As expected, the new miniseries "The Kennedys" trashes a beloved American icon, presenting him as a bumbling blowhard who withered under the mighty glare of Papa Joe.
But enough about Frank Sinatra.
Let's get to John F. Kennedy and brother Bobby, who, if you believe the early rumors, are so mistreated in this eight-hour, $25 million biopic from über-conservative producer Joel Surnow that they come across as only slightly sweeter than the Menendez brothers.
That's not the case. Yes, those who think JFK could walk on the Potomac River will be furious that Surnow and writer Stephen Kronish dare to deal with JFK's problem in keeping his pants up, and conjure up a few scenes that border on the sensational, including one in which patriarch Joe Kennedy offers Jackie a million dollars to stay in the marriage.
But the overall tone is so positive, even reverent, that you'll find yourself scratching your hair out trying to decipher why History Channel dumped its most ambitious project in January and why one cable network after another passed on it before the off-the-radar ReelzChannel, owned by the Twin Cities-based Hubbard family, secured it for a song.
It may have something to do with the fact that the first four hours deal heavily with Joe, played with steely determination by two-time Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson. The film doesn't shy away from his racial slurs, political manipulations and bullying tactics. But I'm not sure diehard Kennedy supporters are in a frenzy to protect the reputation of ol' Joe. They're concerned about the sons. They have little to worry about, especially since Teddy Kennedy and his own personal crises don't get a single mention.
Greg Kinnear's performance as JFK bleeds sympathy. Yes, he's a rascal, fooling around with everyone from a campaign worker to Marilyn Monroe, but he's racked by guilt -- not to mention extreme back pain, the death of his infant son and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"I'm not a kid anymore, but I keep acting like one," he says after his brother scolds him for his latest infidelity. Hey, if Jackie can forgive him (and she does several times), why can't we?
If anything, "The Kennedys" goes overboard to present the president in heroic terms, flashing back to his days as a playboy teenager willing to give up the social scene to fight in World War II. Upon the death of his older brother, he transforms into a master campaigner and, eventually, a crafty president.
In chapter five, he comes across as a crusader for African-Americans who practically ushered James Meredith through the doors of the University of Mississippi himself. Most historical accounts would argue that Kennedy was more concerned about communism than civil rights and was slow to support the movement. Kinnear's Kennedy also makes his Joint Chiefs of Staff look like they were rented from the set of "Dr. Strangelove," bucking them with his superior wit and wisdom.
If JFK takes some knocks, his brother, Robert, comes off clean as a whistle -- a high-pitched, loud and sometimes obnoxious whistle. Barry Pepper carries a pained look that's supposed to express either deep concern or constipation. He only breathes relief in his animated scenes with wife, Ethel (Kristin Booth), bunny-hopping through the living room with their brood of children in one of the miniseries' few light moments.
Some of the supporting cast members come off as cartoon characters. Enrico Colantoni plays J. Edgar Hoover as if he were starring in a Mel Brooks comedy. Charlotte Sullivan's Marilyn Monroe is so unhinged she makes Charlie Sheen look sane. Katie Holmes as Jackie doesn't do a whole lot more than whisper and tiptoe through the production, but Camelot purists will embrace the approach, as it only solidifies her reputation as history's loneliest widow.
In fact, nothing in the course of eight hours should do any damage to the Kennedy legacy -- or to the ReelzChannel. I wouldn't necessarily screen it for a college history course, but I'd encourage anyone with even a fleeting interest in 1960s politics to take the time to view this imperfect miniseries about an imperfect family.
- ★★★ out of four stars
- When: 7 p.m. Sun., and Tue. through next Sun.
- Where: ReelzChannel.