Friday, 15 April 2011

'The Kennedys' Miniseries

I'm four parts into the controversial miniseries called The Kennedys, and feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I can see why Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker panned the eight-part biopic, essentially calling it disjointed, "uncontrolled melodrama", and "mean-spirited" to boot. It's true: the structure seems a little all over the place, with flashbacks (the real f-word of dramatic storytelling...unless we're talking about LOST) running amok, and breaking up the flow from time to time. In short, it's certainly not comparable to HBO's fantastic John Adams miniseries, to name another recent presidential miniseries.

On the other hand, though, I'm not entirely sure why the miniseries has generated so much heat. The History Channel famously passed on it back in January, leaving the nearly completed project scrambling to find a network home. It ended up at the last minute on Reelz, a cable network apparently located somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of the 450 channels on your channel lineup you don't ever watch. The History Channel's original statement about dropping the program passive aggressively read, "While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand." Not a promising start.

The series has thus far (I haven't watched the second half) depicted the family pretty melodramatically, as you would expect from a TV movie, with, I'm sure, many liberties propping up the story where necessary, but it's far from offensive, which seemed to be the rallying cry of its early detractors. If anything, Greg Kinnear's JFK is a sympathetic but flawed great man, almost an anti-hero, in spite of whom he is. It would be ridiculous in a jaded, post-Nixon presidential era to try to tell the story of the personal life of JFK without referencing his infidelity. Yet somehow, he still comes off well. There's sympathetic humanity in Kinnear's performance that's worth the price of admission.

The "melodrama" label is not off here, but in spite of an occasionally maudlin approach to the family, it's sucked me in. All of the performances are good, particularly Barry Pepper as Bobby, who is the real star of the show. (Sidebar: when placed next to his performance in last year's When Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story, Pepper proves how gifted he is as an actor. I'm putting him on my list of Movie Actors Who Need to Star on TV Shows.) Even Katie Holmes' depiction of Jackie shouldn't be tossed aside. She's been criticized for a stiff performance of the former first lady, but, as Tucker points out in his review, her performance aims more at Jackie's "quiet reserve" than charisma.

After having seen half of it, I'm surprised at the level of controversy it garnered. It's not the historical train-wreck it was supposed to be. When you watch these things, you have to take the "historical accuracy" with a grain of salt anyway. The tendency to narrativise history shouldn't conceptually stand up to serious, critical historical investigation, anyway. How much of your life fits into a tidy narrative? I'm sure some of it is "true" and some of it isn't, but on its own feet, the series is at least worth viewing.

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