Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Kennedys

Director: Jon Cassar
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Diana Hardcastle, Kristin Booth, Chris Diamantopoulos, Charlotte Sullivan, Serge Houde, Enrico Colantoni, Don Allison, Gabriel Hogan
Original Airdate: 2011

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The biggest news coming out of the controversial 8-part Kennedys miniseries that was scrapped by The History Channel, only to eventually find a home on the obscure ReelzChannel network (and now streaming on Netflix), is that it's every bit as controversial as you've heard and you'll completely understand why the Kennedy family wanted it squashed. Producer Joel Surnow's treatment of them recalls the creative liberties taken with Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, in which the slandered subject (or in this case subjects) are dragged through the mud and pummeled, actual facts amplified to the max in order to bolster the narrative and make a larger thematic point. But in exposing and exaggerating their flaws Surnow does something remarkable by beating on them so badly that I actually walked away with greater respect for what they were able to accomplish as public servants in the face of all their personal demons, and found myself wanting to learn more. Enthralling and addictive, it's nearly impossible to watch only one episode without getting hooked and wondering how much is true.

If this miniseries is "trash" then call me a garbage picker because everything about the production, from the costumes to the period details to the performances, to the music and cinematography is top notch. It juggles multiple flashbacks with clarity and purpose, knowing exactly the right events to focus on, what to leave out, and when. It even has a wicked sense of humor, hilariously lampooning some major figures of the time. And as over-the-top as he goes, Surnow still wisely realized there was one section where it's imperative to show class and restraint and does. And in satisfying fans of salacious melodrama, history buffs, and biopic addicts like myself, it also won't disappoint anyone coming to this for the shock value of seeing Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes in these iconic roles. Even the opening title sequence (scored to Emmy-winning composer Sean Callery's instantly classic theme) is a glorious throwback to '80's television that thankfully seems to never end, promising an American epic of unmatched suspense, intrigue and drama. And that promise ends up being fulfilled ten-fold in an under-appreciated masterwork of modern television better than just about anything you'll see released into theaters this year.

The first few episodes set up flashbacks depicting family patriarch Joseph P. Kennnedy, Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) as the driving force behind their tragedies and successes. After a series of ill-conceived political decisions destroy his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and squander his own potential Presidential run, he's forced to resign from his position as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1940. He lays all his hopes and dreams for a future Presidency on his favorite son, Joe Jr. (Gabriel Hogan) who, unlike his brother Jack (Greg Kinnear), is "going places." But when Joe Jr. tragically dies in the Air Force, Jack finds himself unwillingly passed the family torch and pushed to run Senate with younger brother Bobby (Barry Pepper) serving as campaign adviser. It's around this time he meets and marries Jacqueline Bouvier (Holmes), who's immediately made privy of his philandering ways.

Jack's presented early on as a screw-up incapable of filling his late brother's shoes and never measuring up in his father's eyes, which is understandable considering any hope for a balanced portrayal of Joe Kennedy either as a father, husband or sane human being are extinguished early with a portrayal that plays as a cross between Hitler and Darth Vader. He fudges medical records to get Jack into the military, bribes Jackie to stay with Jack, makes out with his secretary in front of wife Rose (Diana Hardcastle) cuts a deal with mob boss Sam Giancana (Serge Houd), threatens Frank Sinatra (Chris Diamantopoulos) and those are just the good things. The topper is when he comes up with the brilliant idea of getting his daughter Rosemary "cured" of her mental disability with this great new procedure he heard about called a lobotomy. Wilkinson's presence is so consuming in the first few episodes you'd think it was pilot for "The Tom Wilkinson Show" but that's okay since few are better at conveying blustery bravado and his performance only gets deeper with the nuanced re-evaluation of Joseph Kennedy that comes later when in his declining health he realizes that payback can truly be a bitch.

We're often guilty of holding our public figures, whether they're celebrities, elected government officials, or both, to the highest of standards. Whether we want to admit it or not we're still surprised  when gossip comes to the surface supporting the harsh reality that they're real people with flaws. What this miniseries excels showing is how a regular guy with little to no experience and zero interest holding the nation's highest office can if he has the connections and all the right cards fall into place. But that still doesn't mean he wants to or he'll necessarily do a good job. The implication seems to be that it takes a certain fabric of person to do it and regardless of their experience level they'll have to "learn" the ins and outs of exactly how to be the President of the United States as they go along.  The portrayal of JFK is ultimately an empathetic and honest one, showing us that he had to learn who he should and shouldn't trust or listen to, as well as learn to trust himself enough to commit to decisions that could be wrong. The Bay of Pigs fiasco prepared him for The Cuban Missile Crisis and when it was all said and done he ended up doing a commendable job under the most thankless of circumstances. Given the lasting legacy he left, it's almost impossible to believe he didn't even serve a full term, but just so happened to be in office for three of the most tumultuous years in the country's history.

Greg Kinnear gives the most complete and accurate performance of an in-office President I've ever seen, easily topping Martin Sheen and Bruce Greenwood's previous onscreen interpretations of JFK. Besides frighteningly resembling him and getting the physical mannerisms down pat (watching him walk through the West Wing or even just sitting at his desk with a cigar you'd swear you're looking at the man himself) Kinnear conveys the pain of an insecure man fighting to control his inner demons and live with the guilt of what he's doing to Jackie. He makes you believe the womanizing isn't just a cheap thrill, but an ailment as serious as the physically crippling Addison's Disease he kept secret from the public throughout his Presidency. But it's Barry Pepper who gives the series' best performance as Bobby, acting as his brother's eyes, ears and conscience as Attorney General, while guiding every move he makes. As the unsung hero of the Kennedy's saga, he's the only character who doesn't seem completely oppressed and influenced by their father, even occasionally displaying the fortitude to stand up to him. Whether he's waging war on organized crime, picking a fight with J. Edgar Hoover (a bizarrely cast Enrico Colantoni) or helping Jack deal with racial segregation and rioting at the University of Mississippi, Pepper plays Bobby so idealistically that he comes off as the uncorruptable patron saint of the Kennedy clan, acting only out of loyalty to family and country. The solid relationship he has with wife Ethel (Kristin Booth) is particularly effective in displaying the marriage Jack and Jackie seem to have lacked.

