It's time to take out the Kennedy effigy again. Time to back off the accomplishments while in office and the aura of hope he gave to thousands of Americans. Like a day without orange juice, a history based cable channel without a few dozens stories on JFK's love and/or after life is like a pirate with scurvy. And thanks to the Discovery Channel's European counterpart (titled, rather originally, Discovery Channel Europe) we have yet another tawdry chapter in the ongoing tabloidization of the cornerstone of Camelot. Now, there is no denying that Kennedy liked the ladies and was as promiscuous as a long distance trucker. But according to this fancy-schmancy letterboxed edition of Unsolved History, the President's love of poon was actually a side effect of a medication he was taking for a chronic illness. And that young, healthful tan he had, giving off the vibe of vitality and vigor? Yep, you guessed it, another residual of the drugs he took to control a lifelong battle with Addison's disease (wouldn't you know they'd go and name a disease after Bruce Willis' character is Moonlighting a few dozen decades before the show went on the air?). Seems that Kennedy was a hyper-medicated pill popper taking shots of speed and uncontrolled quantities of steroids to fool the voting public into electing him President, while all the while hovering on death's door like a Goth kid listening to Nine Inch Nails. Indeed, you actually get the impression while watching Unsolved History: JFK – Altered Statesman (clever title, in fact) that Lee Harvey Oswald did the world leader a service by ending his life when he did. The way the experts speak, he was destined to drop during his second term, anyway. This mind-blowing material is just the tip of the character assassination in one of the most jaw-dropping installments of this incredibly bad TV show.
In a court of law, hearsay is not allowed. Oh sure, there are exceptions and usually a judge sits atop his bench, waggles his gavel and makes a learned decision about whether or not to allow the indirect testimony. The reason behind this restriction is simple: such evidence is usually so prejudicial to the individual on trial that to allow it in would all but destroy the defense. And besides, it's not always that reliable. It's not coming directly from the person who uttered it, but from someone who overheard the subject speaking. Credibility is a huge factor in such determinations and it's better to weigh in on the side of caution than allow an all out assault on someone that may not be truthful. What this has to do with this installment of Unsolved History is crystal clear the minute you hear the first pundit pontificate. He tells you what OTHERS told him about John F. Kennedy's medical concerns and offers no corroborating evidence to back up his claims. Thus it begins: 43-minutes of conjecture, speculation and outright slander, occasionally peppered with a few factual revelations, all presented to paint the picture of our 35th President as a pill popping sexual psychopath. Gee, talk about bursting the bubble of a few million admirers of this once venerated leader.
Granted, no man is perfect and from those stories that can be confirmed, JFK was no angel. In fact, it's safe to say that no other seated President had such a secret life than the reigning ruler of Camelot. But what Unsolved History has in mind for the dead President is far more sinister. Using a couple of authors hawking their books, a doctor who examines some medical records, and a lot of third person pass-along storytelling, our recreation obsessed Discovery Channel fact farce wants to paint the final poisoned portrait of Kennedy once and for all. Unlike other installments of the show where science paints the picture by manipulating data and graphically recreating events and places, this is a straightforward gossip gala. Twisting the truth so it fits their agenda and glossing over facts that tend to dismiss many of their claims, the compliment of critics here form a conspiracy to destroy the lasting legacy of this once deified man. As was said before, Kennedy was no God. Sometimes, he was barely human. But to try and offer up an image of a stressed out leader, so loaded up on prescription pills that he was seeing imaginary pixies in the West Wing scarcely seems like hard-hitting investigative journalism. Indeed, most of JFK- Altered Statesman feels like Monday morning quarterbacking meshed with a sizeable smear campaign, all to put the Kennedy era to bed once and for all.
Let's start with the entire Addison's disease issue. Kennedy apparently suffered from the debilitating ailment of the adrenal glands since he was a teenager. He took steroids – cortisone to be exact – to countermand the complications. Nothing to terrible there, even if he did fail to tell the voters about the condition (it wasn't for a lack of information – a Congresswoman tried to get the press interested in the story, and they passed). But what Unsolved History does is draw out the conclusions about how the condition really affected the President. They conject that he may have suffered a setback during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They argue that several of his more belligerent policy stances were a direct result of the steroid's side effects. And when it comes to womanizing, they all agree that this necessary medical course of treatment turned John F. into Jack Rabbit Kennedy. The accusation is simple and acceptable – JFK may have hyper-medicated himself to get through the course of his career. But everything else is like a high school debate extrapolation – full of flawed reasoning and loads of internal logic links.
Then there is the whole Dr. Feelgood, amphetamine injection storyline. About one step away from calling Kennedy a mainlining addict, Unsolved History allows several pseudo scholars to infer a real Presidential love of getting doped up. While they attribute the initial treatments to a chronic bad back, the lumbago business dies down quickly and soon we feel that JFK liked the effects of the wonder shots. And who wouldn't? Apparently a clever combination of stimulants and uppers, the crackerjack cocktails produced feelings of omnipotence and joy – obviously elements we DON'T want in our leaders. Essentially painting a picture of the President as a jittery, disoriented mess who needed his "pick me up" before going about the business of the nation, this is perhaps the most incriminating image from Altered Statesman. Along with arguments about Kennedy's physical capacities and limitations (he held important meetings while in the bath and spent too many hours in bed doing his work) and the media's collaboration in a cover-up over it, Unsolved History has sufficiently destroyed the myth and even many aspects of the man. All that is left is the impact of his 1963 assassination. And the inference that he would be dead before the end of '68 (if he lived and received a second term) tries to undermine this as well.
