Wide Range. Cultural Focus. Editor Patrick Neithard
Zürich, May 23rd 2012, by Patrick Neithard
Since last Monday, the Swiss national TV SRF 1 finally airs “The Kennedys”, a mini-series by “24” director Jon Cassar
The Series` Mad Men season three finale (on air `til mid May 2011 on Swiss Television SRF1) ended ponderous. History made a visit in these early sixties fictional residential living rooms and in the copywright offices of Ad giant Sterling Cooper when those bulky b/w TV Sets broadcast the grim news of President John F. Kennedy`s assassination on november 22nd, 1963. In reality, its delusionary, shocking and paralizing impact has not only been felt so in the Americas, it also made Europe grief. One can argue a bit with fiction, frown a bit more at speculations as to whether this might have led Mad Man Don Draper`s spouse Betty to finally decide to file for divorce from Don Draper. Clearly, she felt to have to do so due to his betrayal such as concocting his identity or leading a life with his numerous affairs. Now it is in the very same time slot on Monday night, when Swiss Television SRF 1 finally airs the Award winning TV mini – series “The Kennedys” (produced 2010/2011). It was first aired last Monday, May 21st at 23:45 PM with 7 more episodes recurring every Monday until July 7th. Already in the first episode the mini – series unveils itself to be, contrary to premature critique, more than just an attempt to emphasise on the president`s sagaciousness within its dialogues. It is rather a hit on the critics discussion: Can a series on John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family ever turn out other than what critical voices in 2010 have called “a predictable disaster” or a “story as sordid as possible”?
Just another spell unwinding towards its historic disaster? First things first. It was on February 28th, 2010, two weeks after the sudden installment of filmmaker Robert Greenwald`s homepage named “stopkennedysmears.com”. “) A little while before, several critical voices in print media had pointed out that the writer of “The Kennedys”, Stephen Kronish, had explained that he took source from renowned historians, naming personalities such as Seymour Hersh, Robert Dallek and David Talbot. It seemes that CNN “”) then decided to finally interview Robert Greenwald. At that stage, the script of “The Kennedys” was in its very early drafts form, it had not been cast, thus not even a frame of it was shot. In the interview, Robert Greenwald however stated, based on script versions coming to his possession, already by then that it would be a “character assassination”, all the while following the strong words of Theodore C. Sorensen, the former speech-writer of John F. Kennedy. Sorensen himself appears in a quote within a short movie published on that very same homepage of Robert Greenwald. In this “short movie” Theodore C. Sorensen calls the early draft version “a vindictive, malicious” approach on Kennedy, while another interviewee, Nigel Hamilton, both biographer of the young John F. Kennedy (“JFK: Reckless Youth”, 1992) and Bill Clinton among others, points on several missing historical key points in that script such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in the “briefly sketched” Kennedy presidency. Hamilton emphasises that the script could not at all be accurate due to these several missing historical keypoints, however stressing for example the president`s predominant sexual references or a depiction of JKF`s father Joseph (Joe sr.) Kennedy solely as a tyrannic personality. All that, the tone of the statement suggests, being produced by the History Channel, would be grotesque. In the Huffington Post, about a year later approximately, on January 2011 Nigel Hamilton concedes that he had gotten into trouble with the Kennedys himself after having published “JFK: Reckless youth” in 1992, (portraying the early years of John F. Kennedy only) of course not because he was being unflattery with John F. Kennedy, but for describing the presidents parents Joseph P. (Joe) Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy “in less flattering terms” *) concluding that “there might be a biography on `JFK, part two`, but there is no promise” until that day. While Theodore C. Sorensen has passed away in October 2010, and the first airing of “The Kennedys” took place in April 2011 only, Nigel Hamilton has not yet revised his public statement. Ambition is not a vice of little people (Michel de Montaigne) With this quote, the airing of the first episode established the political legacy of the Kennedys. And from here on, the Kennedy family unfolds. Like a rose coming to bloom, from within several time slots, each narrative string emerges – like rose petals unfolding, following perfectly installed elliptic film narration. At the very first, we witness a rally during the election campaign introducing JFK (Greg Kinnear) who nervously takes several pills, whereas his father Joseph (Joe sr.) Kenndy (Tom Wilkinson) is shown as s highly energetic and patriarchal individual managing the campaign and flirting with his first secretary. The camerawork is subtle here, and Jon Cassar understands directing this time in manners of docudrama. Editing this time is done (again) perfectly understandable. Yet this time there are no such alignments showing multiple split screens within one single screen as well