Saturday, July 9, 2022

The Kennedys (2011)

Director: Jon Cassar                                    Writers: Stephen Kronish & Joel Surnow
Film Score: Sean Callery                             Cinematography: David Moxness
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes and Tom Wilkinson

I was able to resist this for an entire decade because it just looked as if it would be a disaster. But I finally purchased The Kennedys miniseries from 2011, and even now, as I write this, I’m not sure how I feel about it—which is never a good sign. My reluctance stemmed from the tour de force that was the film Thirteen Days from 2000, with Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both Greenwood and Steven Culp as Robert Kennedy were outstanding. While Greenwood’s attempt at the Massachusetts Kennedy dialect was subtle, Culp was so good with the accent and Bobby’s mannerisms that I couldn’t imagine any other actors even coming close to their performances. Initially I was pleasantly surprised by the performances of Greg Kinnear as JFK and Barry Pepper as RFK in the miniseries, primarily because of the accents. Both actors were able to do a tremendous job on them and were quite convincing. That said, however, there were some odd choices made by director Jon Cassar in terms of the two leads. Kinnear’s face gives the impression of Jack, and with the accent and a solid study of JFK’s mannerisms, his performance works. Yet, about halfway through the series it seemed as if he completely stopped doing the accent, especially when he was in scenes alone with Katie Holmes as Jackie. Barry Pepper’s problems, however, were on a whole other level. For one thing, they decided to go with a prosthetic nose, which looks strange every single time he’s on screen. But even worse, while his accent was spot on, he made absolutely no attempt to replicate Bobby’s mannerisms the way Culp had done so impressively in the earlier film.

As for the production, it always looks like a TV movie, especially the further back the flashbacks go, but it’s not so annoying that it’s off-putting; it’s just the nature of the artform. The scenes in the White House are better because of the timeless quality of that particular setting, and the scenes in Hyannis Port, whether on the lawn or on the beach are very good as well, especially combined with the well-done period costumes. As for the story itself, screenwriters Stephen Kronish and Joel Surnow made the wise choice not to tell the tale chronologically. Instead, the frame of the story takes place between the 1960 presidential election and the terrible day in Dallas when JFK was assassinated. The eighth and final episode is a kind of strangely telescoped epilogue that ends with Bobby’s death and seems tacked on to justify the title. The first six episodes, however, are very good and quite interesting to watch—though the script has some groaners now and then, and the Cuban Missile Crisis never seems all that nerve-wracking. The great Tom Wilkinson plays the Kennedy patriarch Joe, while Diana Hardcastle is the matriarch Rose. The story frequently flashes back to earlier episodes that fill in the viewer on crucial Kennedy history, and while they can get tedious at times, it’s infinitely better than having the whole story unfold chronologically. Jon Cassar does a solid job of direction, and from a technical standpoint the whole production is about as good as one could expect.

What nearly destroyed the whole experience for me, however, was the absolutely atrocious seventh episode. I had the same stupefied reaction to Stephen King’s idiotic 11/22/63. How in the world, in the twenty-first century, with all that we now know—and continue to discover as the government doles out unredacted documents at maddeningly limited trickle—about what actually happened in Dallas ANYONE can, with a straight face, continue to claim that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy is inconceivable. And yes, I DO know what that word means. That anyone still buys into the Warren Report is just impossible to believe. But set aside for the moment the thousands of books on the subject that try to figure out who was responsible, there is only one, unassailable, fact about the assassination that anyone needs to know. When the Dallas Police took Oswald into custody that day they performed a gunpowder residue test on his hands and cheek. While they found residue on his hands, which was from the gun he was carrying in the movie theater, they found NO residue on his cheek. That’s right, NONE. Which means that Oswald DID NOT fire a rifle that day and therefore, definitively, did not kill President Kennedy. Period. The fact that the Warren Commission came to the conclusion that not only did Oswald kill the president, but acted alone, tells you just as conclusively that there was a conspiracy. But that’s another story.

The thing is, this was such a stupid way to go with the story. The effect it has on the viewer is like watching a story about Jimmy Hoffa and at the end Santa Claus comes down the chimney and kills him and then whisks the body away to the North Pole. It’s THAT ridiculous. But with access to the Zapruder film unavailable to the public for a decade, it gave the Warren Commission cover up a powerful opportunity for the lie to lodge in peoples’ brains and enable them to dismiss the truth when it was finally revealed. What’s so exasperating is that there was absolutely no need for the screenwriters to pick a side. President Kennedy was killed that day in Dallas, and that’s all the drama the series needed. Why saddle a huge project like this with the decision to show the killer—especially when scientific evidence proves that this particular decision was dead wrong? The best example of what should have been done is the film Parkland, a feature film that came out two years later. In that film there is absolutely no speculation about who did the killing, and the film is so much better for it. Had this miniseries done the same thing, it really would have been something to recommend, despite its flaws. But now . . . It’s difficult to judge how much that one episode poisons the entirety of the series. I still don’t know. I do know, however, that when I watch The Kennedys again I will absolutely skip the last two episodes, and I recommend you do the same.

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