Monday, April 4, 2011

The Kennedys: History Lite

Everybody is going to be tuning in The Kennedys on History Television for the juicy bits.
Trouble is there aren't any.
So far. I've watched the first two installments which present a fairly standardized version of America's First Family.
Controversy erupted way back in January when U.S. TV's History Channel (not seen in Canada) cancelled the miniseries before it ever got to air.
Influential members of The Kennedys including Caroline Kennedy were said to be against this version with all the warts exposed.
But that's nothing new: a few years back CBS cancelled its two-parter titled The Reagans after Nancy Reagan was said to be offended with the portrait her husband who was then in the late stages of Alzheimer's.
The Reagans finally ran on a CBS subsidiary, Showtime and is forgotten these days it was so innocuous.
And that could be the fate of the Kennedys.
It bounced all over the place until landing up on the U.S. cable weblet ReelzChannel.
In Canada it was always meant for History Television because it counts as Canadian content having been filmed in Ontario and Quebec.
Look! Spot the Toronto landmarks standing in for Boston and Washington D.C.
When old Joe Kenned goes into the Boston Roman Catholic cathedral he's really going into St. James Anglican Cathedral.
But we're not there to spot the landmarks. Peddled as a steamy side of history it emerges as a very bland once-over-lightly treatment of a well known family and their ups and downs
Watching the first two hours I was reminded of the 1980s soapera Dallas. It's like taking an entire year of As The World Turns and boiling it down to highlights.
It's Comic Books Illustrated for political buffs as great moments in history get explained away by great clunks of silly dialogue.
Old Joe thundering after being fired as U.S. ambassador to England: "This family is not going to disappear!"
Young Joe going off to war: "Save my clippings. Start planning my campaign."
Young Jack as a war hero: "It was accidental. I sank my boat."
Jack to old Joe: "You want me to be Joe and I'm not."
Ethel Kennedy on touch football: "I rarely bunt."
Old Joe on Jack's narrow presidential win: ""I was going to pay for a landslide."
Press reports that the miniseries is something of a train wreck are just not true. It's prosaic. It's sometimes dull. But it does obey most of the goalposts of the Kennedy mystique.
It shows in its own plodding way why these historical miniseries are now out of fashion. Everything that had to be said has already been said. And better.
One JFK TV movie I thought pretty fine had the president played by James Franciscus and Jaclyn Smith as the picture-perfect Jackie.The title: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981).
There was TheWomen Of Camelot (2001) shot in Ontario. Earlier on there was The Missiles Of October (1974), Young Joe (1977) and Kennedy (1983) with Martin Sheen.
The hokey premise starts on election night in November, 1960, with the family bunkered down at Hyannisport as election returns dribble in --remember Kennedy won the popular vote by only a few thousand.
In the first two hours acting honors go to British character star Tom Wilkinson as horny old Joe. History gets lightly airbushed here. The books say he openly grappled with his sons girlfriends. Here he is seen smooching his young secretary very late one night while an irate Rose (Diana Hardcastle, married to Wilkinson in real life) watches on.
Greg Kinnear is the lightweight Jack who inherits the leadership mantle once brother Joe dies in the war. Kinnear plays Jack as riddled with pain and resorting to medications to keep going --in one scene he must be laced into a tight corset.
Oldest sister Kathleen who died in a flaming 1948 plane crash (earlier she was disinherited by Rose after marrying an English Protestant) is missing. Other siblings missing in action include Jean Shriver and brother Teddy who became a U.S. senator.
Katie Holmes is pretty enough as Jackie in early scenes and portrays Jackie's mental anguish at her husband's numerous infidelities but her accent comes and goes and she never get that little girl tone in the voice exactly right.
The most chilling scene has old Joe promise to deposit a cool million in a bank account provided she stays with Jack until he wins the White House. Then papa Kennedy figures she'll so love being First Lady she'll want to stay on.
But the best performance comes from Canadian actor Barry Pepper well cast as the ambivalent and deeply religious Bobby--he is well aware what kind of a character old Joe really is and how Jack's philandering if revealed by the press would bring the whole family down.
Made by Canada's Muse Entertainment along with producer Joel Surnow's company, the Canadian actors include Kirtsen Booth as Ethel and &*&*&* as Young Joe.
Look --as Canadians we're fascinated by American history. We don't make miniseries about our own political leaders do we?
So The Kennedys will have to do until we're politically mature enough to make The Trudeaus or The Mulroneys, right?

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