By the end of the 43-minute episode, we get a picture of the President hopped up on goofballs, humping the statues in the Oval Office and drooling like a junkie for another "fix" before meeting with the Ambassador from French Guiana. But Unsolved History doesn't want to rely on the word of questionable sources alone. No, it wants to certify the scam by reading whatever it wants into several stock images of the President, each showing a different "symptom" of his hidden medical issues. When one expert says cortisone gives you a classic "pie face" appearance - an oval like appearance to the shape of your facade - a couple of snapshots of JFK looking bloated in the puss are provided. One doctor states that people in extreme physical pain occasionally stand too tall and rigid, extending their hands to their sides and their fingers outward in a kind of grimace of grief. Sure enough out pops a picture of the President, standing among some other officials, mimicking said pose perfectly. If you didn't have so much faith in the veracity of Unsolved History...hrummph...you'd swear the show gave the medico the image to describe before it showcased the slide. Indeed, a lot of Altered Statesman seems like setups for latter disclosures. Why would Kennedy risk nuclear war with Russia over the missiles in Cuba? Because he was jacked up on junk, say the scholars. And we have to take it on faith, or said visual proof that seems too good – and too obvious – to be true. If there is anyone who the public should be pissed at as a result of Kennedy's secreted condition, it's the press. Apparently, it was painfully obvious to everyone around, yet the yutzes of the fourth estate couldn't diagnose his or her way out of a head cold.
That's right, we were all fools. Like Roosevelt's hidden paralysis, everybody knew that Kennedy was riding the 'roid rodeo and supplementing his "juice" with a side order of speedballs. He was a raging sex maniac who plowed through the pleasure domes of far too many fair maidens to mention. He sweated like a hog during his chilling January inauguration and looked like a bronzed bust because his medication messed with his melanin. The fact that he managed to move the nation away from the brink of atomic annihilation and closer to racial equality was a fluke, a momentary lucid lapse in what was otherwise a non-stop gluttony of sensations. Unsolved History: JFK – Altered Statesman uses more hearsay than a DEA case against a Columbian drug dealer, veils it all with a ersatz scholarship of learned libelists and even tries to show and tell its tenets with carefully chosen images, all intent on changing the character of President Kennedy from a young and visionary leader to a desperate drug addict riddled with constant anguish and blitzed out of his gourd on volatile intravenous nightcaps. All of this may be true, but a lack of balance and/or critical focus makes this nothing more than a disgusting display of flogging a long dead horse.
The Discovery Channel and DVD: two ships that pass in the night. To this cable conglomerate, the initials in the name of the modern medium stand for 'distinctly vile discussions' and that's what they tender here with Unsolved History. Oh, the transfer offers quality clarity and loads of detail in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. But there are no chapter stops (you can only advance through the show in 10-minute intervals) and you must suffer through the opening advertisements (you cannot skip or fast-forward through them) before the main menu arrives. If it didn't look like a CD on steroids, you'd swear Unsolved History was being offered on a video cassette what with all these backwards technological limitations.
When we learn that this is a production of Discovery Channel Europe, hope springs eternal that we don't have to suffer through the snotty, arrogant voice of the American version's narrator. Just our luck, the Dolby Digital Stereo still shimmers with the patronizing tones of that familiar female fiend. Perhaps she is married to the show's creator, but it has got to be obvious to anyone at the production company that she sounds like a schoolteacher scolding you for not doing your calculus homework. Keeping her around must have nepotistic dynamics
Still waiting for the DVD player to automatically stop, eject, bathe in acid and discard but, apparently, The Discovery Channel has only managed to find the first facet technologically manageable – DAMMIT! Otherwise, the disc is as barren of extras as a low-budget action movie.
There is no problem whatsoever with revisionist history. After all, events occur so suddenly and rapidly in real time that we need distance from the people and proceedings to give them the proper insight and stability. Much of John F. Kennedy's infallibility comes, not from his policies or his politics, but from the fact that a series of gunshots ended his life in November of 1963. Had he lived beyond that defining moment in time, perhaps shows like Unsolved History: JFK – Altered Statesman would not be necessary. Just like any other long-term leader, the leaks would have happened, the press would have pounced on the problems and, eventually, many of the maladies Kennedy suffered from would have been exposed. But the awful events in Dealey Plaza kept the wolves at bay and even today, it takes a crew from the European version of the Discovery Channel to tackle and taint the image of this decidedly American President. And what a dogpile it is. Unsolved History's hatchet job is complicated and complete – and perhaps it is necessary to humanize Kennedy and place him in proper perspective for once. But the overriding impression gained from Altered Statesman is one of fraud and foolhardiness – not necessarily the greatest lasting impressions of a fallen leader. Maybe this will be the last word on the sordid secrets inside the JFK White House. One can only hope. But it's hard to imagine that it will be. In death, JFK was deified. In retrospect, it's time to break out the barracudas and nibble at the corpse.
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