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Docudrama 'The Kennedys' paints a flattering portrait

April 06, 2011

In this publicity image Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy in a scene from the eight-part movie, “The Kennedys”. - AP Photo

NEW YORK: ''The Kennedys'' opens on the eve of Election Day 1960 with John F. Kennedy voicing high hopes to supporters as a long presidential race comes to an end.

These sequences are intercut with the weary-looking candidate peering in his bathroom mirror at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, the next morning. Self-reflectively, he pops one pill after another for his multiple ailments and to get himself started.

So this is how this show's going to go, the wary viewer may be thinking: “build him up, then tear him down.”

''The Kennedys'' arrives in a cloud of such suspicion. Grandly announced last spring by cable's History channel, the eight-part, $30 million miniseries was abruptly dropped by the network in January amid reports that the real-life Kennedy camp, having gotten wind of an early script, was unhappy about the project.

One warning sign: A key producer and writer of the film is Joel Surnow, who, though best-known as a creator of the action series ''24,'' is also known to be politically conservative. Was he out to get the Kennedys?

Surprise! Despite the bumpy road that got it here, and the stigma attached, ''The Kennedys'' turns out to be a solidly entertaining portrait.

A cautionary note to those who may have feared (or hoped) this docudrama would engage in Kennedy-bashing: ''The Kennedys'' is a flattering, even affectionate portrayal. Whatever creative license the film has taken in its storytelling, its subjects seem to be the beneficiaries as, even when it dwells on the family's deficits, it does so with a sympathetic touch.

Yes, Jack's physical problems are showcased. On Election Day, Jackie is seen strapping him into a back brace and, as he descends a staircase, he must take one painful, halting step at a time. At another point, he needs help rising from his chair in the Oval Office.

''My body's breaking down,'' he tells Jackie. ''I can't stand for more than 20 minutes. I can't sit for more than five. If the public knew the shape I was in, they'd boot me out of here.''

But in this film, the battles Jack wages with his health humanize, not diminish, him.

So does his womanizing, which is an ongoing issue in his marriage, but displayed on-screen very sparingly. His dalliances are mostly talked about.

''Bobby, I'm not a kid anymore, but I keep acting like one,'' Jack tells his brother mournfully after Jackie, discovering his latest tryst, has fled to Camp David. ''I think she's finished with me.''

But she's not, of course. She returns with the kids to the White House, where Kennedy is busy tackling the Cuban Missile Crisis and ''saving the world,'' as Jackie tells little Caroline.

And a year later, on that fateful flight to Dallas in November 1963, Jack and Jackie declare their love for each other anew.

''The Kennedys'' is, if anything, a tribute to this family - its accomplishments, its vision and the awful price exacted for its outsized ambition.

The film's biggest problem is its cast. Tom Wilkinson is fine as Joseph P. Kennedy, capturing the family patriarch's ruthless drive and harsh authority, while Barry Pepper is credible as Robert F. Kennedy, Jack's sensitive and fiercely loyal sidekick.

But Greg Kinnear serves as the latest reminder that no actor has yet copied Jack Kennedy's magnetism. Kinnear makes JFK likable and earnest. But this Jack has no sex appeal, nor any chemistry with Jackie.

In the equally daunting challenge of portraying the First Lady, Katie Holmes gets no closer to her character than being an attractive, slim brunette.

What saves ''The Kennedys'' is its writing and the lush production values that give it form.