Judge Chris Claro examines this peek into one of America's most reclusive and unheralded political families.
Our review of Kennedy, published February 19th, 2009, is also available.
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the return to the screen of one of history's most documented families, the Kennedys!
The notion of the Kennedys as 20th-century American royalty has made them fodder for an endless string of biopics and documentaries about the family's various members. Since his death, JFK has been portrayed by almost 50 different actors, with depictions of brother Bobby and wife Jackie not far behind. From Cliff Robertson (Spider-Man) to Steven Culp (Desperate Housewives) to Jaclyn Smith (Charlie's Angels), if you're an actor in Hollywood and you haven't played a Kennedy, you just aren't working hard enough.
The dynasty, headed by bootlegger and kingmaker Joseph Kennedy, has long provided the stuff of drama, rife with war heroes, political intrigue, and movie-star good looks. But Kennedy, like other stories of the family, needs to be viewed in a particular context.
John F. Kennedy rose to power at virtually the same time that television did, and his charismatic persona was made for the medium. His seemingly perfect marriage to a beautiful woman bolstered the public's perception of the Kennedys as the closest thing the US had to a king and queen.
Retrospect has proven that perfection illusory—a made-for-tv fantasy which was actually plagued with infidelity, deception and links to organized crime. In the moment, it was "Camelot," though history has shown it to be anything but.
Which brings us to the primary question about Kennedy: with so much documented about the family and the administration, how can this film inject vitality into a story where the audience knows all its twists and turns and, of course, its tragic end? The answer is, it can't.
Facts of the Case
Structured as a long flashback, Kennedy opens with various members of the Kennedy family and administration receiving word of JFK's assassination. From there, it's on to all the timeworn traditions of touch football in Hyannisport, the Bay of Pigs, "ich bin ein Berliner," and that terrible day in Dallas.
But Kennedy fails to put any of those events in a new perspective, offering instead almost a "Classic Comics" version of rise of the man and his administration. Long stretches of Kennedy are devoted to re-creations of speeches or events; the inaugural address alone takes up almost seven minutes of screen time. Dry expository dialogue provides didactic discourse on historical events such as the Cuban missile crisis, leaving the bulk of Kennedy strangely airless and unaffecting. Measured against truly compelling accounts of the challenges the administration faced, such as Thirteen Days and The Missiles of October, Kennedy is a prosaic snooze.
Slanted as Kennedy is in favor of JFK's accomplishments, it's little wonder that his flaws get minimal screen time. The womanizing for which he became so infamous is limited to an already-over affair with an unseen woman in Chicago. The only reason the subject is acknowledged at all is to make J. Edgar Hoover, played by an over-the-top Vincent Gardenia (Moonstruck), the nominal villain. Gardenia's sneering and posturing are ludicrously hammy and make Hoover into even more of a frighteningly comic figure than history has proven him to be. As with the Kennedys, Hoover is another public official who has been portrayed many times onscreen by actors as disparate as Bob Hoskins (JFK), Broderick Crawford (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover), and Ned Beatty (Robert Kennedy and His Times).
Oddly, Martin Sheen, who nails the Brahmin Kennedy cadence, is far more vibrant and magnetic as fictional president Jed Bartlet on The West Wing than he is in essaying John Kennedy. As one of the few actors to have portrayed both JFK and RFK (in The Missiles of October), Sheen clearly had a handle on what made the brothers so captivating, so it's disappointing that he is given such pedestrian material to work with in Kennedy.
John Shea's (Missing) RFK is equally underwritten, with his resistance to joining his brother's administration his defining characteristic. Nowhere do we see the fiery passion for politics and family for which Bobby Kennedy was so renowned. Shea's one-note portrayal is reflective of the lack of depth in the script.
With a more rounded character, Blair Brown (Altered States) captures Jacqueline Kennedy's combination of ambivalence and excitement at her position as first lady. From her prickly relationship with the press to supporting JFK's pursuit of power, the script gives Brown's character more colors, unafraid to show Jackie as flawed and human.
Not surprisingly, old pro E.G. Marshall (Absolute Power) conveys the bracing essence of the prideful, powerful Joseph Kennedy. Marshall makes the elder Kennedy's nothing-less-than-excellence attitude both a virtue and a vice. And Geraldine Fitzgerald makes an equally strong impression as matriarch Rose Kennedy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What saves Kennedy are the extras. Many of the events depicted in the film, including the inauguration and the Cuban missile crisis, are featured in documentary clips supplied by the JFK library. The material is so exhaustive and filled with facts that it renders much of the underwritten Kennedy quaint and insignificant.
Technically, the presentation of Kennedy is as uninspired as the production. A generally washed-out and grainy transfer is accompanied by a pedestrian sound mix, and the scene selection menu is ordinary.
In the pantheon of stories about the Kennedys, Kennedy stands out by squandering its opportunity to shed new light on a well-worn subject. By presenting its story in a linear, predictable and unsurprising style, Kennedy reduces the life of JFK to the stuff of community theater.
Kennedy is found guilty of stealing three hours that the viewer will never get back. However, it receives a reduced sentence thanks to the instructional documentary clips about the administration.
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