known from “24” director Jon Cassar, although again the main figure is a Jack, its just not Jack Bauer from the series”24″ , it is Jack Kennedy. Consequentally we follow an elliptic narrative structure, carefully encircling the subject matter, with a historic linchpin around the date of election in 1960. It feels like observing planets surrounding the sun, it is quite the right fashion as the Kennedy universe is approached promising both density in its repetitiuous return to the pivotal point and its large running riot movement to look for reasons back in time. One view is the witness of a portray of the young Kennedy family with father Joe sr. and mother Rose F. Kennedy (Diana Hardcastle) before World War II in Hyannis Port. Father Joe educates Joe junior and Bobby and John F., explaining the differently applicable rules between being a public figure (with money, with power) and being a private figure acting on their mores. It so happens while the images speak slightly coloured in sepia tone giving off the attitudes of another historic era, just to then coolly return to the 1960`s election day. That day depicts a serenuous glance at the first couple-to-be in the privacy of their master bedroom, almost unnoticably now all a bit in a washed out aesthetic of a Super 8 film (or a polaroide snapshot). Jackie (a very well cast Katie Holmes) and Jack have an intimate, familiar moment with daughter Caroline. Then Jack is already on the run to meet Bobby downstairs in the lobby, as the three year old daughter rubs over Jackie`s pregant woman stomach. Jackie explains Caroline: “Today is a big day. Daddy is going to become president.” What then has been sweepingly named “Sunday Afternoon Soap Aesthetics” by a Canadian Newspaper actually is a denser image where one sees a firm, solid, cleared and prosperous familiar situation in this lobby. While the action dashes over to such a scene in the lobby downstairs with Joe sr. and his sons JFK and Bobby (Barry Pepper) exchanging several pinpoints on the big day. Father Joe sr. is adressed by his wife Rose to join him in a church service to say grace to god for his support. He declines, reasoning he would do so after the election only. Rose leaves to attend service alone, while Joe sr. adresses his secretary witnessing: “She is the finest wife a fellow could have, but I don`t understand her faith. I admire it, but I don`t understand it.” Each of these refined scenes even when jumping back and forth in history, are annotated by a time reference depicting the pictures not just as logical time references. Subtlely, several scenes portray the father within a darker, wooden athmosphere, giving off an image of a patriarch in charge. While more lucid scenes present a thoughtful yet visionary JFK in brighter light. By using such instruments these strings are interwoven elements standing for cause and effect, or to come again with the image of the rose, by bringing the flower to bloom, containing both light and shadow, colorful flirtatious attraction – and bold pursuit. Establishing terms such as family, Catholicism, or personal movement such as a shy, quick passing flash of a doubt in the face, within its momentary context: “The Kennedys”. It is not virtuous (and it should not be, as it claims to be documentary), yet it is very solid. It sure lives up to its claim to portray the Kennedy family, with a leading role in respect of display in media, imagery, thus confounding an era which at the stage of the election already had managed to establish a new sense of mission within the field of politics. “A Fathers great expectations” ? In another scene, during another political prep talk the two sons witness their father kissing his secretary on her neck while uttering to them he would go for lunch with her. Both sons look at each other and smile mischievously. Jack here replies cockily, with a smirk, that he`d have a date too, with the secretaries` secretary. Yet the once rumoured scandalous dull sex talk (script-inherent dialogues which somehow appeared in the internet as “the script” and thus discussed by a nice “contrapaganda” clip on youtube) cannot be seen (nor heard) anywhere in these scenes, yet the first half of the episode already lived up to its title “The Kennedys” as the family, an entity although in charge but also with an inherent division carrying almost archetypical Zeitgeist which post World War II time must have had inherent. This is constituted to the fullest by not only showing JFK, but rather bringing in arguments and questioning values of the times between two large landmarks in their history, World War II and the Election 1960. And indeed, it might be seen as “not too flattering” towards father Joe sr. and mother Rose Kennedy when, in a next scene, the family in 1944 gathers around the two parents, both overreacting in grief, each in their own personal ways as they just receive the message that Joe jr. had died in combat. While Rose expressly turns to God and begs her husband to pray for their deceased son, she stands for values such as political, familial and spiritual. ( Although one has to bear in mind that Rose was not allowed by her strict catholic father to divorce from Joe sr. after one of his affairs had blown him) However, in this moment of mindwrenching, heartbreaking loss, her husband is unable to respond to her faith. He rather expresses his strong sense to have been rather bullied by that very same god. But the rumoured scene which should show him “breaking the crucifix over his knees” is now reduced to a gesturing with the crucifix in the hands of Joseph (Joe) Kennedy sr. only, almost like a momentary lament, while both figures show the very humane temporary inability in understanding each other. And yet, this scene emphasises Joe Kennedy sr. as a father earlier also shown as someone seeing the family from a different point of view than his wife. It is founded by an earlier scene pointing on Joe sr.