Review: The Kennedys

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: The Kennedys is not a documentary.
There’s been a lot of, “I knew Jack Kennedy…and you’re no Jack Kennedy,” going on in response to this controversial miniseries, which premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. on History Television. (A hot potato in the States, it bowed last week on Reelz). Not just TV critics but historians, academics, politicians and others have weighed in on the shot-in-Toronto epic.
Bobby never once referred to his brother as “Jack” in public, we are told. Joe Sr. was never a “shoe-in” as a Democratic nominee for president. And, sure, where the hell is Teddy? There’s no sign of him in all eight hours of the mini.
So, yes, executive producer Joel Surnow–the 24 boss who is the much maligned as the “Rightie” behind this $30 million project–and writer Stephen Kronish took some liberties. And while there is plenty to nitpic, by in large, they stuck to the fascinating, real life story.
The fact is, it is a hugely compelling tale. There’s sex, violence, mystery, intrigue, humour, good guys and bad guys, wild twists, cliffhangers and really original characters. The handsome leading man has an over-riding tragic flaw. The patriarch is ruthlessly ambitious. The heroine is charming, graceful and mysterious. The times were historic and explosive. Then there’s that whole crime of the century sub plot.         
Who wouldn’t want to tell this story? Well, anybody who is afraid to fail. Fifty years later, for Boomers at least, this history is still almost too fresh. For anyone under 40, Kennedy is that guy who sounds like Mayor Quimby on The Simpsons. The family has become a brand, a cartoon, a punch line–everything but flesh and blood.
I’ve seen six out of eight hours of The Kennedys, two of them on a big screen at the red carpet premiere in Hollywood two weeks ago. When I’d heard Greg Kinnear had been cast as JFK I just didn’t think he had the height or the gravitas. The most pleasant surprise then for me is how he seizes this role “with vigga,” as the ex-president used to say.

Kinnear does a nice job growing along with Kennedy as he moves from privileged young playboy to war hero to reluctant candidate to the highest office. You understand why the chiefs of staff would dismiss him at first as a rich kid who’s family bought their way into the White House. By the Cuban Missile Crisis, you witness a transformation in Kennedy through Kinnear–as both earn kudos and respect.
Kinnear is at his best when the script call for him to show some of the throw-a-way Kennedy wit and charm. He lets you behind the Harvard veneer and shows the wheels turning. Kennedy was great on his feet, especially in those televised press conferences, so unrehearsed and open compared to today’s limited political stagings.
The other insight exploited in The Kennedys is the unique dynamic of the brothers. Bobby, played with sensitivity and aggression by Barry Pepper, was Jack’s bad cop at the big table, fiercely loyal and protective as well as a wise counsel in private. At first glance, Pepper bears little resemblance to RFK, but by the third hour you totally buy him as Bobby Kennedy.
The same cannot be said of Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy. She looks the part but has none of the grace or stature and her accent seems to change every time she opens her mouth. Jackie Kennedy comes off as a bit of a drag, which was not how it went down at all in the early ’60s.
Some of the other casting is hit and miss. Flashpoint trigger man Enrico Colantoni has fun with J. Edgar Hoover, the deeply embedded FBI chief who hated the Kennedys. Colantoni plays him pretty much like that cartoon thug from those Bugs Bunny cartoons, which seems about right. The guy who plays Frank Sinatra will not be named here so as to not expose him in the witness protection program. Serge Houde brings badda-bing, badda-boom swagger to his role as crime boss Sam Giancana. There are many other Canadians in the cast, as detailed in this article I wrote for The Canadian Press.

Family plan: Kinnear, Wilkinson and Pepper

Tom Wilkinson shines in the early hours as patriarch Joe Kennedy, the S.O.B. behind the dynasty. Another stand out is the production design of Rocco Matteo, who stuck to a subtle palate. The Kennedy White House is very empty, subdued and traditional, a work in progress that Jackie never finished. Matteo resisted giving it all a Mad Men sheen, allowing the characters to seem very at home in this world.
Director Jon Cassar, a former 24 showrunner, keeps the story moving forward at a brick pace–although not so brisk that you expect Jack Bauer to crash the scene and prevent the assassination. (Memo to Surnow–tell me there’s not a time-travel movie in that.)
Bottom line, if you’re old enough to remember the real Kennedys, you’ll quibble with some of the details but you will be drawn in to the story and these characters and you’ll want to stick around for all eight hours (shown weekly in two hour chunks by History). If you’re not, don’t take this as history, take it as a slightly less enhanced version of reality television–and check out the real JFK on YouTube.

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