MPI // 1983 // 348 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // February 19th, 2009
"The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic." -- John F. Kennedy
There have been many films about Kennedy, the man, his legacy, and, of course, his death. Rather than focusing on just a single moment in Kennedy's life (or death), Kennedy: The Complete Series tackles the entirety of his presidency in a short five-and-a-half hours, from election night to Dallas.
John F. Kennedy (Martin Sheen, The West Wing) has just won the election against Richard M. Nixon. As president, he must contend with Cuba, the Soviet Union, and J. Edgar Hoover (Vincent Gardenia, Little Shop of Horrors), with the support of his brother Robert (John Shea, Lois and Clark), his wife Jackie (Blair Brown, Fringe) and father Joseph Kennedy (E.G. Marshall, Nixon). Kennedy is not just about the president, but the family that surrounds and supports him throughout his short presidency.
I was born during the Reagan administration. The first president I remember was the first Bush, and the first presidential election I voted in was between John Kerry and George W. Bush. Needless to say, I have no memory of Kennedy and, truth be told, I know shockingly little about him and his role as president. Sure, I know about the Bay of Pigs Invasion (vaguely) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (I saw Thirteen Days), and about Marilyn and all the bullshit theories that surround his death (I saw JFK, too), but other than that, I am an empty vessel.
I don't believe that a good biopic is one hundred percent factually accurate. That just leads to tedium. Rather, I look for how much a film drives me to find out more about the person in question. A film that can provoke in me an earnest desire to learn earns at least a few points. Kennedy succeeds in that regard.
Kennedy does a better job than some about presenting a more balanced view of John Kennedy. His flaws are there, as well as his strengths. His frequent womanizing, while not depicted onscreen, is much alluded to. Kennedy does not gush all over him, but tries its best to show the presidency from its very beginnings on election night to its brutal end in 1963.
In particular, I enjoyed seeing the role his family played. There is, of course, his brother Robert, who is shown being dragged kicking and screaming to the post of attorney general, a role he felt would be labeled nepotism. I wonder why. E.G. Marshall as Joe Kennedy is a man who has given up the political reins to his children and is glad to do so. While I especially loved Marshall as Joe, I was a little disappointed about Jackie. Blair Brown is perfect as the stylish, coiffed First Lady, but other than voicing concerns about the family's privacy early on in the series, her character doesn't get much to say. In a film that gives an unbelievable amount of screen time to Hoover, I'd think there'd be a little more to say about the president's wife.
Speaking of Hoover, I don't think any character has so successfully given me the willies before. I was surprised Gardenia didn't actually start to emit slime at some point. Hoover is a horrible, reprehensible little man and an almost unbelievable creature. In the scene where he and Kennedy finally meet face to face, he's almost completely shrouded in shadow. This is going just a little over the top, although if just half of what I've heard about Hoover is true, then maybe the filmmakers were actually toning him down for the screen.
It's little wonder that Sheen later went on to play a president again in The West Wing. He sounds like Kennedy to me and has the right bearing. He was nominated for the Emmy for his work. John Shea was less memorable. Nothing wrong so much as, well, just not memorable.
Kennedy makes strong use of old footage, at times using entire speeches instead of snippets. It's a small way to relive moments like Kennedy's inaugural address and King's "I Have a Dream" speech. They even enhance the effect by showing the speeches as though one were watching them on a black-and-white set from the '60s. I'd also like to commend the makers for completely sidestepping the whole "Who Killed Kennedy?" issue. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for staying clear of that mess.
While Kennedy has a tendency to meander at times, especially near the beginning when I wanted them to stop dithering around and just get to the White House already, the long trip makes the ending that much more powerful. It gives the slightest indication to those of us who didn't live with his presidency of what was lost. I think the one thing I learned from Kennedy is that the greatest tragedy of his death was what he could have accomplished, had he the time to do so.
There are no extras to speak of, and the sound strains at the louder moments.
In the end, Kennedy is a sometimes meandering, sometimes melodramatic (Hello, Hoover) biopic of one of the most popular presidents. In spite of its flaws, it has reinvigorated my interest in looking up these men and women, from Hoover to Jackie to John Kennedy and Robert. Really, that's the best thing a biopic can do.
Kennedy is not guilty, and the judge is not just saying that because he thinks Hoover might be listening.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 348 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated