Many political commentators helped advance the meme that 2008 was 1960 all over again. A charismatic young leader with a gift for oratory and his elegant, beautiful wife fought a tough battle for the White House against a figure of the Washington establishment; suddenly people who were talking about Obama were often comparing him to John F. Kennedy, so TV programmers and DVD distributors responded with numerous re-airings and a spate of JFK-related DVD re-releases (also timed to the 45th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination).
MPI is a little late to the party with its re-release of Kennedy, the 1983 TV miniseries starring Martin Sheen as JFK. Originally presented in three parts (a three-hour opener and a pair of two-hour installments), it has been re-structured for this release into seven "episodes," each running about forty-five minutes (an hour minus the commercials). The first episode begins in 1963, with a brief prologue showing Kennedy's advisors and family reacting as they hear the news of his assassination. It then jumps back three years to election night 1960, with a detailed re-creation of that night's squeaker of a victory against Vice-President Nixon.
The series is not a comprehensive biography; writer Reg Gadney and director Jim Goddard wisely focus solely on the Kennedy's presidency (similar to the more recent--and excellent--documentary JFK: A Presidency Revealed, included in last month's History Channel 60s Megaset). All of the high points are here: Bay of Pigs, the Freedom Riders, the early stages of Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, re-enacted with frequent bravado by Sheen and John Shea, who is outstanding as Robert F. Kennedy.
All of that is very good; Gadney's script expertly handles the machinations of power and politics, convincingly staging the conferences and meetings where these tough decisions were debated. The Bay of Pigs debacle is particularly compelling here--in crisp, well-written scenes, we see Kennedy struggling to understand an operation that is already in progress, and then watching as it swims out of his control. We see how the hard lessons learned there empowered Kennedy to handle the Cuban Missile Crisis with greater authority and confidence. The administration's difficult relationship with the civil rights movement is also well-portrayed; episode four features several startling scenes of racial violence to set the scene, while Shea does some of his best work as he attempts to broker their mediatory position from afar.
The series is at its most powerful when it reaches its conclusion; the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been re-created, debated, and reviewed (via the Zapruder film) ad nauseum, but Goddard strikes just the right note in the series' final twenty minutes, drawing suspense and tension out of iconography and inevitability. He also makes the unusual but effective choice of keeping that terrible moment (and the minutes leading up to it) personal; we stay in the car with Jack and Jackie, and when those bullets hit, it takes the air out of the viewer. Simply put, it's a jaw-dropper, effectively packing the powerful punch of that event. Blair Brown is excellent throughout the series (she's a dead ringer for Jackie O), and she has to do the heavy lifting, acting-wise, at its conclusion. She proves herself more than up to the task.
Not all of the performances are up to that standard, however. The great Geraldine Fitzgerald never really gets under the surface of Rose Kennedy, and while E.G. Marshall's Joe Kennedy has the appropriate gravitas, he goes over the top in the overwrought scene where he guilt-trips Robert into accepting the attorney general position. Charles Brown does his best as Martin Luther King, trying to create a performance instead of an impersonation in his few brief scenes, but he stumbles badly when it comes time to deliver "I Have A Dream"--with a speech that iconic, which so many people have heard so many times, you have to just give in and do a King impression. Brown doesn't, and the scene becomes about his strange cadences and incorrect rhythms instead of what it should be about.
Aside from those complaints, director Goddard (Shanghai Surprise) is good with actors, though his staging is occasionally flat and uninspired; the camerawork is strictly point-and-shoot, and certain transitions are overused. And we know that JFK was the first "TV president," but there are entirely too many scenes of John delivering a speech on television while Papa Joe looks on approvingly.
The expositional dialogue is occasionally obvious and clunky, in fairly typical 80s TV-movie fashion--most unfortunately in Vincent Gardenia's portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover. Gardenia's Hoover is a wildly overdone villain; he all but twirls his mustache and ties damsels to train tracks. I'm not arguing that Hoover was a good guy--the historical record handily proves the contrary. But the melodramatic nature of his villainy feels like the interference of nervous executives. "We don't have a bad guy," they seem to have wailed, so Hoover became an antagonist straight out of Falcon Crest. Too many episodes end with Hoover at his desk in noir lighting, portending evilly to his underlings. It's overstatement in a series notable for its subtlety.
The mini-series' seven episodes are spread out over two discs, with four episodes on the first disc and three on the second. The two discs are housed in a single, standard-sized keep case, with cover art that does its absolute best (in both font choices and the photo of Sheen) to look like a lost season of The West Wing.
The full-frame image is, plainly speaking, not very good. The source materials are pretty beat-up, with frequent dirt and scratches and occasional flickering. Colors are washed-out and the entire image suffers from softness. It's not an enormous distraction, but it is noticeable; I'm not sure how much of this can be blamed on age and poor preservation, but there are much older TV shows available on DVD that look far better than this.
The 2.0 audio track is passable, though a little on the thin side. Audibility is fine overall, but the audio is frequently tinny, with occasional hissing and high-end peaking.
English subtitles are also available.
Not a single extra is included--a real shame, since the series' earlier DVD releases from other distributors included a wealth of vintage Kennedy footage.
Kennedy is a flawed mini-series, but still a worthwhile effort; the occasional awkwardness of the script and the expected contrivances of the format are mostly overcome by the strength of the cast and the power of their best moments. Sheen, Shea, and Brown turn in stellar performances, and the series evocatively re-creates an unforgettable moment in American history.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.