Review: “The Kennedys” Offer No Easy Answers

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To paraphrase JFK himself, we choose to review “The Kennedys” not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

As most people know, the eight-part miniseries (debuting Sunday on the ReelzChannel) had a rocky road to TV. Originally produced for the History Channel, the series directed by “24” helmer Jon Cassar and starring Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear as President John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – bounced between potential broadcasters before finding a home on the previously low-profile ReelzChannel, amid speculation that it either played fast and loose with facts or its warts-and-all depictions prompted pressure from the famous family to shelve it.

But like its subjects, “The Kennedys” weathered the controversies and will now be judged by the public on both its merits and its flaws – and it has its share of both. There is certainly an epic sweep to the saga, and even in eight hours there’s a wealth of significant incidents that cannot be addressed (for example, don’t expect any exploration of a conspiracy behind the assassinations of JFK or RFK – Oliver Stone’s covered that, anyway – the push behind Kennedy’s pioneering space initiative goes unaddressed, and Ted Kennedy remains undepicted). What is shown is a relatively compelling portrait of Jack, Jackie, Bobby (Barry Pepper) and papa Joe (Tom Wilkinson) in particular, digging deep – but sometimes not deep enough – beyond their iconic profiles.

In each of the eight episodes Cassar and the screenwriters admirably rise to a tricky challenge – there’s a forward thrust to the evolving narrative of the Kennedys’ lives as the miniseries progresses, but also a (usually) deft use of altering chronological storytelling structure to keep each individual episode on thematic topic. Thus the storylines “The Kennedys” explore can be easily digested as stand-alones and as part of a greater whole, with the standouts being Episode Three (focusing on the Bay of Pigs Invasion), Episode Six (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Episode Eight (the fallout of JFK’s assassination, particularly for Bobby and Jackie).

Kinnear is rock-solid throughout: his all-too-human portrayal of the president captures both the droll, witty charm of JFK and his pensiveness while tackling turbulent personal and public crises, if occasionally skimping on the real man’s intense magnetism and public confidence/swagger. Holmes’ turn is more inconsistent: at times, she seems to be nailing what we think we know about Jackie’s combination of elegance, glamour and reserve, and at others she appears to be missing the mark on elements both large and small (the accent she attempts, for example, never quite comes together).

Despite not being a dead ringer for posh, preppish RFK, Pepper – one of Hollywood’s most underrated and underutilized actors – remarkably captures the younger Kennedy brother’s drive, moral certainty and oft-guilt-plagued persona. It’s a performance that, by the end, practically grabs the viewer by the lapels. But it’s the always-astonishing Wilkinson who truly steals the show time and time again as the ambitious, domineering and frequently ruthless family patriarch – even in latter-day scenes when Joe is rendered speechless by a debilitating stroke. It’s a masterful performance that raises the senior Kennedy far beyond being the “villain” of the piece, along with some sensitive screenwriting.

There are problems, too. With its focus on the internal conflicts and foibles of JFK (he compulsively cheats on his wife, he’s often cowed by his dad, he devours prescription medication to boost his energy and ease his pain-wracked body), the miniseries too often misses nuance in the moments when the president shines as the socially charged visionary that he indeed became. Intentional or not, there’s also a somewhat uncomfortable dynamic develops between Bobby and Jackie after Jack’s death; and the treatment of other peripheral icons central to the Kennedy story, such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe, is puddle-shallow and – especially in Monroe’s case – shabby.

How accurate is “The Kennedys?” Like most things associated with the family, that’s a point that will likely be long debated without any real resolution. But similarly it’s something fascinating, flawed, worth watching and difficult not to get wrapped up in – especially to gain a perspective on just how singularly important the Kennedy Era was to American society and culture we live in today. As JFK pointed out, “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

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