Kennedy drama fails to take poll position
A biopic of America's most powerful political dynasty has caused an unnecessary stir, writes Ed Power
Sex, drugs, mob connections, fantastic hair -- the Kennedy saga has enough melodrama and between-the-sheets naughtiness to put any soap opera to shame (though when it comes to gratuitous lesbianism it, like everything else, must bow before Ros Na Run and tremble).
For that reason, there was every expectation the latest re-telling of the Kennedy story would generate a fuss when it debuted on US television several months back. As it happens, it did -- though surely not in the manner its producers had envisaged.
Commissioned by America's History Channel, the eight-part mini-series, from 24 creator Joel Surnow, was dropped with hot-potato quickness by the network, which claimed it wasn't the "right fit". With rival channels equally reluctant to air the biopic (eventually picked up by something called the Reel Channel), conspiracy theorists began to wonder if forces close to what remains one of America's most powerful political families might have come together to suppress the show. Certainly there was no lack of experts lining up to slam Surnow's script -- or at least the early draft that leaked -- as prejudiced and sensationalist. Movie director Robert Greenwald even set up a website, stopkennedysmears.com to protest against the series.
Judging by the episodes already aired on RTE, the Kennedy clan's chief worry must have been that JFK's standing as a rampant lothario would be fatally undermined. Far from painting the president as glamourous and larger than life, The Kennedys portrays him as a bit of a mannequin, a man who speaks in lifeless chunks of exposition and has all the spark of dirty coal bucket. The sin of which the series is ultimate guilty is not that it renders Kennedy cartoonishly sleazy, it's that it makes him boring.
That's despite the best efforts of Greg Kinnear, who struggles spiritedly to capture some of the dead president's charisma and compulsiveness. A decent actor, with a track record in locating the humanity in otherwise unsympathetic characters, two things count against him; the ludicrous Boston accent he is required to adopt (one is reminded of the old Simpsons 'chowdaaa' episode) and a speechifying script, which seems to have been cobbled together from post-primary history books. Rather than having conversations, characters spew facts at another, in an effort to better educate the viewer.
There was a hope the stunt casting of Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy might give the show a pulse -- or at least some camp comic relief. An actress who had the unfortunate privilege of marrying Tom Cruise at the precise moment it became clear he was the weirdest person in Hollywood -- an honorific which at the time still included Mel Gibson -- her career had seemingly vanished down the sinkhole. Well she's back, playing Jackie as a vacant ice-queen, disinterestedly turning a blind eye to her husband's serial philandering and pill-popping. Glassy of gaze and vacant of pout, hers is the demeanour of someone who checked their life-force in at the cloak room.
That The Kennedys failed in the US points to a profound difference in how politicians are perceived either side of the Atlantic. In this part of the world, television portrays them as pathologically venal, conniving low-lives, who'll do anything to achieve or cling to power. From A Very British Coup to Yes Minister to The Thick Of It, the message is that politicians would as soon knife you in the kidneys as kiss your baby. Whatever is required to clamber another centimetre up the greasy poll. There is no deference in such portrayals, just a Paxman-esque air of contempt.
Contrast this with America, where The West Wing serves as the archetype for politicians on the small screen. Though not without his flaws, Martin Sheen's President Bartlet was clearly meant as an inspirational figure, the liberal ideal of what a commander-in-chief should represent. Over here, such a caricature would be rejected precisely because he was too good to be true. In America, that was the very reason people loved him. He was their fantasy president -- and considering they were about to go through eight years of George W. Bush, who could blame them for embracing him so enthusiastically?
In order to get beneath the skin of their political class, America has had to look to an outsider. The creator of BBC's The Thick Of It, Armando Iannucci, has been hired by HBO to write Veep, a political satire set in the office of a fictional American vice-president.
The bad news is that it isn't scheduled to air until 2012. Until then, we've got the remaining episodes of JFK to sustain us. If you find all the dreariness a bit much, you can always amuse yourself by watching Greg Kinnear trying not to be acted off screen by his cardboard quiff.