Dead Kennedys

                  So that hugely "controversial" right-wing miniseries from the creator of 24

                the one starring Katie Holmes as Jackie and Greg Kinnear as a pill-popping JFK?

                      It's not just honest, it's great.

                        Tom Carson asks: When are we going to stop lying to ourselves about the legacy of Camelot?


April 2011


It hurts to blow my invite to Caroline Kennedy's next New Year's bash—and things were looking so promising, too. But I cannot tell a lie. Despite the toxic rep it acquired before a frame was filmed, Joel Surnow's much reviled The Kennedys has turned out to be the best depiction of this doomed and overreaching clan ever put on TV. Too bad you have to be a subscriber to the mighty Albuquerque-based ReelzChannel to find out.

Starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie, Surnow's take on America's necrophile answer to the royals started life as a bid for prestige—the History Channel's first-ever dramatized miniseries, and about Camelot yet. What could possibly go wrong? For starters, signing up the producer best known for creating Fox's 24.

Surnow's right-wing politics are no secret, enough in itself to damn the project in Kennedy loyalists' eyes. Packed with juicy sleaze about a JFK with ants in his pants and nothing upstairs, a leaked—and swiftly disowned—early script got ripped six ways to Dallas by the usual glad-to-oblige historians. Agitprop documentarian Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) launched a preemptive Web site called Stop Kennedy Smears before The Kennedys had even been cast. Then Caroline got into the act.

She comes across as a fairly docile little girl in The Kennedys, but Surnow has learned better. By coincidence, Caroline has a book of her mother's post-assassination interviews coming out in September from a Disney/ABC subsidiary. One guess who also owns the History Channel. Of course, only a real fink would suspect that Caroline's reported threat to pull the plug on a boomer payday any publisher would drool at had anything to do with inducing the mini's original venue to bow out. After Showtime and others passed, too, The Kennedys was finally picked up by an unpedigreed outfit whose 56 million lucky subscribers will probably pull down the blinds in shame before tuning in the April 3 premiere.

And score one for Surnow's friend Rush Limbaugh, whose fantasies about the Vast Pinko Media Elitist Whatchamacallit rarely get this much traction from contact with reality. To anybody steeped in the lore, the supposed distortions most frequently cited as proof Surnow and scriptwriter Stephen Kronish were up to no good just didn't cut it as libel. To be honest, my inner Cartman was looking forward to some bare-knuckled, sordid, Marilyn-in-the-woodwork pulp revisionism after decades of big-screen hagiography.

I'm so disappointed I could spit. Do you know what this damn thing is? It's thoughtful, that's what: an interpretation, not a mugging. While the interpretation may not be one that Camelot flame-keepers cherish, that's not the same thing as calumny.


The thesis of The Kennedys is twofold. One, that patriarch Joe Kennedy, glintingly played by Tom Wilkinson at his shrewdest, warped his gifted sons by turning them into the vehicles for his own ambitions to belong and/or rule. Never wondering whether that was a contradiction in terms in a democracy, he paid a price for it any Greek dramatist could have predicted.

Two, that Jack—the substitute apple of his father's eye after firstborn son Joe Junior's death—might have been happier as a non-clockwork orange. When Holmes's breathy Jackie tells the young congressman from Massachusetts that he talks like a writer, he answers with believable ruefulness, "That was the plan at one point." He's portrayed as someone miscast for the presidency who measured up just in time for the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Surnow and Kronish give JFK full props for having the sangfroid to win that standoff without blowing the planet up, all the more movingly since this time—for once—fealty isn't a given.

If either of these notions is heretical, I'll eat my dad's old PT-109 tiepin. They're the underpinning mythology of the only great work of popular art arguably inspired by the Kennedys: The Godfather, in whose chronologically misarranged sons anyone can recognize Bobby (Sonny Corleone), Teddy (Fredo), and Jack (Michael). Not to mention Joe senior, disguised as a courtly Mafia don instead of an Irish-American bootlegger on the make—and even Jackie, recruited to add broodmare class to an upstart dynasty. In both clans' cases, respectability is what power buys on its way to the top: "We'll get there, Pop. We'll get there" could be a line from either Coppola's epic or The Kennedys. (It's from Coppola.)

