The Times of Judge Gordon Sullivan are in his magazine rack.
Few figures in American history invite the kind of "What if?" questions as Robert Frances Kennedy. We have every reason to believe that when he was assassinated he was headed for the top of the Democratic ticket for 1968, and the Kennedy charisma could easily have bested Tricky Dick Nixon (as brother JFK had earlier in the decade). That might have meant American involvement in Vietnam curtailed, if not entirely ended, by 1969. No Watergate in 1973. After that, who knows? I'm given to being cynical about politicians, but even I would admit that the course of the twentieth century was changed as much by the assassination of RFK as by the assassination of JFK, and no one could predict what the world would look like today without that fateful bullet. Rather than looking forward, the 1985 miniseries Robert Kennedy and His Times looks back on the senator's life, surveying his triumphs and setbacks with a number of talented actors.
Facts of the Case
Robert Francis Kennedy (Brad Davis, Midnight Express) began his life in two of the biggest shadows that anyone could find himself: those of Senator Joseph P. Kennedy and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It is with the latter that the miniseries starts, as RFK is working for his brother; it follows the man through the history of that period from the Cuban Missile Crisis to his brother's assassination.
I've rarely heard a bad word about Bobby Kennedy. His brother was a divisive figure due to the Bay of Pigs and the conspiracy around his death, but Bobby never really had the time to become truly hated in American politics. Sure he was promoted to Attorney General a little fast for some, and his anti-union (corruption) activities weren't popular with every one, but he died in his prime, killed senselessly at a time when the last thing America needed was another dead Civil Rights figure. It's that Bobby Kennedy which we get in Robert Kennedy and His Times. From his first moment to his last, RFK is a standup guy who's always on the right side of every issue, his faithful wife at his side. That's either a huge plus, or a huge minus. For fans of Bobby Kennedy, the squeaky clean image of their hero will warm the cockles. For those who want a hard-hitting look at some of the darker moments in the middle of the century (like, say, the Bay of Pigs), then the lack of balance in portraying Kennedy will quickly get irksome.
Whatever your opinion of Kennedy, you'll see that this miniseries has been brought to the small screen with a lot of loving care, at least as far as the actors are concerned. Brad Davis does a fine job of being All-American in the central role. His looks are just right, and while his accent might fluctuate a bit, he doesn't try to oversell the Catholic Boston roots of the Kennedys. Veronica Cartwright (Lost in Space) also gets a decent amount of screen time as Mrs. Bobby Kennedy, radiating warmth and support for her famous husband. As befits a rather epic miniseries (in historical scope if not in subject matter), Robert Kennedy and His Times benefits from the presence of everyone from a young Joe Pantoliano to an even younger River Phoenix.
I have to give the show some credit for guts. It's really hard to handle a story where the audience knows exactly how everything is going to end. No amount of narrative trickery can get away from the fact that Bobby Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968. Robert Kennedy and His Times doesn't try to get around that fact, nor does it try to exploit the shocking violence of that incident for titillation. Instead, the show ends on Bobby Kennedy entering the kitchen, striking a poignant but unstrained note before the credits roll. I'm not sure it's worth sitting though all five hours to get to that point, but it demonstrates the level of care that went into making the film.
Robert Kennedy and His Times comes spread across two discs, with the first part occupying Disc One, and parts two and three on Disc Two. The transfer looks surprisingly good for a show of this vintage, with little damage. It appears that for creative reasons, the show was shot utilizing the look of older film stocks to give it a sense of history. This leads to generally muted colors and lots and lots of grain (I'm guessing the show was shot on 16mm). I actually found the grain pleasing, in a filmlike way, but those who want a perfectly clean image might be disappointed. The stereo audio is a simple affair, keeping dialogue in the forefront, but balanced with the music. There are sadly no extras to be found.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the negative side, Robert Kennedy and His Times suffers from the miniseries format. It's very difficult to craft a story that fits appropriately into a five-hour slot, giving enough time to both character development and plot. It's especially difficult with historical material. We've since had a two-hour movie covering just the Cuban Missile Crisis (Thirteen Days), and another covering Joe McCarthy (Good Night, and Good Luck). With five hours to do justice to twenty years, Robert Kennedy and His Times can only hit the highlights, and has to rely on bits of biographical shorthand (like Kennedy's meeting with Nehru) to allude to much larger and more complex ideas. The generally uncritical tenor of the show, coupled with its necessarily shallow treatment of Kennedy's life, might be enough to turn off history buffs.
Considering how locked in most of us are to the twenty-four-hour news cycle and on-demand details for every politician and celebrity, the generally hands-off approach of Robert Kennedy and His Times might seem a bit quaint twenty-five years later. It's certainly not a bad series, but it's a little too one-sided to be effective history, and doesn't have enough drama to work as sheer entertainment. Although the picture and sound are strong, the lack of extras makes this one recommended only for rental to all but the most ardent fans of Kennedy or the actors.
Although it doesn't give the whole story, Robert Kennedy and His Times is not guilty.
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