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DVD International // Unrated // September 25, 2001
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 11, 2001 | E-mail the Author
With our current president facing some of the world's most desperate situations it helps to look at controversies of the past. The five hour TV miniseries, Kennedy (1983), offers an extremely interesting and in depth account of John F. Kennedy's tumultuous 1000 days in office. During his term, cut short by his shocking assassination, he had to make decisions regarding the situations in Cuba, Vietnam, and the segregated South, a full political itinerary, if ever there was one. Kennedy makes the case that JFK (and Robert Kennedy, as much a key figure in the film as his older brother) stood by their ideals and morals and weathered the conflicts of these turbulent years with dignity.

Not everyone saw it that way, of course. The Kennedys' main enemy within the US, according to the film, was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whose prurient obsession with JFK's philandering is shown to include bugging the president and practically stalking the women he had any contact with. His disgust with the administration seems to stem from his hatred of Kennedy patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, whose misdeeds, according to Hoover, included trafficking illegal booze during prohibition and shady dealings with Nazis (supposedly he sold the poison gases used in the concentration camps to the Germans during World War II, although the film doesn't go into detail on Hoover's charges), should have put a blot on the Kennedy name. Instead, Hoover sits in his office, glowering at the TV, watching Kennedy's triumphs.

The film bounces from situation to situation, deftly moving from the early Cuba situation resulting in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion to the abominable Southern aggression towards the Freedom Riders, whose integrated bus journey inflamed the old guard, to the early attempts to resolve the Vietnam conflict without escalating military presence. (When Kennedy decides to send Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Vietnam to meet anti-Communist leaders, he says he has confidence that Johnson is the right guy to cleanly put an end to the situation, a sadly ironic statement, as Johnson's eventual massive escalation of the effort proved.) The civil rights sequences are particularly engaging, since the film also shows the violence in some detail, making sure it's clear exactly what was at stake. The Cuban missile crisis is also handled expertly. Kennedy is clearly besieged by different viewpoints, many looking to respond to the USSR's build-up of nuclear missiles on Cuba, just off the coast of Florida, with force. Kennedy's tactic of blockades and hushed back room threats, however, proved to be entirely effective in defusing a touchy (to put it lightly) situation.

In addition to a fantastic script by Reg Gadney and clean, to the point direction from Jim Goddard, the film boasts a nearly universally excellent cast. Martin Sheen projects terrific confidence and energy as President Kennedy. It's a role that he has played a few times and that he is currently paraphrasing on The West Wing, and his comfort in the role shows. He has an ease about himself that makes it clear how so many could fall in love with him. But he also projects a fiery determination to get things done. This balance is also achieved by John Shea as Robert Kennedy who in his mid thirties was barely as old as John Ashcroft's toupee when he became Attorney General. Shea has the boyish charm that matches the youth and vitality his character brought to Washington. Blair Brown is perfect as Jackie Kennedy, whose sense of style and grace made her the idol of women everywhere. Brown doesn't lay it on thick, rather adds just a drop of blue blood to her voice, a light cleverness to her speech, and a balletic presence to her body movements. She is clearly able to convey more than the words of what she is saying when she talks about her willingness to cut down on her expenditures at the White House. E.G. Marshall is cantankerous enough as Joseph Kennedy and has the willfulness of a man who can't imagine that he's ever wrong. Charles Brown is strong and powerful as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. His presence during the civil rights scenes gets at the emotion and rage of the man while still conveying his notion that non-violence is the only way to combat the gross injustice of racism. Vincent Gardenia plays Hoover with a curious mix of gravity and melodrama, perfect for such a strange character. Hoover is often shown sitting in his office, delivering bizarre soliloquies on fornication and semantics to his underlings. There's certainly a sense that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Kennedy may be one of the finest TV miniseries of the past couple decades. There is no sense of hurry, each scene playing out at length, with enough time to make its point. No one strikes poses or delivers catch phrases. Even though there is foreshadowing in the dialog (like the Johnson in Vietnam sequence I mentioned) it never seems false or forced. The dialog is natural, but filled with vital information. Kennedy's assassination is even portrayed in as subtle a manner as such a suddenly violent moment can be, without the conspiracy and madness that came afterwards. (Leave that to Oliver Stone's JFK.) It comes with no warning, on an off moment, and then it is done. Jackie, whose blood covered face is the last thing we see, translates the grief and sorrow for us.

Unfortunately, the video here is just awful. The full frame picture is washed-out, blurry, dead looking, and riddled with compression artifacts. Also, the layer changes come at intrusive moments, which is ridiculous seeing as how there are black fadeouts every 15 minutes or so where the commercial breaks used to be. However, seeing as how a better version will probably never be released, this is still worth a look.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is nothing special. The mix is a bit muddy and is all midrange. Dialog is still clear enough, though, and that's the important thing. No subtitles are included.

A great batch of extras is included on the second disc:
The Inaugural Address: Kennedy's swearing in and famous speech, including "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." President Bush has echoed this suggestion in his recent call for public service in response to our current crisis.
One Week in October: This half hour documentary, produced by the Department of Defense, details the Cuban Missile Crisis. Again, unfortunate parallels to today abound.
One Day in Berlin: Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.
The Last Two Days: This short documentary details Kennedy's two day trip through Texas leading up to his assassination. Audio of a reporter trying to find out what has happened immediately following the shooting is deeply moving. The Zapruder film of the actual shooting is not included.

These extras offer a fantastic chance to see some of the key events of Kennedy's days in office in a different light. This is exactly the sort of supplemental section that any fact based film worth anything deserves.

Extremely thoughtful and well made, Kennedy has been saddled with a lousy transfer. Still, the quality of the film itself, the superb selection of the extras, and the timeliness of the material, make this monumental undertaking something that every American should make time for.

E-mail Gil at [email protected]
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