In one of the most patently absurd manufactured controversies of this or any year, the History Channel commissioned this dramatized portrait of the Kennedy clan and then bowed to outside pressure not to air it. Other networks soon passed on the finished product, and this television production was all but demonized before it even saw the light of day. What exactly has this miniseries been found guilty of? It plays fast and loose with some of the facts? Well, this isn't a documentary, that's for sure--but who expected it would be? As a superficial and fictional presentation, it is not the least bit surprising that elements of the story are emphasized for entertainment purposes. This is a dramatization, not unlike dozens of others that populate feature films and TV movies, that embellishes its story to fit a certain format. Are the Kennedys really that untouchable? As fodder for countless films, TV shows, and novels through the years (perhaps more so than any other family in history), the Kennedy story has been covered from almost every angle--from reverential to scurrilous. Anyone who is scandalized by "The Kennedys" must surely have had their head in the sand about the clan. I have viewed and read dozens of far more incendiary provocations over the last 30 years!
If anything, this miniseries is guilty of being an old fashioned TV product--a throw back to the days before cable ruled the adult viewing audience. In fact, for that reason alone, the presentation is surprisingly tepid--in other hands, this might have been turned into a piece worthy of controversy. Okay, I promise to get off my soapbox now and talk about the actual film. Shot in eight bite sized nuggets (I mean episodes), "The Kennedys" does not purport to be a comprehensive biography. Each episode tends to have a central theme or plot point and hits the appropriate historical markers with precision. It is not an in-depth look at either history or politics, but rather a glossy overview of recognizable historical moments amidst soap opera turmoil. It is an entertaining, if superficial, peak at the intricacies inherent in being involved as a power player in media and politics.
Far more intriguing than the paint by numbers romp through history is the cast. Tom Wilkinson is absolutely magnetic as family patriarch Joe. Had this aired on a network other than Reelz, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have been under Emmy scrutiny. Fiery, uncompromising, meticulous, and riddled with ambition--this is a star turn from one of our best actors. Diana Hardcastle, as matriarch Rose, doesn't have as much screen time--but hers is an equally vivid performance. A fine combination of haughty and devout, I think I laughed at just about everything she says--a true scene stealing role. Greg Kinnear acquits himself well handling the complexities of JFK while Barry Pepper turns in a terrific performance as Bobby. Only Katie Holmes (and I'm not a hater) falls a bit short, for my taste, with the overly breathy Jackie. The supporting cast is enlivened by some solid turns and famous faces. Sinatra, Monroe, Hoover, and Giancana (among others) are all nicely done.
"The Kennedys," again while capitalizing on more colorful aspects of the story, never commits the sin of being dull. And, in truth, that's its greatest accomplishment. The story is so familiar, I was hesitant to revisit yet another tale of America's First Family. But I'm glad I did--mainly for the able and game cast who really seem to come across as related. A special mention goes out to the make-up team--with slight modifications, Pepper and Kinnear look the part while still being recognizable. If you go into this thinking it will be "too hot for TV," you'll likely be disappointed. This is a classic network TV style miniseries that is well done. KGHarris, 4/11.