`s trouble with the Roosevelt Administration during World War II. Joe Kennedy sr., at those times serving as an Ambassador to the UK, had a clash over Hitler with President Roosevelt. His political career was set to an end prematurely. In order to take the necessary steps when resigning he is strongly advised by Rose. Yet in this scene, Rose F. Kennedy is not a woman humble and motherly, she is rather firm and advises him to resign with words uttered not so much out of personal greedy perspective, but rather with all necessary grace and skill. – For the sake of the family! Rose F. Kennedy too was energetic. It is a key scene perfectly showing off her own political background. She was said to have taken on rather stoic ways to endure both her fathers strict “no” to a divorce from Joseph Kennedy and his ongoing affairs with starlets. And yet her firmness seems not to search to retaliate but rather comment his dalliances with other women: after all Rose F. Kennedy was the daughter of the Boston Major and member of the House of Represenatives John F.(“Honey Fitz”) Fitzgerald. So in 1944, hearing Joe jr. had fallen in war, while Rose still is crippled in pain over the loss of her son, Joseph (Joe) sr. Kennedy is, in the final scene of this episode, adressing the future president to be: “It’s up to you now, Jack. You know that, don’t you?” “I can’t do it,” JFK responds, “I’m not Joe.” “You’ll do it, Jack,” Joe sr. responds. “For him! For all of us.” It is as if any ever spoken word within the familiy became a vice. Pearl necklaces, political rosaries The series has been awarded numerous awards from “actors in a leading role” to “best photography” to “sound mixing” to “hair and make up” in both the Gemini Awards and the prestigious Emmy Awards. **) The series itself was first written by Stephen Kronish as a canadian TV production for History Channel. It was produced by Muse Entertainment Enterprises and Joel Surnor and it was directed by Jon Cassar known throughout the series world by “24”. The production, after budgeting at $25 millions, cost $30 millions. Several cable channels were reported to have declined to acquire broadcast rights to the series during a period between January and April 2011 while finally ReelzChannel went from announcement in February 2010 to airing the mini-series from April 3rd, 2011 to April 10th 2011. It had a critical reception in Canada (where the filming took place, and where director Jon Cassar is from) and was noted only by the canadian english language newspaper “The Globe and Mail” as a “tedious TV production operating with instruments of afternoon soap opera”, however the critic in the U.S. varied, especially after the media tumult in 2010, thus resulting in an overall critique of 50/100 ( “mixed or average reviews”) at the online reviewer for media productions (Music, Games, Movies), Metacritic.com. The U.S. Nielsen ratings though make it apparent that the encores quoted an even slightly increased number of viewers. The mini-series was broadcast successfully in the UK by the BBC followed with an overall positive echo and “The Kennedys” was then, in a shy fashion broadcast by Serbian television, Ireland, Australia, Finland (2011) followed by Spain and China in 2012. Arte France plans to air it soon, and finally Swiss Television SRF 1 is airing now every monday until july 7th. From what each synopsys tells, all landmarks in the very brief Kennedy presidency are being very well portrayed, be it JFK`s diplomatic challenger number one Nikita Khrushchev initiating the Cuban Missile Crisis and the soviets “marching in” on Berlin – both freezing the post war era into cold war, or the inner political turmoil such as the “Ole Miss riot” in 1962, which figures as the culmination of the ongoing segregation in the state Mississippi. In the course of which conservative Mississippi Governor Ross R. Barnett enflamed a mob and Afro-American James Morrison had been refused to execute his constitutional rights to enrol at the university. In conclusion a riot started and the grinding mob consisting of both pour et contre somehow had to be brought to a halt. President Kennedy, against all odds and against some home affair advisors set the signal: he sent a large number of military to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, inner turmoils were also going on in the family. Sister Rosemary had to undergo a lobotomy (a rural ancient brain surgery on the prefrontal brain part) to free the Kennedy family from her emotional problems. Jackie on the other end was promised $ 1`000`000 by Joe sr. 1954 to make her stay with Jack despite his many escapades wich would even grow into most public ones – with no other than Marilyn Monroe among others. What the first episode promises is that the series to be both thrilling and informative but, like