By Valerie Milano
Los Angeles, CA (Hollywood Today) 12/16/13 – JFK opens with high drama. We see ominous aerial reconnaissance photos showing the Russians making rapid progress in their construction of a nuclear missile base in Cuba, a scant 7 iron shot from the Florida peninsula. Upon completion, Russian missiles would be within reach of every major city in the eastern half of the US. Superimposed is the audio of a top-level meeting of President Kennedy and his advisors.
The president would eventually stare down Nikita Khrushchev into a full withdrawal and averted a world conflict of unimaginable proportions. Every frame, newsreel and still in this meticulous and thoughtfully researched work has the ring of truth. Intermittent dictaphone musings by JFK himself are woven into the narrative and connect us to the subject up close and present.
After that flamboyant opening, I was expecting the usual JFK documentary about his last one thousand days on earth. The Bay of Pigs, the assassination, Jackie, Camelot and what might have been. PBS aims higher. We are treated to an unflinching and riveting profile that doesn’t mind puncturing some of the mythology to give us a full measure of the man. And in doing so, it burnishes the legend of one of our most promising presidents. Historians debate his place in history, given that his days in the White House were cut so short. But ordinary Americans and other lay people across the world have no such qualms; fifty years after the fact, Kennedy remains one of our most beloved and studied Presidents.
It’s hard to imagine the handsome, privileged, uber-rich Jack Kennedy as an underdog in his travels through life. But that’s exactly what he was. Fate gave JFK a quick wit, handsome face and a powerful family. All of which he never hesitated to exploit. However, when it came to health, Jack drew the short straw and was never able to enjoy the robust health of his brothers and sisters. He was struck by colitis at an early age. And the steroids he used to control this condition ate away at the bones and tissue of his lower back to the point where his presidency was destined to be the second coming of FDR’s wheelchair-bound presidency. He also suffered from Addison’s disease; a fact that was hidden from the press with bald-face lies when the condition was leaked to the press by JFK’s 1960 Democratic primary opponent Lyndon Johnson. A Hail Mary surgery on his back allowed him to walk upright with the aid of a metal back brace, albeit with intense pain for the remainder of his short life. Thanks to the honesty of this production, these facts cannot be sullied by conjecture or tabloid rambling. The sad evidence is there for all to see.
This documentary hues rigidly to the facts of JFK’s life with no sugary aftertaste. Sometimes he looks like a world-class jerk, many other times he’s the smartest guy in the room. It wasn’t long before young JFK was crossing ideological swords with his father Joseph Kennedy, a family patriarch to the end. Father Joe was ambassador to England just as Hitler began to unleash his remorseless legions on the whole of Europe. When Hitler’s gaze landed on Britain, Joe continued to preach non-intervention and appeasement. His son and attaché Jack agreed peace was the ultimate end game, but not in this case. The US needed to jump into the fray quickly with guns blazing. Father Joe stubbornly maintained his pacifist rhetoric and never shook off the stench of his catastrophic miscalculation. The young JFK’s front row seat at the European theater during his father’s ambassadorship earned him the mantle of foreign affairs expert and would be of incalculable value in his later political life as Congressman, Senator and President. However first, there was a World War to fight.
It’s hard not to think of today’s current political landscape when watching JFK. It’s almost impossible to fathom class and family influence being used to swindle your way INTO armed conflict. However in young Jack’s case, that’s what it took. His diabolically poor health was impossible to conceal from military doctors who 4-F’d him at every turn. However, Father Joe’s influence and wealth had its way, and JFK made it into the Navy, where his exploits on PT-109 are legendary.
Meanwhile, JFK’s older brother Joe Jr. was in fact the number one child and was deemed most likely to move into the White House. He had all the Kennedy DNA, smarts and charisma in addition to robust health. However, Joe was killed piloting a super-secret air mission a short time after Jack had heroically saved his surviving PT-109 crew in the South Pacific after his boat was cut in two by an enemy battleship. In the ridiculously competitive Kennedy clan, it was thought that Joe couldn’t deal with being one-upped by his scrawny little brother in the war-hero sweepstakes. After Joe Jr. died, everything was riding on Jack.
