Thursday 14 November 2019

Kennedy unmasked

Paul Whitington on the outrage caused by a new TV series that shows JFK, warts and all, as a pill-popping president with Mafia links

Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It's almost 48 years since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by a sniper in Dallas, but his political legacy is still being bitterly fought over in America. And now a TV mini-series, of all things, has become the focus of a nasty spat between left and right.

'The Kennedys' is hardly the first TV drama to have poked around in Camelot -- by my count, there have been at least 20 of them.

But while most have been reverential hagiographies, this new show has dared to paint JFK and his immediate circle as all too human.

A lavish, eight-part mini-series, 'The Kennedys' stars Greg Kinnear as the man himself and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It covers the period between Jack's election in 1960 to his assassination in Dallas in November 1963, but its frank depiction of Kennedy's marital problems and his and Jackie's enthusiastic pill-popping has enraged veterans on the American left who still consider JFK a saint.

The first sign of trouble came in January when The History Channel, which had commissioned the $25m show, decided to drop it. They commented that The Kennedys' "dramatic interpretation" of real events was "not a fit for the History brand".

For a time, it seemed the show would never be screened at all until an obscure, film-orientated cable station called ReelzChannel picked it up. And now the BBC is rumoured to have bought it for screening in these parts later in the year.

Kennedy worshipping has long been a popular sport in this country, whose inhabitants remain loyally grateful to the family who conclusively proved that being an Irish Catholic didn't automatically mean owning a pig and eating raw potatoes.

But Kennedy fans here are unlikely to be enamoured of 'The Kennedys', which has outraged elderly Democrats across America.

Joel Surnow, who also created '24', is the show's producer, and he's been accused of engaging in politically motivated revisionism. Certainly, his credentials would rouse suspicions: he is a close friend of right-wing shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, a lifelong supporter of the Republican Party and, in a recent 'New Yorker' interview, Surnow confessed that he could hardly think of his hero, Ronald Reagan, without "bursting into tears".

Hardly the chap to provide a balanced account of the JFK presidency, then, and 'The Kennedys' is packed with moments guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of Democrats everywhere. Joe Kennedy (played with aplomb by English actor Tom Wilkinson) is depicted as a a power-mad king maker with extensive Mafia connections who'll do anything to get his sons to the highest office in the land.

Which may be a true enough portrayal as far as it goes, but I doubt that the real Joe Kennedy came out with any statement as crass as "this country is ripe for the taking". But Joe, like all villains, gets most of the good lines. When Bobby remarks on the day after the 1960 presidential election victory that it was the closest margin in American history, Joe dryly replies, "You don't think I was going to pay for a landslide".

The show, as mini-series do, tends to mix very serious events with the kind of romantic sub-plots that would not seem out of place in 'Dallas'.

For instance, as Jack and Bobby battle to save human civilisation from annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jacqueline storms off to indulge in angry horse-riding in Virginia while she contemplates leaving her philandering husband.

Still, this is a TV mini-series after all, and some concessions must be made to entertainment. But political commentator Richard Reeves has said that drug use is so prevalent in the drama that "it's like they shot it in a pharmacy".

Others have questioned its dubious grasp of history, and former Kennedy adviser Ted Sorenson has gone further, describing the show's screenplay as a "one-sided, right-wing script" with a "vindictive, malicious" agenda.

There's even a suggestion that the show is a kind of belated riposte to the 2003 CBS mini-series 'The Reagans', which caused outrage in Republican circles and was accused of portraying Ronald Reagan as a buffoon.

Whatever the reason, 'The Kennedys' is probably the first high-profile TV drama to have a serious pop at the man who was canonised across the world in the days and weeks after his untimely death. In the earliest TV dramas inspired by his life, Kennedy was played as a lone hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders, and no mention was made of his extracurricular activities.

In 'The Missiles of October' (1974), William Devane was well cast as JFK during the dark days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a young Martin Sheen played Bobby Kennedy. Sheen, of course, was a natural choice to play Jack Kennedy himself, and he did so memorably in a 1983 mini-series called 'Kennedy', which offered hints of darkness behind the famous smile, but not much.

However, as time passed and the details of Jack Kennedy's amorous adventures became widely known, dramatisations of him became necessarily more complex. An ambivalent attitude to JFK began to surface once TV dramas turned their attention to his stylish wife.

There have been a good half-dozen mini-series about Jackie at various stages of her life, beginning with 'Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy', a lush, soft-focus affair that concentrated more on romance than history.

Former 'Charlie's Angels' star Jaclyn Smith was certainly pretty enough to look the part, but James Franciscus's Jack Kennedy was more of an accent than a performance.

Jeanne Tripplehorn, Blair Brown, Jacqueline Bisset and Sarah Michelle Gellar have all played Jackie Bouvier in TV dramas, all of which have tended to portray her as the put-upon and long-suffering victim of her husband's compulsive womanising. But her own darker side, for instance her blind social ambition, is rarely investigated.

The Kennedys is not the first drama to portray JFK as something less than saintly. The 2004 drama 'Cover-Up '62' implicated him (with scant evidence) in the supposedly suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe. And 'Power and Beauty' (2002) made even more scandalous suggestions about his private life.

The best dramas have stuck to the facts. Such as 'Thirteen Days' (2000), which powerfully dramatised the events surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was not even derailed by Kevin Costner's dreadful Boston accent.

The Kennedys is broadcast on the History Channel on Thursdays at 9pm

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