its protagonist family, might be enticing by showing the Kennedy to be a family, almost each member with a quixotic streak. There have been only a few movies on JFK. Jim Goddard`s mini series “Kennedy” (1983) cast Charlie Sheen in the role of JFK and Blair Brown as Jackie. Although nominated for Golden Globes it went from episode to episode, following a thread of the both the couple and the political career, but that series also contained at least four falsely dated facts. The first one being that, miraculously, Marilyn Monroe, according to Goddard, was still alive in 1963 although deceased 1962. The second fact was that although playing in the early 1960 era, people already drove around in 1970 automobiles (but still had to be promised to be the first nation to land on the moon). But the fact-rocking got worse with the third mistake: the first attempt of assassination on John F. Kennedy which took place in the pre-elecitve phase, made Paul Pavlick, who was, 1960, at the time of his attempt, already 73 years old, much younger. In Goddards mini series version Pavlick is 36. And finally as a fourth mistake, Martin Luther Kings speech “I have a dream” is, in Goddards version is predated to August 9th 1963 when it actually took place nineteen days later on August 28th, 1963. And we know, days and weeks matter in politics. So at least three major figures where not documentary. Director Oliver Stone did different: He constructed a breathtaking, speedy, overwhelming yet critical and informative movie based on the investigations of New Orleans based district attorney Jim Garrison, who first terminated his investigations based on the “Zapruder super 8 Film” in 1963, lay the work down, but in 1966 took it up again – two years after the “Warren Report” had been published in September 1964. Formally known as “The Presidents Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy” – ordered November 29th 1963 by president Lindon B. Johnson, the “Warren Report” named two main facts with an amount of truth to the extent of 98 %. The remaining 2 % of facts had to remain sealed away for 70 years (until 2034). This was nurturing conspirative theories around the Kennedy assassination. The first of the two facts concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald alone killed JFK (Which in Oliver Stone`s Version was represented as an act of a “Magic Bullet” going in and out of Kennedy`s body, concluding that, since there were several wounds and more than only JFK wounded, implying that there must have been several shooters). And the second fact concluded that Jack Ruby, three days later had shot Lee Harvey Oswald, alone when Oswald was presented to the media (e.g. without having a personal link or motive to shoot him). In this case, the media with its sole, lax presence on place in both cases had come to the same results already fresh and up to date.In Oliver Stone`s “JFK”, district attorney Jim Garrison himself has a Cameo appearance, presenting further theories on premature media publishing taking place around the date. In New Zealand’s journals for example the president was shot to death already while JFK in fact at the same time, globally, only had arrived in Dallas, Texas (where the assassination took place). It was in 1992, when the US Senate in the JFK Records Act decided that the remainder of 2% should be revealed earlier, already on October 26th, 2017. Another biopic was based on the above mentioned Biography “JFK: Reckless Youth” starring very young actor Patrick Dempsey, (Grey`s Anatomy`s Dr. Derek Shepherd) it had a strong sense in following the above mentionend biography by Nigel Hamilton while stylistically matching epic movies in the established genre such as “Chinatown” or “The Great Gatsby”. In conclusion, swiss television calls the airing a “very impressive portrait of moral and customs” which, in the light of the past decades` developments in America sheds again light on historical points from World War II to the nineteen-sixties. These events are evoked, brought back to life, they feel both like a glimpse of an eye in history though not so far away after all, bringing an image back to life to confine understanding. Like an image that has been washed away far too fast, eroded by the tides and turmoils of the time, it relives, excels with its stylishly lightly performed “walking the wires” and can easily hold up with documentary competitors such as HBO Series “John Adams” adding another pearl to an invisible necklace of the statue of liberty. *) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-hamilton/the-kennedys_b_810465.html **) The mini-series was awarded in the 63rd Emmys and Gemini Awards: Barry Pepper (as Bobby) won both the Emmy as “outstanding lead actor role in a miniseries or a movie” and the Gemini Award. Greg Kinnear was nominated in the same category for an Emmy, and Tom Wilkinson was nominated for “outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or a movie”- both of these did not win. However Diana Hardcastle was nominated and won at the 26th Gemini awards for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Supporting Role in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series” “) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yE3xGicpTJI “”) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sN2NYVlPRZw
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