Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie
Holmes, Tom Wilkinson
Director: John Cassar
Audio: English Stereo, French subtitles
Video: Color Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: New Video Group
Features: See Review
Length 353 minutes, three Blu Ray discs
Release Date: September 20, 2011
Jackie: They don’t have a nursery in the White House.
JFK: Yes they do, it’s called the Cabinet Room.
I have no idea if the above conversation actually took place, but the banter is realistic and touching as JFK is taking his medications and strapping himself into his back brace on election day, November 1960. This series was originally set to air on the History Channel but due to the family outcry, it was delayed and eventually shown on the Reels network and is now available for a very reasonable price on DVD and Blu-Ray.
On one hand, it is easy to see why the family and their friends might not want this eight-episode miniseries to be shown, since it portrays the hidden poor health of JFK, his heavy medication regiment, the mean streak of Joseph Kennedy, probable election rigging, philandering, and so on. But then most of us know about these things from other miniseries and the innumerable books about the Kennedy family. This is not meant to be a documentary, but a dramatization, and it is very good and fairly sympathetic to the family. It is not a hatchet job nor a drooling tribute but a successful attempt to put the viewer right in the middle of the family’s history.
So now that the series has been broadcast, what was the family so up in arms about? Because the truth was being told, again? That Camelot was more of a fantasy than a reality? That people are just people after all? A family that was in the public eye long before the myth of Camelot was created should not be so sensitive.
Joseph Kennedy: “ It’s the Harvard and Yale guys you’re talking to, the Ph.D.’s. Their only allegiance is to their resumes. Bobby’s as smart as any of ‘em and he’ll jump under a train for you.”
Many leaders of the time including FDR himself did not know what to make of Joseph Kennedy with his unnerving steely voice and blue eyes. How could such a ruthless businessman and political force genuinely love his children so selflessly? Or was he channeling his ego into them? As portrayed wonderfully by Englishman Tom Wilkinson, it was probably both. The contradiction does not seem fake or forced in his excellent performance as a character who is practically the opposite of Ben Franklin, whom Wilkinson portrayed wonderfully in John Adams. And in this portrayal Joe does not seem to fully understand what his “final solution” for daughter Rosemary would mean.
Greg Kinnear does resemble JFK somewhat, but the mannerisms and body language might have been more important than any physical resemblance. Jack Kennedy was a complicated man who suffered almost constant severe back pain and other serious medical problems, while never accepting failure and trying to make his wife and father happy. All the while he seduced women who could have blackmailed him through mutual friends including mob bosses and Washington elites. We are fascinated with Kinnear’s portrayal as we meet the man rather than the legend.
Another theme of the series is that while JFK was more his father’s son, RFK was more like his devout mother. On the other hand, JFK was anything but an appeaser, and he was not ruthless like his father except in the pursuit of every lovely woman in town. RFK was ruthless but not a womanizer, possibly because he was much younger and spent more time with Rose Kennedy who attended mass regularly and tried to live the faith. Barry Pepper may not resemble RFK, even with more hair, but his speech patterns were perfect, and he deserved the Emmy he won for this role.
Katie Holmes also manages to capture Jackie’s enigmatic smile and whispy voice, she is clearly in love with Jack but the sexual tension between her and Bobby after Jack’s death is palpable. She was an inspired choice for the most popular First Lady.
Much of the story is told in flashbacks, with dates and locations at the bottom right corner of the screen. This technique usually does not work but is effective here. Even the casual viewer should be able to follow the story. The entire production is very human and believable. One is reminded of John Lennon saying that the Beatles were “just a band, that’s all,” and I can’t help thinking if JFK had lived out a natural life he would have said that he and his family were just human after all. He might have cringed at Jackie efforts to elevate him to something mythical after his death.
Some viewers have expressed disappointment that Teddy Kennedy and the Kennedy sisters are not portrayed at all. The series ends with Bobby’s assassination. This is a fair criticism, but it was better to tell an in-depth story of the parents and brothers who had the most impact. Nothing against people such as Eunice Kennedy, who founded the Special Olympics, but again this is not a documentary but a dramatization that was held to eight hours. It would probably take triple that to talk about them all.
Plenty of sepia tones that seem to make it seem like a home movie of the era, but overall colors are vivid and realistic in this excellent Blu-Ray release. The overall production seems down to earth, more Boston than Hollywood, as it should be. Some sequences are black and white, and often transform into color very believably.
Only stereo, but the mix of the wonderful soundtrack and dialogue is very good and smooth throughout.
The documentary The Kennedys: From Story to Film is fast-paced and well done. It includes interviews with many principal actors and producers discussing the difficulties in fitting in so many people and issues into only eight hours. They point out, very accurately, that this was going to be a personal story, portraying it as a Greek tragedy and not a hit or a puff piece. Much of the dialogue and interplay is of course unknown to anyone outside the small circle, but this special does accurately portray what I think happened. This 45-minute special allows us to meet each actor and hear their take on the people they portray. We also meet writer Stephen Kronish who had an easy job and a very hard job in telling the story. For example, it is well known that Jackie was uncomfortable as First Lady, and yet is shown growing in her role she juggles the many duties as First Lady with a philandering husband and young children.
While Thirteen Days was an excellent big screen production, The Kennedys makes us feel like we know the family personally. I hope that the trend of releasing excellent television on Blu-Ray at a reasonable price continues. I think we should continue to ask what Blu-Ray can do for you…and for the country!