By Brian Gorman
Controversial things routinely fail to live up to their billing. But, going by the first installment of The Kennedys miniseries — premiering April 3 on ReelzChannel — it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be offended by what appears to be a fairly discreet historical drama.
As many people know, The Kennedys, a U.S.-Canadian co-production shot in Toronto in the summer of 2010, was abruptly canceled by its U.S. broadcaster, History, reportedly at the urging of some Kennedy family members. There were charges of historical inaccuracies, a website called stopkennedysmears.com with a mission to shut it down, and dark suggestions that, because 24 producer and conservative Republican Joel Surnow was one of the producers, The Kennedys was going to be a hatchet job.
Stan Hubbard, CEO of ReelzChannel, was understandably quick to defend the project and jump at that opportunity to be the miniseries’ exclusive broadcaster. “Realistically, with the controversy that has surrounded this … it took a true independent network [to air the miniseries]. We don’t have corporate owners, or corporate boards of directors that we have to worry about and process decisions like this through. We could look at it like a family and decide if it’s something that we’re willing to step up to.”
The miniseries stars Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes as John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, Barry Pepper and Kristin Booth as Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, and Tom Wilkinson as family patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr. It spans three decades, from when Joe Sr. was ambassador to Great Britain during the Roosevelt administration and the run-up to World War II, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and centers on the presidential election of 1960 and JFK’s 34 months in office — through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the civil rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis and, of course, Dallas.
Taking on a role like Joseph Kennedy Sr. was a bit of a gift, says Wilkinson. The wealthy Bostonian was a banker and investor, and reputed bootlegger, who rose to be U.S. ambassador in the late 1930s. His thwarted political career, his subsequent ambitions for his sons, and the tragedies those ambitions wrought are the stuff of Shakespearean or Greek tragedy.
“There’s certainly a Shakespearean arc to his life,” Wilkinson says. “He’s a Macbeth who grows into Lear halfway through his life. His children abandon him. They chuck him out. Then he goes and has a stroke. The first half of his life, he’s kind of ruthlessly successful and effective, and sort of gets it. But I think, when it grows into the big picture, when local politics become national politics, then suddenly he doesn’t quite get it. And these parochial values he understood when he was young don’t fit the presidential vision of the world. And I don’t think he was ready for that.”
If there’s a character at the other end of the spectrum, it’s Ethel Kennedy, the tomboyish, exuberant wife of Bobby. Playing Ethel brought a deep respect for the Kennedys, especially Bobby, Booth says.
“We show some of the flaws and idiosyncrasies. But they were human, and to try to take that away from them and make them into gods is counterproductive in a sense. It’s their relatability that makes them such heroes in history.
“Yes, they had flaws, like every human being, but what they tried to do, and what their principles were and what they stood for was pretty incredible.”
“What all of our actors were able to do — and why we were so fortunate to have the actors that we had — is that they were able to tap into the underlying core of these people,” says screenwriter Stephen Kronish. “What Greg Kinnear did so brilliantly in my opinion was to portray a guy who was undergoing change, who was learning to become not just a president, but to become a man. … When it comes to personal bravery, forget PT-109. Jack lived virtually his entire adult life in physical pain, and was able to function — and Kinnear, I think, does it fantastically.
“Barry Pepper as Bobby I think taps into the key struggle of Bobby Kennedy’s life: this dichotomy. Bobby was a guy who saw things in very religious, black-and-white terms. Jack was not like that. Yet Bobby had to do things, often in the service of protecting his brother, that flew in the face of his own moral compass.
“And Tom Wilkinson as Joe Sr. — this is a guy who may have done despicable things and whose attitudes may have been abhorrent to a lot of people, but because of Tom’s performance, you never doubt that he loved his children, that his family was the No. 1 thing in his life.”
The script was vetted with great thoroughness by History’s experts and substantially revised from its first draft, a leaked version of which caused the controversy, says producer Michael Prupas.
“Our original script was factually correct. It was just not up to the standards that the historians apply, which is, ‘Please prove with two sources that every incident in this thing happened.’ And we couldn’t prove it all that way. So, we had to meet what I consider a very high standard.”
Nevertheless, in January, History announced that it would not air the eight-hour miniseries because it was deemed “not a fit for the History brand.”
What that meant was left to the public’s imagination, although the Hollywood Reporter subsequently carried a story stating that JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, and former California first lady Maria Shriver (also a Kennedy) had put pressure on History’s parent company, AETN, to pull the production.
All of this is something of a mixed blessing for ReelzChannel and History Television in Canada, which are showing The Kennedys.
As they say, you can’t buy advertising like this, but it also creates buzz that may be hard to live up to. After you’ve read a headline like “John F. Kennedy ‘Sex Fiend’ TV Show Pulled In U.S.” (from the fevered collective mind of the British tabloid Daily Mirror), you’re likely to go into the miniseries with some lurid mental images.
“The only thing I’m really afraid about is that, first of all, because of all this hype, people are going to be tuning in expecting us to be doing a character assassination job on the Kennedys,” Prupas says. “And, second, that we are going to be showing all kinds of sex and drugs, and all sorts of terrible things going on in the White House.
“And some people — right-wingers in particular — are going to be disappointed when, after watching the eight hours of the show, they come away feeling this was a great family.”