History Channel dropped the eight-hour miniseries “The Kennedys” as unfit for its brand, but those satiated on JFK pics through the years may tune in April 3 to the project’s new home on Reelz Channel and wonder, why all the fuss?
The bar for television docudrama is set pretty low: The scope of Kennedy movies and miniseries ranges from the much lauded “Missiles of October” in 1974 to the sudsy “Marilyn and Bobby: Her Final Affair” in 1993. Even when many more of the principals and eyewitnesses to history were still alive, they didn’t seem to create nearly the stir that “The Kennedys” has, ever since exec producer Joel Surnow, a prominent Hollywood conservative, signed on and a much more incendiary first draft of the script was leaked to historians.
The polarized political climate, where the living proof triggers debates about birth certificates and death panels, undoubtedly has created suspicion, even when the genre is longform television. Movies and miniseries may rework history, but they’re rarely remembered beyond the hours of primetime. CBS pulled “The Reagans” and put it on Showtime a few years back after complaints from family members and friends, but the movie hardly altered our image of the Gipper.
The final version of “The Kennedys” still contains Jack Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing, his penchant for Dr. Feelgood’s prescription cocktails and a few references to trysts with Marilyn, but much of the tabloid tone of the first draft, like a moment when JFK tells his brother he’ll get migraines if he doesn’t keep apace with his sexual escapades, is gone.
Still remaining are scenes that probably won’t warrant the mini a place on the shelf of the Kennedy Library gift shop: Plotting his response to Hitler as ambassador to England in the lead-up to WWII, Joseph Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson) gropes a secretary in full view of sons Jack and Joe Jr., and later wife Rose looks on catches the aging patriarch making out with an aide.
Nevertheless, as much as the use of dramatic license makes historians squirm, Kennedy’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and to civil rights and other personal moments are treated with reverence. He’s reluctantly drawn into the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, against aides’ advice, he then chooses to level with American people.If anyone should be angry, it may be the family of Frank Sinatra, who is portrayed as a hanger-on who promises mobster Sam Giancana that a Kennedy administration will keep their hands off his business activity if he delivers the Chicago vote. But it’s clear that the Kennedys are unaware of Sinatra’s promise. An earlier version reportedly had Joe Kennedy directly asking the mobster to do so.
Perhaps the most prominent public critic of the project’s early script was Ted Sorensen, the former Kennedy speechwriter who died in October. He’s not even in the final version, with some of his dialogue instead made into conversations between Jack and Bobby.
Yet History still dropped the project, declaring it “historical fiction” when it made the announcement in January. At the time, several news outlets reported that Caroline Kennedy and others pressured parent company Disney/ABC; the leverage was a book Kennedy plans through a sister division. History’s board of advisers reportedly nixed the project as well.
Surnow says of History’s statement, “The only fiction was their press release.” He says the project is “100% historically accurate” and was vetted “extremely, extremely microscopically” by History Channel historians and lawyers, and he says he has emails to prove that two advisers, Robert Dallek and Steven Gillon, gave the project their approval. (History Channel had no comment).
While Surnow says History’s decision has nothing to do with content, the channel was in unfamiliar territory in taking on scripted drama; its specialty has been documentaries and reality shows. Surnow explains a dramatists’ process of “conveying what you do know and placing them where you feel it works best dramatically.” “Obviously when there are people alive it is a much harder thing than if you are telling the story of George Washington,” Surnow said. “But you know, what did I learn? I learned that at the end of the day you have to tell a story, and it has to play as if it is a fiction. If it is not, it is not worthy. If you are just going to tell events the way they are laid out in the history books, you don’t really have much of a drama. And so the key and the hardest part of it is to keep it dramatic and to keep it faithful to the known elements of history.”
Robert Greenwald, the producer who led a campaign against the project last year, remains suspicious of the project although though he said has not yet seen a final cut. He says Reelz Channel declined an idea to feature him in a discussion tied to the project, but the channel, in the upper atmosphere of most cable systems, has benefitted from the attention. “I find myself getting really angry at a controversy that shouldn’t be there,” said Reelz CEO Stanley Hubbard. “On the other hand, if it weren’t there, I wouldn’t be looking at it.”
“The Kennedys” won’t be the last controversy over Camelot. As history fades from memory, and principals pass on, the survivors and loyalists seem to feel all the more pressure to ensure the historic record. Many who lived through those years left little evidence to settle seamier aspects of debate, and when they were living were apt to ignore it. In his autobiography published just weeks after his death, Ted Kennedy wrote of brother John: “Much has been written about his personal life. A lot of it is bullshit. All of it is beyond the scope of my direct experience.”
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