, it's quite intriguing to see Joseph steer his family towards the White House (even stooping so low as to pay Jackie $1 million to stand by her unfaithful husband, as a divorce would derail his chances of becoming President), but it's also very cartoonish. Tom Wilkinson's a fine actor, but he's battling to reign in a broad caricature here. There are times when Joseph's accent and Machiavellian behaviour crosses over into Hanna-Barbera territory -- although at least we've found the ideal The Hooded Claw in a live-action Penelope Pitstop movie. Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes do what they can with the sketchy, ungraceful material they're given, but both fail to bring any magic to proceedings. JFK and Jackie Kennedy are huge pop-culture icons, but there's nothing in these performances that reminds you of that; while as a screen couple, the actors have precious little chemistry. It's a shame, because if The Kennedys had a few Emmy-baiting performances up its sleeve, that would have dampened its storytelling problems. Barry Pepper's the only actor to deliver a credible performance that feels well-judged and unembellished. The Kennedys doesn't even look that impressive. Its $25 million budget sounds healthy, but that equates to a network standard per hour. Matters aren't helped by apathetic direction from Jon Cassar (lost without 24's whip pans and split-screens?), whose camera-work is flat and uninspired. The way newsreel footage of historical events is dropped into the narrative, often to separate scenes, also makes The Kennedys feel less like a lustrous miniseries and more like a cheap docudrama. Still, it could improve after these first two hours, which only cover the background to JFK's triumph over Richard Nixon at the polls. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the African-American Civil Rights movement, and that fateful drive through Dallas, are still yet to come. And they'll hopefully deliver more passion than this two-hour setup achieves. But without a sense that we're getting a legitimate peek behind the curtain of a great American family, during their short but memorable reign, it could all be for naught. The Kennedys isn't a total waste of time, but it's below average; neither an enthralling love-letter to one of America's renowned presidents, nor an incendiary critique of the Kennedy administration.
WRITER: Steven Kronish DIRECTOR: Jon Cassar CAST: Greg Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Jake Beale, Ava Preston, Eliza Preston, Kristin Booth, Angela Besharah, Serge Houde, Rachel Wilson & Kristin Adams TRANSMISSION: 3 April 2011, ReelzChannel (US) / 7 April 2011, The History Channel (UK)
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