Boundless ambition, hubris, epic tragedy and a legacy that stretches nearly a century. It’s no wonder, 50 years after John Kennedy was elected president, we still are fascinated by the Kennedy clan, even beyond its huge impact on American history.
Yet another TV miniseries, “The Kennedys,” was to be broadcast by the History Channel, but the network declined, citing historical inaccuracies. The filmmakers refute the criticism, saying the network approved the final script. Director Jon Cassar believes the Kennedy family itself worked to block its broadcast. A minor satellite broadcaster, ReelzChannel, is carrying the series.
Though myths, rumors and conspiracy theories have swirled around the family for decades, it seems enough time has passed for Americans to reach consensus in understanding the Kennedy clan.
As far as dramatic fare goes, “The Kennedys” is pretty pedestrian. It marches the viewer through key events with rather shallow character development. But the behind-closed-doors scenes are plausible and resonate with the public record and the hundreds of books written about the family, so it’s as if the Kennedy story is now settled.
The series begins in the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt appoints patriarch Joseph Kennedy ambassador to England. Given the high stakes in Europe, Mr. Kennedy believes he can use the post to vault himself into the White House. But when he publicly supports allowing Hitler to seize part of Czechoslovakia without clearing it with the president, the ambassador is relieved of his duties.
He then focuses his ambitions on eldest son Joe, the best-looking and — the series posits — most ethically malleable of the sons. Joe Jr. dies while flying a bomber plane.
Second son Jack resists his father’s passing of the mantle of presidential aspirations, but eventually embraces it. Jack is shown, early on, as an unrepentant womanizer.
Third son Bobby is portrayed as a faithful husband and loving father who wants no part of politics after Jack wins the White House. Again, the patriarch intervenes and persuades both the president and Bobby that two Kennedys in the administration are better than one. Bobby becomes attorney general, and after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, at their father’s insistence, he is present at all senior-level meetings, becoming a tenacious bulldog defending his often passive brother.
Sordid elements emerge: more womanizing, drug injections to help the sickly president and overwrought first lady get through the long hours, friendships with shady characters that were expedient during the campaign coming home to roost. The administration finally hits its stride managing the Berlin and Cuban missile crises.
Then it all ends, before the arc of John F. Kennedy’s political career could take form.
The lack of a final act in the JFK drama left the nation unsatisfied, yearning for fulfillment of the idealism the young president offered. When Bobby picked up the baton and also was slain, the family seemed too destined to be denied. Yet the fourth son, Edward, arguably had more influence on the nation’s course than his brothers. And Joseph Kennedy’s grandsons — some with very public failings — are players in the policy arena.
It’s a safe bet “The Kennedys” will not be the last word.