At the center of “Taking on the Kennedys” is first-time candidate Kevin Vigilante, a 40-year-old Rhode Island physician who founded a clinic for women with HIV-related illnesses. The affable Republican seeks a congressional seat in 1994, apparently motivated by a sense of service and civic duty. It’s only in the course of the increasingly bloody campaign that Vigilante comes to understand the power of the Kennedy bloodline.
TX: TX:Taped in Rhode Island for “P.O.V.,” presented by Independent Television Service, KCET/Los Angeles, WGBH/Boston and WNET/New York. Producer-director-writer- While Vigilante builds an impressive organization, his 27-year-old opponent, Patrick Kennedy, enjoys the support of not only his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), but cousins John Jr. and Caroline, who fly in to up the campaign’s glamour quotient. Tony Bennett croons at a fundraiser, and star-struck voters speak reverentially of the Kennedy name and the Kennedy money.
In Seftel’s hands, the riveting drama that emerges is a personal one; docu deals only tangentially in issues. We’re told that PatrickKennedy has earned a reputation as a “reformer” in his six years in the Rhode Island State House, but his accomplishments and beliefs are never spelled out. What is clear is the picture of Patrick Kennedy as a young man who has inherited the family cachet and ambition but none of the legendary charisma or knack.
A wisecracking local radio talkshow host, a liberal Dem no less, takes to calling Kennedy “Dr. Vigilante’s opponent” to deny him what she perceives as his only asset. Indeed, the gawky Kennedy comes across as considerably less than brilliant, but likable — even Vigilante says he’s “a nice kid.”
TX:One of docu’s most potent moments is an exchange between Vigilante and a patient at the clinic; Vigilante functions from the heart, and naively expects to do so as a candidate. But reality sets in when a TV debate in which Vigilante easily outclasses his upper-class rival receives little attention because it airs opposite a Patriots football game.
Seftel combines his own Hi-8 record of the race with local TV clips, the commercials that drive the campaign and, in tracing Kennedy’s story, archival footage and stills. Result is entertaining and disturbing as idealism is pitted against brand-name vacancy and political ruthlessness — and loses.
While implications about the state of American politics are nothing new, “Taking on the Kennedys” is compelling because the brutal exigencies of TV campaigning are seen through the experiences of a seemingly kind and sincere man. Seftel captures the psychic blows Vigilante suffers every time the campaign drops from the high road, whether on the part of Kennedy’s organization or his own. His eye-opening ordeal is poignant; as a candidate who is pained by the emptiness of the political arena, he’s clearly a rarity.
Well-paced docu easily could have run at feature length, so absorbing is the mix of personalities and ideas. The back-room view of politics is unique, and Seftel’s observation of the dynamics between Vigilante and his g.f., who’s always by his side, offers a commentary itself.
TX:The filmmaker’s compassion toward his subjects pervades “Taking on the Kennedys.” Vintage songs “Rhode Island Redhead,” performed by Teresa Brewer, and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You,” sung by Blossom Dearie, are sweet additions to Seftel’s lively, insightful portrait.