Like it or not, Surnow and Kronish have brought things full circle by making The Godfather their acknowledged template. You can object to their point of view, but at least The Kennedys has one. That's just what's been lacking in most of the many screen treatments of the family, which usually oscillate between fan-mag glamour and generic history-book Greatness.

Unless you count the final episode's sneak gotcha—which may be debatable, but isn't invented from thin air—the salacious stuff is downplayed in the finished version. Though Jack and Jackie do still get speed injections from the society sawbones known as Dr. Feelgood, most of JFK's dalliances with everyone from society dames to White House secretaries happen off-camera. Even the Marilyn Monroe angle is mostly handled via Bobby's role as the discomfited mediator sent to L.A. to talk her out of her bubblehead fantasies of replacing Jackie as first lady.

One explanation for the relative reticence about Jack's torpedo fetish may be that there's only so much you can ask of your leading man. Kinnear played a sex addict brilliantly in Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, but here he can't quite reconcile that compulsion to Kennedy's other dimensions. Perhaps the only actor with the guile and firsthand know-how to bring it all back home would have been the fey, cool young Warren Beatty, incidentally JFK's own choice to impersonate his youthful self in PT 109. Though Tinseltown's most compulsive 1960s swordsman didn't get the part, that little factoid has always been a tantalizing hint our president knew himself better than his compatriots ever wanted to.


What Kinnear can do is what he's always done best: draw us into the private anxieties of a man caught in a job that doesn't quite match his soul. Helped along by a physical resemblance that's downright eerie, he's the first of the platoons of actors who've tackled the guy to endow him with a credible inner life. The performance's real subtlety gets made manifest when you catch yourself feeling impressed during the missile-crisis episode at how Kinnear has grown into the part. Then you realize he hasn't: JFK has, and Kinnear's been preparing us for that metamorphosis all along.

Another great performance is Wilkinson's, all canny cogitation masking primal and ultimately devastated emotional drives. As taut, flinty Bobby, Barry Pepper is sometimes undone by his makeup, but Pepper goes from good to extraordinary once RFK emerges as his murdered brother's burdened heir. Beyond that, for connoisseurs of the genre—and believe me, Kennedy docudramas are one—scoring the performers is like watching our fifteenth or twentieth production of Hamlet. At least this one is the first to uncover something genuinely Shakespearean in Jack and Bobby's pious but deftly maneuvering mom: the phenomenal Diana Hardcastle, an actress I'd love to see doing Gertrude of Denmark for real.

As for Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes is…um, sweet. Her rendition of Jackie blossoming under Dr. Feelgood's care wouldn't look too out of place in Shrek Forever After. Even so, Holmes's jitters capture something almost forgotten about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. That's how young and unprepared she was when the world spread the red carpet and then caved in on her.

Farther down the glitter list, The Kennedys features a dud Frank Sinatra (Chris Diamantopoulos) but a terrific Sam Giancana (Serge Houde, and where has this formidable actor been all of Martin Scorsese's life?). It will probably set off Camelot guardians' alarm bells to hear that Giancana, the Chicago Mob boss, appears at all—and tête-à-tête with papa Joe, who's committing hubris's fatal error by negotiating with him. But since we'll never really know the deals Joe made to help elect his kid president, the Surnow-Kronish version is an acceptable mash-up of fact and legend. In 2011 the test of veracity in dramatizing the Kennedy saga ain't Dragnet or courtrooms, kids. It's more like The Tudors.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that The Kennedys, good or bad, is irrelevant to modern politics. This clan has reached the stage when art, interpretation, actorly wiles, and speculation get to take over from living memory. Call the miniseries part of the Great Right-Wing Conspiracy to Tarnish Liberalism if you like, but I didn't need Joel Surnow to tell me John F. Kennedy was a mighty peculiar president of these United States. I'll only go for Surnow's throat the day he tries to convince me Ronald Reagan was a great one.