Poor Greg Kinnear. Poor Tom Wilkinson. I came away from the ham-fisted miniseries The Kennedys feeling bad for those actors, because they are quite good as JFK and his father, Joe. (You’ll notice I didn’t add “Poor Katie Holmes” as Jackie.) Kinnear and Wilkinson don’t have two worthwhile lines or scenes in the entire series, though. The Kennedys is clumsy in its writing, dull in its direction, not even interesting enough to be a hoot.
Is it factually accurate? Of course not; it’s dramatized. Nothing new there. Everyone, on both sides of the fuss about this high-profile series, seems to have forgotten that many other highly fictional Kennedy films and books have approached the family in exactly the same way. They elevate gossip to fact, then turn those details into the kinds of clunky, flat-out declarative conversations that no one has in real life. (See some earlier bad Kennedys here.)
So The Kennedys shows Jackie preparing to divorce the womanizing Senator Kennedy. On the porch of his Hyannisport house, Joe offers her a million dollars to stay married and preserve Jack’s presidential prospects. “You really think everyone can be bought, don’t you?” Jackie says. Joe answers, “I haven’t met the exception.”
In the laughable 2001 miniseries Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot, that same million-dollar deal - never proven or disproven - was made over lunch in a New York restaurant. What both series miss is any astuteness about character. Joe was perfectly capable of trying to buy anything, but he would have known better than to throw an outright bribe in front of refined Jackie so bluntly.
In fact, while there are plenty of familiar disparaging and even admiring episodes here, there is nothing shocking or fresh. It’s not exactly a news flash to suggest that Joe Kennedy bought votes in Chicago in 1960. The miniseries’ scene in which Frank Sinatra brings Joe to meet mobster Sam Giancana in a club is absurdly cliched. What’s the fuss about?
The dividing line about the series has been political. The series was created by conservative Joel Surnow (of 24). Liberal documentarian Robert Greenwald was among the early voices attacking its accuracy. There have been suggestions that The History Channel, which produced the series then dropped it, was pressured by Kennedys. Of course, seeing the finished version of this disaster might have been enough. It was picked up by Reelz, a channel so low-profile you may get it and not even know.
The Kennedys begins during the 1960 campaign, and over its eight episodes flashes back as far as the 20’s and forward through Robert Kennedy's assassination. That structure makes Stephen Kronish and Surnow’s screenplay sound far more sophisticated than it is. They invent scenes and reorder time, but do nothing to make events or characters feel alive. Director Jon Cassar (like Kronish and Surnow, best known for 24) is so flat-footed that he captures none of the Kennedy glamor or drama, whether JFK is trying to block Russian ships bringing missiles toward Cuba or skulking around the White House with other women right under Jackie’s nose.
Kinnear puts up a brave front. He has a believable Kennedy wig and accent, and best of all refuses to chew the scenery. His low-key JFK is smart, thoughtful about matters of policy, thoughtless in his personal life, a character who could have been a convincing president if Kinnear were in a better movie.
WIlkinson dominates the first half of the series, and Joe is its most interesting character because he is the wiliest, throwing money and influence around. He insists that Jack enter politics and Bobby become Attorney General even when the boys themselves resist. And there you have another wild simplification: even as powerful men, Jack and Bobby act like Joe’s cowed little boys here.
As good as Kinnear’s makeup is? That’s how bad Barry Pepper’s is as Bobby. Pepper looks like he’s wearing a Halloween mask, his face dominated by giant teeth that resemble no human being’s.
And Holmes. Oh, dear. Her wide-eyed performance is so stiff she might as well be a still photograph. Then, when Jackie begins getting amphetamine injections in the White House from the notorious Dr. Feelgood, Holmes talks really really fast. Historians can relax. The overhyped Kennedys is never more sophisticated or shocking than that.
The series begins on Sunday. Here's a look.