Muse Entertainment // 2011 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // May 28th, 2011
Ask not what your country can do for you...
Following a botched bid for the presidency and the death of his oldest son, Joseph P. Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) pushes an apathetic John F. Kennedy (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine) into politics. With the help of little brother Robert (Barry Pepper, True Grit) and wife Jackie (Katie Holmes, The Gift), JFK is elected president of the United States. Everything comes at a cost, however, and every member of the Kennedy clan pays with blood, sweat, and tears while running the free world.
In the making-of documentary accompanying this screener, Katie Holmes discusses how the producers pitched the show. Their approach was not to create a historically meticulous document of the family's dynamics and pivotal moments, but to construct a Greek tragedy around their story. The Kennedys is only partially successful, however, shooting for high drama and landing somewhere around a big budget soap opera.
That said, it's a damn good soap opera. I was hardly ever bored during this eight-hour miniseries, mostly due to the fact that it is so well acted.
Pardon my cliché, but Greg Kinnear is John F. Kennedy. If you would have told me those words would be pouring out of my keyboard a month ago, I would've said you were insane. Yet the guy perfectly embodies the speech, mannerisms, and physicality of our country's most beloved (and mythologized) 20th century president. It is easily the finest performance of his career (at least the finest I've ever seen). He gives a great deal of depth to JFK, making us sympathize with what could have been the caricature of a cocky, philandering, rich boy turned politician. Kinnear plays JFK as a flawed man racked with disease (physical and psychological) who's willing to sacrifice everything to elevate his country and the free world in general.
As Robert Kennedy, Barry Pepper is every bit Kinnear's equal. His character is far more complex than the straightforward JFK. As such, Pepper pretty much steals the show. Bobby is the goody-goody of the piece, a staunch moralist, cutthroat politician, fiercely loyal family member and self-loathing Catholic. He spends the series collecting enemies and cleaning up his brother's messes, building to a very subtle slip into his brother's habits later in the series. Even when Bobby is falling short of his lofty morals, Pepper keeps the character innocent and idealist, making for the most magnetic performance of the mini-series.
Katie Holmes never quite brings down the house like Pepper and Kinnear, but she makes a strong impression. While her accent is very, very shaky in spots, her onscreen persona is perfectly suited to Jackie Kennedy. Holmes' chemistry with Kinnear and Pepper is palatable, making for some subtle, sensuous scenes than imply more than they show (befitting the rather uptight character). I don't want to be underhanded about Holmes (she's a fine actress when cast right) but her ability to sink into the role was the most pleasant surprise in the mini-series.
Tom Wilkinson is always good, and he delivers the same sort of screen-commanding performance here that he does in just about everything he's in. Joseph is a booming, theatrical character; more than a bit of a bully to his family, he's corrupt and callow. Wilkinson knows just when play him as an over-the-top monster and when to keep him grounded as stern, if loving parent. Diana Hardcastle (who appeared alongside him in The Good Wife) delivers an equally theatrical, yet finely grounded performance as Rosemary Kennedy, and the scenes where each struggle to keep power over the family makes for some of the most riveting material in the mini-series. The quality of their performances should come as no surprise, as they are most seasoned professionals in the cast. Their refusal to phone it in, even at the script's cheesiest moments, is a testament to that fact.
Believe me, the script is extremely cheesy at times. The dialogue is decent on the whole, but there are at least five to ten cliché, clunker lines per episode that threaten to sink the whole boat (and make you howl with laughter). The writers then top of those groaners with a handful of derivative dramatic tropes, including-but-not-limited-to: the pre-requisite slinging-the-papers-off-the-desk-in-anger scene, a number of weepy hospital set pieces, and some of the worst attempts to match archive footage with newly shot material I've ever seen.
It gets worse, though. While the overall rise-and-fall arc of the series is well crafted, the miniseries is chock full of tangential subplots that range from cliché to ridiculous. All of them ham-fistedly try to work in some aspect of the Kennedy mythology into the story. This way, Kennedy gets to mentor an African American Secret Service agent, Herbert Hoover gets to torment the family like a one-dimensional sociopath, and Marilyn Monroe kills herself offscreen as a result of being rejected by JFK. I don't mind when a story plays fast and loose with historical facts, but most of this stuff is just beyond ridiculous and carried out in the most milquetoast way possible. It takes the punch out of the lurid thrills associated with the Kennedy history and sort of defeats the entire purpose of the series -- to show a gritty, raw take on the family. As is, we're treated to a portrayal of Marilyn Monroe whose idea of seduction is pawing men while using the phrase "butt nekkid."
If you can deal with the cheesy dialogue, corny tropes, and needlessly melodramatic subplots, you'll find the The Kennedys to be a pretty classy, well-produced piece of trash television. Hey, if Abraham Lincoln can become a vampire hunter in the movies, why can't JFK be a pill popping, sex addicted martyr?
Muse sent in a screener copy of the miniseries. It isn't a visual treat cinematically, but the picture looks very sharp, barring a few poorly done green screen shots, which are quite fuzzy. The stereo mix accompanying it is crystal clear, boasting some excellent acoustics for the mini-series overdramatic ("bum-bum-bummm-bum-buh-buh!") score.
Extras are limited to the aforementioned documentary, which runs a reasonable 45 minutes and puts the miniseries goals and intentions into fine perspective. An easy watch, though it feels pretty skimpy given the historical subject matter.
It's...ah, er...not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Muse Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site