Muse Entertainment // 2011 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // October 2nd, 2011
"It's not what you are, it's what people think you are. And with the
right amount of money you can make them think whatever you want."
-- Joe Kennedy Sr.'s advice to his sons
After a troubled journey to television screens, the ambitious and controversial miniseries The Kennedys (Blu-ray) arrives on the home format in a respectable HD presentation. Partnering with Muse Entertainment, the History Channel initially announced it as their first original scripted series with an intended (but unannounced) airdate in the spring of 2011. However, that January, the channel said the finished show was "not a fit for the History brand" even though History's historians had vetted the historical fiction's script.
ReelzChannel later acquired the US broadcasting rights but not before the makers of The Kennedys made statements implying History Channel dropped the show because of pressure from individuals close to the Kennedy family. At the 2011 Emmy Awards, the show collected on four of its seven nominations, including a win for Barry Pepper for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. Now, common people everywhere can see this sordid drama of "America's royal family" and decide for themselves whether the truthiness of the series lives up to the hype.
Irish American Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Tom Wilkinson, RocknRolla) is a rich man, an ambitious strategist, a power-hungry politician, a demanding father and an unrepentant womanizer. Most importantly, he's a proud American. After making controversial statements during World War II, his term as ambassador ends abruptly. Accepting that his own frontline political career is over, Joe vows to send his son to the highest office of the land.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy (Greg Kinnear, Green Zone), Joe Sr. and Rose Kennedy's second son, is elected the President of the United States of America. With his domineering father looking over his shoulder and his level-headed but loyal brother Robert (Barry Pepper, True Grit (2010)) at his side, "Jack" will preside over a tumultuous few years of history that will include events such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the erection of the Berlin Wall and Marilyn Monroe.
Whatever reasons the History Channel had for canceling their plans to air The Kennedys, a lack of entertainment value was not one of them. Producer-writer Joel Surnow, writer Stephen Kronish and director Jon Cassar -- all three alumni from 24 -- have fashioned together a miniseries with handsome production value and completely riveting storytelling. A peek into the private lives of such well known personalities, based purely on speculation, can't help but feel a bit trashy at times, but this is highly addictive television drama.
If the real Kennedy family really were working behind the scenes to keep this show off the air, it's not difficult to see why they objected to this telling of their history. Politics is a dirty business (perhaps never more so than as presented here) and if it's the family business then no one gets away clean. Even the Kennedy wives, portrayed mostly as quiet and long-suffering supporters, have moments when they're revealed as calculating opportunists. When Jackie (Katie Holmes, Thank You for Smoking) considers leaving Jack because of his adultery, she's reminded that she can live the lifestyle she wants and be the First Lady at age 31 if she can accept a compromise.
Joe Sr. is the driving force of the family and Tom Wilkinson's performance dominates the early episodes. He wants to make the Kennedy name one to be reckoned with and his ambition sets the stage for the Greek tragedy that is presented in this miniseries. The characterization of Joe would be akin to a stereotypical megalomaniac if not for the fact that he's deeply patriotic. He wants power, yes, but he believes power will let him do good. Meeting with a Chicago mob boss to secure support for Jack's presidential bid, Joe says he wants to give back to America. It's a hokey thing to say given the situation but Wilkinson says it with such sincerity that I believed Joe was really appealing to a gangster's patriotism. He also warns his son to be discrete when he cheats on his wife, and on Jack's wedding day no less. Joe's larger than life but the man who can bully JFK into doing things his way would have to be.
Greg Kinnear disappears into his role as John F. "Jack" Kennedy. He isn't doing a straight impression but he nails the vocal inflections and body language perfectly so that it comes off as a natural performance. Jack wants to be a writer or college professor but heavily guided by his father, he becomes the leader of the free world. The script portrays Jack with constant health problems and Kinnear is effective showing the man's weaknesses too. His transformation from reluctant senator to willful President is convincing because you know he is Joe's son. This is Kinnear's best acting work yet.
Barry Pepper is fantastic as Robert. His Emmy win might cause you to think he steals the show but that's not the case at all. Pepper's performance is pitch perfect as the loyal brother, voice of reason and trusted advisor to the President. He even manages to draw attention away from the slightly distracting prosthetic make-up he dons for the character. Pepper is the closest there is to someone the viewers can relate to among this family of giant personalities.
The Kennedys unfolds over eight 45-minute episodes, so there's a lot of historical ground to cover and the story moves through time at a quick pace. It pauses long enough to give weight to key events but it does feel like we're witnessing a well-timed onslaught of political crises and private turmoil. In other words, it's really compelling television. With the end of each episode, I was eager to see the next one immediately. I'm not a Kennedy expert or a history buff but I felt that I was getting a good overview of the major events of the era and a better understanding of how they related to each other.
The filmmakers have also taken care to allude to iconic images of JFK in the cinematography. Without hitting viewers over the head with their deliberateness, the lighting, camera angles and poses evoke famous photographs that you have seen in magazines, books and documentaries. In general, the look of the show is quite authentic and the costumes and hairstyles are convincingly of the era.
The Kennedys (Blu-ray) is treated very well by its 1080p/AVC encoding on this three-disc set. There is fine image detail apparent even if the overall 1.78:1 picture isn't captured in tack-sharp deep focus. Colors are nicely saturated leaning toward warmer earthy hues. Recreations of Jackie's famous wardrobe are rendered beautifully and those who know could probably identify what fabrics are used.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is also very good but isn't really showcased in the course of the show. Dialogue, sound effects and music come across clearly and they're all balanced appropriately. However, only a few moments really use the full surround environment to good effect. Most of the action takes place in quiet rooms where matters of great import are discussed and the audio mix handles those moments very well without being needlessly flashy.
The 45-minute featurette "The Kennedys: From Story to Film," presented in 1080i resolution, was clearly produced as a promo piece but it contains a good amount of behind-the-scenes material. All of the principle actors are interviewed along with the writer, director and producer. Later segments deal more specifically with the production design, the impressively invisible special effects, the costumes and makeup and even the borrowed vintage cars. The only thing missing is the filmmakers' comments on the controversy surrounding its broadcast. Perhaps in anticipation of criticism of the show's historical accuracy, Surnow and others repeat the refrain that they're telling an interpretation of events and that theirs is a fictional work.
It's a little ironic that this miniseries about one of America's most popular presidents was made in Ontario by a Canadian production company claiming various Canadian movie tax credits. Perhaps some physical distance also afforded the filmmakers some creative freedom. Telling the story of the Kennedy clan during the 1960s as a Greek tragedy of a father and his sons is a stroke of genius. Anyway, the narrative arc based on a patriarch's hubris works really well to address the popular belief that the Kennedys are cursed. Historians and storytellers will have to debate whether, only fifty years later, these historical figures and events are fair game for re-interpretation but if you are willing to keep reality and based-on-reality separate then this miniseries is simply great entertainment.
The Kennedys may be a fictionalized account of history but it is a brilliant work of television drama. The show awakens moments of worn archival footage as exciting and immediate situations. The personal and public stakes are huge and these mythical personalities live up to their billing. The excellent work by the cast is reason enough to recommend it but it has much more going for it too.
Review content copyright © 2011 William Lee; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Muse Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site