Kennedy, an uncompromising look at the presidency of John F. Kennedy, originally aired as a three-part miniseries on NBC in November 1983, 20 years after the president’s assassination. The title role is deftly played by Martin Sheen, who inhabits it with an intensity he rarely displayed on The West Wing. While his Mayor Quimby cadence can be a bit over-indulgent at times, it’s much more believable and nowhere near as painful as watching Kevin Costner attempt the same accent in 2000’s Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days. Bad Boston accents aside, John Shea does a surprisingly good job playing the president’s brother, Robert, who is present for nearly all of JFK’s decision-making. (For an eerily accurate portrayal, see Steven Culp play RFK in both Norma Jean & Marilyn and the aforementioned Thirteen Days.)
The series opens with the announcement of Kennedy’s assassination and scenes of those in his private circle being notified. We then flash back to JFK’s frantic campaign headquarters in Hyannis Port on election night in 1960 and the series continues from there to Dallas 1963. Yet JFK’s death manages to hover over the entire series: Scenes such as wife Jacqueline (Blair Brown) asking about the need for such intrusive Secret Service agents and her reading of Alan Seeger’s poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” after the inauguration serve as obvious reminders that death is on the horizon. There’s even a brief phone call placed to JFK from the wife of Chief Justice Earl Warren of the Warren Commission, an entirely superfluous moment that only serves as one more hint of the impending assassination. Perhaps unavoidably, Kennedy’s presidency is viewed through the prism of his tragic death, but by including it in the background so often, it detracts from the rest of the miniseries. And the choice to open each episode with an American flag fluttering in the breeze and suddenly freeze-framing it with some cartoon blood splattered over the image is certainly more tactless than touching.
The series plots the most seminal moments of JFK’s presidency over the course of its five hours: the inaugural address, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement, early action in Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination. With such a wealth of historical events available, the series turns in some notable scenes. For instance, while watching the election results come in and waiting for Richard Nixon to concede, JFK offers a strikingly accurate comment about his rival that shows the artful work of Reg Gadney’s screenplay: “Did you ever see a man groveling so much to be liked by everyone? The more he tries, the more people shrink away from him. It’s so transparent.” In another clever scene, JFK is briefed by two C.I.A. agents on the planned Bay of Pigs invasion while RFK and the speechwriters work on the famous ‘61 inaugural address, with the camera cutting back and forth between the two. While there may be a question as to the realism of these depictions, scenes involving the interplay between JFK and RFK in the Oval Office, with the former’s restless fidgeting and the latter’s rolled-up sleeves, seem lifted straight from Robert Drew’s 1963 cinéma vérité classic Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment.
On the whole, Kennedy is a political family drama that is a mix of insight and myth. While it offers a fascinating peak into the inner workings of the Kennedy family, there are also numerous points that lean too heavily on Kennedy-era clichés: JFK’s affair with Marilyn Monroe is heavily hinted at, Jackie’s lavishness is played up in nearly all her scenes, JFK smokes a cigar (presumably Cuban) while discussing the missiles in Cuba, and comically sex-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover (Vincent Gardenia) stalks episodes like an image of death from his shadow-filled office. But even these rough characterizations aside, Kennedy remains a well-made and revealing, if not always captivating, miniseries.
Though the series first aired in three parts (a three-hour premiere followed by a pair of two-hour episodes), MPI presents it as seven separate episodes (four on the first disc, three on the second), likely representing the way it was split for syndication. For a 25-year-old program, Kennedy is still in surprisingly good shape, but despite decent color values, it could have received a better transfer. Sadly, the sound seems to have gone through some noise reduction. While this reduces the amount of ambient background noise, it also leaves a digital tin-can sound quality to dialogue that's unnatural to the ear.
This is a re-release of the Kennedy miniseries, likely timed to coincide with the Kennedyesque Barack Obama's first year in office (MPI also offers A Moment In History: The Inauguration of Barack Obama with similar cover art) and it feels like a bit of a rush job: no special features, no commentary track, not even archival footage of JFK. On the other hand, DVD International's original 2001 release contained numerous extras, including footage of JFK's 1961 inaugural address, a Department of Defense film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, an excerpt of JFK's speech at the Berlin Wall, and a feature on JFK's last two days. Considering the wealth of material available on the Kennedys, it's a shame MPI didn't include anything additional for viewers. Even interviews with the main cast would have been welcomed, as Martin Sheen could have given some insight on his portrayal having played RFK nearly a decade earlier (in the 1974 TV movie The Missiles of October) and then going on to star as a fictional president in NBC's The West Wing a decade and a half later. The included English subtitles are fraught with typographical errors, and the DVD menus are terribly plain and amateur looking.
A barebones release for a well done, if often forgotten, miniseries. Avid fans, however, may want to try hunting down the now out-of-print 2001 release for its bonus features and to see the series in its original three-part format.