It's a testament to Pepper that Bobby's assassination in the series carries a greater emotional impact than that of his brother's, prompting the reaction of"Anyone but him" when it occurs. Giving us a far clearer picture of his impact than 2006's star-studded debacle Bobby, writer Stephen Kronish's script presents (but wisely doesn't overplay) the idea that he may have grown tired of living in his brother's shadow and cleaning up all his messes, the biggest of which was Marilyn Monroe (Charlotte Sullivan). It's fair to say Monroe, who's portrayed as an airheaded bimbo, and Sinatra (looking and acting more like a young Jack Lemmon than the suave "Chairman of the Board.") are the only two figures besides Joe Kennedy who you could reasonably claim are slandered. But I didn't have a problem with that since this isn't their story and if what we learn about them here is even half true it becomes tougher to argue theses depictions are even out of line.

Perhaps sensing she already has experience playing a similar role off screen for the past few years, someone  went ahead and came up with the brilliant idea to just make it official by casting Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy, giving her the unique distinction of being the only actress to have played both the First Daughter and First Lady during her career. The only concern I had going in (besides the fact she might actually be TOO beautiful and youthful looking for the role) was that this could end up being more than she's capable of handling dramatically. Despite what's been reported, it's a big part in both screen time and importance, and taxing for any actress to tackle, with the only relief coming in just how little is known about Jackie. Of all the actors attempting the challenging Massachusetts accent (besides Wilkinson who perhaps wisely doesn't try), Katie's is the shakiest early on before she slides into it and the rest of the performance follows suit, kicking into high gear when she assumes the mantle of the President's better half. What's really great about her performance is how she not only gives you a feel for how difficult it must have been to be First Lady (a position treated here with as much respect as the Presidency), but this particular First Lady during this specific time, especially in the midst of dealing with Jack's many indiscretions. Holmes leaves the lasting impression that Jackie stayed in the marriage not for him at all, but for the country, and possibly to prove something to herself.

A forgotten detail about Jackie is that she was actually quite shy and would have preferred shunning the spotlight if not the sense of obligation and duty she felt to the country and her husband. Barring the striking physical resemblance, casting Katie was a stroke of genius because she not only exudes the class, grace and elegance we associate with Jackie from the magazines and news clips, but gives her that girl-next-door quality a more seasoned actress couldn't. If there's a learning curve for the President, there's also one for his wife so watching Holmes navigate Jackie's journey from innocent inexperience to rock solid strength and confidence under intense public scrutiny becomes an awesome example of art imitating life for the actress as much as the subject. Once we get to the White House it's eerie how she seems to become Jackie and toward the end of the series when she, not Kinnear, has to take this story over the finish line, her transformation from grieving First Lady into "Jackie O." is emotional and chill inducing. It isn't the strongest performance of the four but it sure is the most interesting and the one everyone will be discussing and debating afterward. The media trying to blame her (and we all know why) for what happened with the miniseries was expected, but it's still a shame since she should have been praised for taking the challenge and more than holding her own opposite these powerhouse actors. Just a few years ago there's no way she could have played this role, but now it fits like a glove. Any way you spin it, that's a positive.

For many the "main event" of the miniseries will be that day in Dallas but director Jon Cassar (TV's 24) takes the classy route by avoiding a gruesome all out re-enactment and instead focusing our gaze on the fallout, providing valuable details we may not have known about the reactions of Bobby, Jackie, and especially the feelings of incoming President Lyndon Johnson (Don Allison, a dead ringer for LBJ) in the hours and days following the assassination. Given that we've unpleasantly seen the stomach churning Zapruder footage of Kennedy's shooting countless times through the years, a graphic dramatization seems not only unnecessary, but would mark the series with an ugly stain. Cassar, who has plenty of experience filming political assassinations on 24, could have easily just fallen back on what he knows, but not showing it in all its gory detail ends up being that best decision he makes in maintaining the series' integrity. And time that could have been wasted running assassination theories into the ground is wisely forsaken in lieu of more important matters concerning the aftermath for the Kennedys. The biggest surprise just might be that the production bares more of a resemblance to Mad Men or Lost than any episodes of 24 with its attention to period detail and seamlessly interwoven flashbacks and flashforwards that frame the story. 

It's unfortunate this didn't air on The History Channel since it would have been a perfect fit for a network that long ago abandoned a more straightforward, textbook approach to history in favor of more entertainment-based programming. This is a little of both (more of the latter) but how much is or isn't true has little baring on how riveting these 8 episodes are, each standing strong enough on their own to not even necessitate viewing them in chronological order. Though it surely would have resulted in blockbuster ratings for any major network that aired it, the best news is that it's obvious why they didn't, regardless of the political leanings or motivations of the people involved in the project. Judging from what's on screen it's difficult to make a case that the goal was to do anything but produce the highest quality miniseries possible. Regardless of how the family is treated here, we're left with the idea that Joseph Kennedy's Machiavellian scheming did result in something great for the country, if terrible for them. And after watching all the tragedies that befall this family in this shocking thrill ride of a miniseries, you'd be inclined to believe there was a Kennedy curse that extended far beyond anything he could control.