If most cinematic biopics are missed opportunities to do something bold, the biographical TV mini-series tends to be inherently unsalvageable, with too much time to do anything but plod through and hit the high notes at cut-rate cost. So it’s hard to get too worked up about news thatJohn F. Kennedy’s life will be the subject of a new mini-series, no matter what the political talking points. Nevertheless, people are.
In one corner, you have “24” creator and conservative activist Joel Surnow, who also had a hand in the little loved 17 episodes of “The 1/2 Hour News Hour,” Fox News’ short-lived rejoinder to “The Daily Show.” In the other is Robert Greenwald, famed director of “Xanadu,” whose attention of late has been turned to preaching-to-the-choir type liberal activist documentaries (“Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price”). Greenwald charges that the JFK script is defamatory conservative propaganda, “political character assassination,” including a scene where JFK asks Bobby “What do you do when you’re horny?” Which is stupid, mostly because it’s hard to imagine JFK using the precise word “horny.”
There’s been action of late to reclaim JFK as, if not a conservative, at least not an antecedent of modern liberalism. (See, if you must, “An American Carol,” in which JFK emerges from the TV to smack the Michael Moore stand-in around.) It’s more interesting, though, that the charges center around the usual timeline compressions/inaccuracies and “sexual titillation.” Disputes over what happened when and sex: what could be more JFK-esque?
With rare exceptions, JFK’s presence on film and TV has been surprisingly small. Out of sixty-something on-screen turns credited by IMDb, he’s almost never at the center of things, either part of the big swath of history cut by the Kennedys as a whole (like 1990’s mini-series “The Kennedys of Massachusetts,” with Steven Weber [!] as JFK) or the people whose paths he crossed (with appearances in mini-series and TV movies about RFK, J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe and so on). Alternately, Oliver Stone’s “JFK” makes explicit that JFK’s assassination defines his legacy, not so much a president as a locus for various dark points of view about America.
The few exceptions aren’t much to write about: as Slant‘s Len Sousa notes, 1983’s “Kennedy” mini-series (starring Martin Sheen) is at least a little undermined by opening “each episode with an American flag fluttering in the breeze and suddenly freeze-framing it with some cartoon blood splattered over the image.” “JFK”‘s a terrific movie that has little to do with the man.
Probably best is 2000’s underrated “Thirteen Days,” a relatively dry and understated look at the White House’s internal workings during the Cuban Missile Crisis that smartly took much of its dialogue from JFK’s tapes of policy meetings. It’s probably the only film more interested in JFK as policy-maker and president than as a symbol of one kind or another.
Sex has always surrounded JFK on-screen (the sex and paranoia go hand in hand in last year’s ghastly “An American Affair,” where we’re supposed to believe that his affair with Gretchen Mol somehow contributed to his death). At times, that seems to be JFK’s greatest cinematic legacy, besides providing a well-known New England accent for overzealous actors to take as a model. I suppose this mini-series could push things further, but it’s no matter: it’ll be just another one for the slag-heap of movies more interested in JFK as a generically flawed human rather than a politician.
[Photos: “Kennedy,” NBC, 1983; “Thirteen Days,” New Line Cinema, 2000]