The Kennedys demands to be seen, but its venue is no easy find
03/31/11 11:59 AM
Premiering: Sunday, April 3rd at 7 p.m. (central) on ReelzChannel and continuing Tuesday-Friday and Sunday at the same hour
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, Diana Hardcastle, Kristin Booth
Produced by: Joel Surnow
By ED BARK
Unceremoniously dumped by the History Channel ("not a fit for the brand") and then rejected by several rival networks (not their style), The Kennedys finally comes to rest Sunday night in a comparative van down by the river.
That would be ReelzChannel, currently reaching 56 million homes nationwide but no doubt still a curiosity to most TV watchers. History Channel spent $25 million on The Kennedys before belatedly deciding in January that the 8-hour finished product just didn't meet whatever standards it still has. Leaks of early scripts and the participation of outspoken conservative Joel Surnow (24) as both an executive producer and screenwriter had prompted a wave of naysayers to brand The Kennedys as a hit job on America's most famous political family.
But watching the production in its entirety is a revelation. Sure, there's dirt to be dug, but nothing that hasn't already been unearthed in countless previous books and TV outings. For the absolute bottom-of-the-barrel Kennedy excess story, rewind to 1993's Mariilyn & Bobby: Her Final Affair, originally shown by the USA network. The Kennedy family took the rare step of publicly denouncing it as garbage, but couldn't persuade USA to cease and desist.
The Kennedys, which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. (central) with a pair of one-hour chapters, may not be enthralling to those who already know this story all too well. But it's very ably produced and acted, with at least two strong Emmy possibilities should the seas of political correctness part to the point of recognizing stellar work by Tom Wilkinson as old Joe Kennedy and Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy.
Greg Kinnear also has his moments, and for the most part is transformed into an eerily striking facsimile of President John F. Kennedy. And Katie Holmes, as Jackie, is likewise convincing as the troubled wife of the most powerful man and womanizer in the land.
Pious Rose Kennedy, similarly put in compromising positions by her husband Joe's serial infidelities, is well-played by Diana Hardcastle, who in real life is Wilkinson's wife. The miniseries' other pivotal character, Bobby's devoted, ever-pregnant wife, Ethel, emerges as more than a cardboard character thanks to Kristin Booth's nuanced performance.
The Kennedys opens on election day, 1960 before inevitably flashing back and forward. Patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr. has worn the villain's hat before, and does so again in an early scene.
"It's not what you are," he tells Jack and his ill-fated older brother, Joe Jr. "It's what people think you are. And with the right amount of money, you can make them think whatever you want. We're on our way, boys. This country is ours for the taking."
Old Joe's power plays and demands on his sons are a continuous thread in The Kennedys. Wednesday's Episode 4 begins at Chicago's Tocadero Tavern, where Frank Sinatra arranges a meeting between Joe and gangster Sam Giancana. Joe would like a little help with the city's election returns, but Giancana is brusquely non-commital. It's implied that Sinatra later promised Giancana favors that Joe wouldn't abide by. Whatever the case, the cocksure singer oddly comes off as a nebbish during his brief exposure in The Kennedys, particularly when Joe dismisses him as a "lightweight, irrelevant phony."
Marilyn Monroe also pops in, of course, but not until Episode 7. She's little more than a flirty lush, coming on to Bobby at a Malibu party after viewers are informed that she's already bedded Jack off-camera.
Bobby resists, although it's not easy being him when he escorts a tipsy Marilyn to her bungalow's doorstep. "There's nothing better than lying buck naked in front of a fire," she coos. "Don't ya think?"
Although fleeting, scenes such as these in fact cheapen The Kennedys while furnishing detractors with scatter-shot ammunition. There also are scenes of both Jack and Jackie getting tune-ups from a "Dr. Feelgood" whose injections help him endure his incessant back pain and her summon the energy to perform an exhausting retinue of First Lady functions. And yes, Jackie is shown smoking -- which she did.
Jack's various dalliances are acknowledged throughout, but not to tawdry excess.
"Well, I'm not a kid anymore, but I keep acting like one," he tells Bobby after opting out of one his wife's charity functions to watch Spartacus in the White House theater, where a blonde briefly joins him. Jackie, feeling "humiliated," relocates to Virginia and stays away for a while, leaving her husband feeling remorseful and guilty while he's also neck-deep in the Cuban missile crisis. In the latter instance, a blustery Air Force general again is deployed to demand swift military action. His name is Thomas Bennett, but he's in fact a fictional composite of some sort. His one-note saber-rattling gets old in a hurry.
Flaws in The Kennedys for the most part are trumped by both its core performances and an overall even-handed treatment of the principals. Pepper's portrayal of Bobby Kennedy goes deep into his psyche, whether he's running interference for his brother, absorbing his father's recurring put-downs or reconnecting with Ethel.
Wilkinson is a marvel throughout, carrying the first three episodes on his back while later making his presence felt even after suffering a debilitating stroke that has left him speechless. His Joe can be powerfully diabolical, even on a good day. Yet his sons keep seeking his approval, relishing a pat on the shoulder from a father whose love is both unconditional and tough to withstand.
In the end, the old axiom holds. Don't believe everything you may have read about The Kennedys. Its star actors have been wearing hair shirts for long enough. How dare they besmirch the Kennedy legacy? How could they be party to this right wing character assassination?
Watch The Kennedys -- if you haven't already had enough -- and you'll instead see a compelling, well-told tale of a political dynasty with beauty marks, warts, doubts and the embedded determination to plow full steam ahead. Nobody's perfect, nor is this miniseries. But it's the best filmic treatment to date, and certainly won't be the last one.