Review by Mark Wiechman

Narrator:  David Taylor
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  A&E/The History Channel
Features:  None
Length:  300 Minutes
Release Date:  November 25, 2003

Film ***1/2

The story goes that shortly after JFK was nominated for President at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, there ensued a vicious debate among his advisors about his vice presidential choice.  Eventually Jack grew tired of the debate, for he was a man of action and not really the intellectual he pretended to be, and he told his brother Bobby that Lyndon Johnson was his choice.  It was no big deal, he said, because he was a young man who would not die in office… 

While there is no doubt that the tragedy of 9/11/01 was the greatest terrorist act on American soil, the death of JFK sent shock waves through the world in a very different way.  While only one life was lost on 11/22/63, it was as if every American lost a friend.  Even people like me who were not born yet see him as a giant who would have made everything better if he had only lived.  But the reality of his health, only now fully known, is that he may not have lived beyond a first term anyway, slowing wasting away from Addison's disease and eventually burning himself out from using amphetamines.

But the glow of prosperity and patriotism which was on the surface of the American mind in the 1950's burned off in the noon day sun of Dallas that day,  and the unrest that had already begun in the late 1950's exploded soon after JFK's death.  We can only wonder how JFK might have handled the civil rights movement and Viet Nam.  Anyone who could stare down Khrushchev certainly could have kept America together, one would think.  Forget Jeb Bartlett, Kennedy was the man.   

This excellent first program shows a young man who seemed to be the very embodiment of masculine vigor—vigah!--who was a giant, though a flawed one. Through the magic of TV, Americans felt like they knew him personally.  Even many who did not like him or support him could not escape the feeling that America really had royalty, nor the shadow of grief that fell over America when he died.  Walter Cronkite, who did not like Kennedy personally and who calmly reported the news every night to the nation, choked up for a moment when he confirmed to his viewers that Kennedy was gone.  Love him or hate him, the most inspiring figure of the latter half of the century was gone, and to this day no one can say conclusively who killed him.  

Every president since then has tried to catch Kennedy's fire, and no one has come close.  Government programs come and go, but the Peace Corps goes untouched like the Eternal Flame itself.  While his all too human failings are better known, so is his physical suffering, and his courage seems even more palatable. 

Even though I have read most of the better Kennedy biographies, this film surprised me with little tidbits I did not know and was very fair in discussing "the flawed giant" as most presidents are.  His problems are not glossed over, but rather put into historical perspective in a sympathetic way.  Even callous viewers will be moved by Kennedy's visceral presence and the belief that the New Frontier really was coming and that Camelot may have been an illusion, but one which we still love to this day.

The first feature is by far the best.  This excellent 2003 feature includes interviews with Robert Dallek, author of the recently published John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, the first biography which includes medical information only recently available. 

The pace of the program is swift but not dizzying.  Since every interviewee is either a personal acquaintance of the family or a published historian, the viewer feels like we are there again.

The two other programs, which are on disc two, are good but seem very pedestrian and censored for television. JFK:  A Personal Story goes more into his personality and idiosyncrasies and repeats much of what is in the other two programs.  It seems very quaint compared with the first program. 

Joseph Kennedy, Sr.:  Father of an American Dynasty is very positive without going into too much detail about Joseph Kennedy's endless philandering and focuses on the central contradiction of a ruthless, cunning Wall Street tycoon who also was selflessly devoted to his children.  He was a man of great charity who attended mass regularly but did not hide his affairs.  He was a flawed giant who begot a dynasty.  

Video ***

I was very surprised at the high quality of the picture and the ease with which it flowed, considering the age of the footage.  Only minimal distortions and other problems inherent in old news footage were noticeable.  The editing is also excellent and before you know it, an hour has gone by.  Images show both Kennedy's vigor and his all-too-human frailty. 

Sound ***

Only stereo, but levels are fairly consistent and just as with the video, quality of the old news broadcasts is better than you might expect. 

Features  (Zero Stars)

None .


Anyone wanting to know about JFK’s presidency with its missed opportunities and great triumphs will not be disappointed.  Hopefully the History Channel will also release their recently aired documentaries including The Men Who Killed Kennedy and others.