Having been dumped by the History Channel and subsequently disdained by a few other cable networks, The Kennedys, an eight-hour miniseries, airs next week way up on the ReelzChannel. This is a suitably low-rent venue for a production that looks pitiably cheap despite a reported budget of $30 million. It would seem that the producers have spent handsomely on star talent and on hairdressing, with Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes respectively blow-dried and bouffanted into commemorative-plate perfection as JFK and Jackie. It would seem, also, that lower priorities included the construction of credible sets (is the exterior of the White House fabricated from drywall?), the hiring of enough extras to fill out a campaign rally properly or even a family dinner (where’s Teddy?), and contracting the services of a competent dialect coach. Kinnear captures his character’s non-rhotal speech persuasively, for the most part, but other actors have a hahder time, slipping around from the intonations of Mayor Quimby to those of Will Hunting—and when Rose Kennedy, played by Diana Hardcastle, opens her mouth, the voice that emerges rings like Katharine Hepburn’s.
Upon chucking The Kennedys, the History Channel issued a statement that said, in part, “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” The first part of that sentence is so complete a fiction that it is tempting to discount the whole. The film is produced and acted with unconditional mediocrity. This is one of those historical dramas that plays like a forced march of time, with the story advancing because people read stories about themselves in fictional newspapers with names like the United States Tribune. But the dependent clause holds water: In order to be a fit for the History brand, the miniseries would have needed to have a halfway serious interest in, ah, historical analysis, and The Kennedys wants nothing to do with any of that.
Much of the “controversy” surrounding the miniseries owes to the detractors who, doubtlessly emboldened by the fact that creator Joel Surnow (24) is a strident rightist, prejudged it as a smear job. If only. A full-on disgraceful farce—a Terry Southern-inflected number with, say, an exploding-cigar plot to kill Castro and JFK chasing Judith Exner around the South Lawn to the sound of Benny Hill’s “Yakety Sax”—could have been a lot of fun. Instead, The Kennedys is blandly admiring when paying due respect, mildly cheesy when hauling out the trash, and understaged at every turn, the better for viewers to project their own fantasies onto it.
Here, history serves as a backdrop for sentimental romance, psuedo-Shakespearean family drama, and a celebration of the exercise of power. It would be beside the point to dwell upon the benign distortions and necessary simplifications The Kennedys commits when dramatizing the White House’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the integration of Ole Miss, not to mention gruesomely pedantic. That said, I am compelled to point out that, contrary to a screen graphic, there should be a space between Hyannis and Port.
The opening hours of The Kennedys pivot around Election Day 1960, as experienced at the Kennedy headquarters on the Cape. Joe (Tom Wilkinson)—the family’s patriarch, the show’s designated hubristic villain—works the phones with demonic intensity, for instance calling Harry S. Truman to insist that he tell those Missouri Baptists that Jack won’t have his strings pulled by the Pope. Rose works her rosary beads, beginning to beat into the ground the notion that she is the local voice of piety and superstition. Bobby (Barry Pepper), not unlike Michael Corleone, dreams aloud about getting out of the family business now that his job as campaign manager is at an end. Jackie would rather be spending time with Caroline than doing a TV interview, and the tenor of Holmes’ performance, an extended game of dress-up, gives the impression that the nursery is really where the woman belongs. Holmes is at her most unfortunate in scenes depicting the work of a personal physician nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood,” who shoots her up with amphetamines so that she can make it through the busy day. These moments call to mind Alex P. Keaton’s frantic bad vibrations in the “Speed Test” episode of Family Ties.
Jack, here and throughout, is hollow. Even when canoodling with an office blonde on election night—a mere five paces from the front porch!—he is oddly passionless. Flashbacks to Joe’s tenure as the ambassador to the Court of St. James stamp out the idea that Jack has the sense to recognize that Hitler was not a solid guy, so he’s got that going for him. Once he’s in the Oval Office, we see that he’s for the civil rights movement and against losing the Cold War—also good qualities. But The Kennedys is most interested in him as a marketing professional whose style anticipated the pain-feeling of Clinton and the culture of Oprah. It suggests that the pivotal point in his first congressional race came when he talked about his brother’s death in World War II. It supposes that, after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, he rescued his public-approval rating by going on TV to apologize. The bad fictional radio broadcast telling you as much—and very nearly implying that the public’s approval is what we should be most concerned with—plays over a scene of touch football.
In its seventh hour, The Kennedys finally lurches toward Dealey Plaza. (“Hey, Lee,” an employee of the Texas School Book Depository calls out to a colleague, “we’re all headed down the knoll. …”) It speaks to the heart of the show’s kitschiness that the narrative here fragments and flashes back so that the story of the assassination is entwined with the tale of Marilyn Monroe, of her alleged affair with Jack and subsequent drug overdose. (The Marilyn of The Kennedys mostly evokes “Burning Up”-era Madonna, which makes her about one-quarter as embarrassing as the Frank Sinatra of The Kennedys, who mostly evokes nobody.) The miniseries leaves us to suppose that Marilyn killed herself because JFK didn’t love her back and that JFK died because … well maybe the Mafia or the Cubans had something to do with it, but he died because the narrative of America required a modern martyr. Or so you might think when immersed in this thin exercise in pop folklore, a velvet-painting adoration traced with lurid tabloid colors.