History Channel // 2003 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // March 3rd, 2004
The 35th President of the United States was a guy named Jack.
That's right -- a John F. Kennedy documentary. Most people remember how he died, rather than how he lived. And no, this isn't Braveheart.
Produced by Peabody-award-winner David Taylor and hosted by former CNN White House Correspondent Frank Sesno, JFK: A Presidency Revealed is an examination into the actual, real presidency of John F. Kennedy, rather than focusing on his spectacularly controversial death, or conspiracy theories, or other hubbub surrounding the Kennedy name. It is a refreshing angle and elevates this DVD into a class above the average documentary.
With a running time of two and a half hours, the main feature documentary is remarkably thorough, and hefty. It starts at the inauguration of Kennedy, and speeds immediately into his rash and disastrous handling of the Bay of Pigs incident, his cool-handed actions during the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, his determination and support for the space program, his slightly hesitant, but groundbreaking, dedication to the civil rights movement, with plenty of Jackie Kennedy's fashion sense thrown in to boot.
Of particular interest to die-hard Kennedy fans or conspiracy buffs (and the only thing that technically or historically distinguishes this documentary from the other 17,000 JFK documentaries) is the inclusion of a bevy of audiotapes released exclusively for this documentary, tapes that the president clandestinely recorded in the White House during his tenure. Some act as confessionals, almost a verbal diary, as the President reflects on the issues facing his presidency, while others record top-level meetings in the White House between high-ranking officials from the various levels of government.
Some of the secret tape recordings revealed on this documentary are absolutely astonishing, like Kennedy arguing with the Governor of Mississippi on the phone during the segregation riot at Ole Miss, arguing over law and order and violence. In fact, on this subject, the feature is critical of Kennedy's handling of the civil rights issue, suggesting the President spent far too much time sitting on the fence over the issue of how to handle the growing protests swirling through the country.
It pulls few punches in its examination of Kennedy's personal and political faults, and this willingness to explore the man, rather than glorify and idolize the memory of Kennedy, puts this DVD in a class above most. It is a refreshing thing to see Kennedy simply as a flawed, unhealthy, drug-addled impulsive man, as well as a heroic and idolized figure, rather than simply the latter.
Yes, this is a seriously interesting documentary, but it is not without its faults. Some of the "dramatic re-enactments" are just stupid, the bass rumbles and the violins swell at the appropriately dramatic points (which just screams documentary objectivity), and at times, the feature focuses almost obsessively on Kennedy's downplayed poor health and drug (ab)use, which seems almost sensationalist and seedy. Make no mistake -- it is indeed a History Channel / A&E documentary, with all the dramatic baggage that accompanies such a production.
But there is no denying the quality of this feature and the astonishing collection of archival footage, news broadcasts, interviews, research, and secret tape recordings compiled for this documentary. The sheer volume of material collected is impressive, verbose, and incredibly mesmerizing. As a crash course in the presidency of Kennedy, it is top notch; but die-hard Kennedy historians will recognize most of the material, and conspiracy buffs will find little juicy revelations to satiate their paranoid desires.
Oliver Stone's JFK, it ain't. But interestingly enough, it makes a truly fascinating companion piece. One of the best aspects of this documentary is the almost total focus on the life of Kennedy, as a man, and as a President -- not on the circumstances of his death -- almost the complete opposite of Stone's JFK. The two play off each other marvelously, and after watching this documentary, I indeed put on JFK and found the experience illuminating.
The second DVD contains two episodes of the award-winning documentary show A&E's Biography, one focusing on the early life and upbringing of JFK, and the second focusing on the life of his father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr. As supplementary documentaries go, they do a good job of exploring some background information about Kennedy's early life, but there is nothing to get too excited about. They are nowhere near as riveting as the main feature, and feel slightly blasé and unimportant.
While the main feature focuses almost unilaterally on the presidency of Kennedy, "John F. Kennedy: A Personal Story" explores the entire lifespan of the 35th President, from his roots in East Boston, to his family and the political controversy that surrounded the Kennedy name, to his rise to opulence and success, until his untimely death in Dallas. When compiled with the main feature, indeed, the entire history of JFK becomes thoroughly assembled.
The second documentary, "Joseph Kennedy, Sr.: Father of an American Dynasty" is an episode of Biography included to provide background information on the origins and upbringings that gave birth to the closest thing America had to a royal family. Kennedy's father lived an even more interesting life than his son; his political aspirations, controversy, philandering, and philanthropy are almost as notorious as his father's.
There is some overlap between these two supplementary DVDs, since both in one way or another focus on the early life of John F. Kennedy, a story that unavoidably crisscrosses into the life of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. The Joseph Kennedy, Sr. documentary is not particularly riveting -- it is far too bland and wishy-washy, barely addressing the controversy and negative aspects of the Kennedy family (the alleged bootlegging and Mafia ties, the amusing accusations of pledges with the devil, and such) and could certainly have been excluded from this DVD set, but the extra content is merely a boon and bonus.
It makes it hard to truly complain. Free is free, after all.
Technically, the DVD is adequate for a documentary DVD. The image never looks stunning or particularly impressive, but neither does it look bad. Like any documentary, the visual quality shifts wildly depending on the source material, but some of the news broadcasts and stock footage is of amazing clarity and quality. Some seriously unearthing must have been undertaken for this DVD to compile the visuals. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is uninspiring, but completely functional and effective for a dialogue-driven feature. The bass rumbles ominously whenever the narrator addresses particularly dramatic or insipid subjects, a la A&E style, which I have always found irritating. The disc offers nothing else in terms of supplementary content and could have stood some more in the way of technical details. For example, the inclusion of some chapter stops in the Biography episodes would have been thoughtful (an hour and a half is too long for a single track).
JFK: A Presidency Revealed is, without a doubt, as fine a collection of documentaries on the life of JFK and his presidency you are likely to find. It is not nearly as groundbreaking as advertising would leave you to believe, however. The A&E's Biography episodes are irritatingly stylized, redundant, and repetitive, and though the main feature is incredibly enjoyable, meticulously researched, and high quality, whether or not it actually exposes anything groundbreaking is questionable (methinks not).
Nevertheless, this two-disc set is a solid DVD value for an insightful examination into a complex and charismatic American president, with the added bonus of not having to hear Kevin Costner say "Back...and to the left" over and over again.
Next stop, Margarita-ville! I-er, I mean...case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode of A&E's Biography: "JFK: A Personal Story"
* Episode of A&E's Biography: "Joseph Kennedy, Sr.: Father of an American Dynasty"