Initially, Jack was not skilled in the snake-oil salesmanship of politics, but he learned fast. He moved quickly upward through Washington politics and didn’t bother with cautious, long-term career strategies. His ill heath was a constant shadow companion. And, the more you watch the more you see the pain and fatalism in the eyes of a man who knew the scoreboard clock was ticking with no time-outs left. Kudos to the cinematographers and film editors of JFK. Some of the most revealing images are of JFK in outtakes and candid moments. His pain and courage are palpable throughout this historical document. Much of the credit must go to the Kennedy clan and their thirst for documenting every significant event and family gathering from Jack’s childhood through to adulthood.
Part Two finds JFK taking residence in the White House and swimming the hawk-infested waters of National Security briefings. Year one went badly for the rookie President. JFK inherited a flawed plan from Eisenhower to bankroll and facilitate an invasion of Cuba by expatriate nationals to oust Castro, the only Communist ruler in the western hemisphere. One can draw parallels to Barack Obama’s wobbly start as president. Both men were young, optimistic and trusting of their military advisors. Both mistakenly assumed that the good of the nation cut across political lines. Kennedy watered down the plan to invade Cuba and wanted it to remain covert. The catastrophic failure that followed gave his public image a black eye, but it also gave him a healthy distrust of military “intelligence”—an oxymoron. This mistrust became an asset when Russia and America squared off during the Russian missile crisis. Kennedy found himself surrounded by cigar-chomping militarists who actually authored and broached plans of action to preemptively attack Russia with Nuclear weapons. The military brass calmly estimated such a strike could kill 175 million Russian citizens.
After the Bay of Pigs debacle, Kennedy had sense enough to hold fast to his course of secret negotiations with Khrushchev. It’s chilling to think that Kennedy was a minority of one in high-ranking military circles in believing global thermonuclear war a hideously stupid idea. Fly-on-the-wall audio and a wealth of film footage of JFK at work in the oval office makes this production feel less like a musty documentary and more like living history. Dozens of movies, TV series and plays have been devoted to Kennedy. This PBS production of JFK is empirical proof that nobody to date has played Kennedy better than Kennedy himself.
This PBS masterpiece is worth watching. Make your kids watch it. It’s well-researched and buttressed with credentialed historians speaking candidly of JFK’s shortcomings as well as his assets. We’ll never see another man like him again in the White House. The mass media and the politics of personal destruction won’t allow it. This brave new world doesn’t like complexity and nuance, and JFK was as complex as they come.
At the PBS’ portion of the press tour, writers had the opportunity to ask questions of filmmaker and AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series producer, Susan Bellows; Tim Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Museum and author of One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958 1964; Sally Bedell Smith, best selling author of Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House; and via Skype, attorney and author Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eldest child of Senator Robert F. And Ethel Kennedy and niece to President Kennedy.
Producer Susan Bellows was asked about the daunting task of piecing together a narrative from such a wealth of source material, SUSAN BELLOWS: “Yes, it’s overwhelming. We used to joke that, you know, we’d think we’d seen them all, and then, you know, someone would send a new link from Tumbler and say, “I still haven’t seen this picture.” There’s an incredible amount of amazing imagery out there in part because Kennedy himself was so aware of the importance of that and documenting his world, and he himself was so media savvy and really understood how to use it. So that left us with a very rich trove. So we were working hard to try and feel like we could kind of get inside the White House and get a little closer to feeling we were inside the Presidency with this man because that’s something that I feel like, you know, hasn’t been done that much with him.”
JFK’s niece elaborated further on the amazing photos and film footage in the production, KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND: “We grew up with cameras all the time. My father loved taking home movies and was always around with his own camera taking pictures of us when we were very young. And then, obviously, the press was there as well. So I think that was a big part. Clearly, pictures were a big deal. If any of you ever come to our house in Hyannis Port, there are pictures everywhere. There were many pictures at my grandparents’ house in Hyannis Port, you know, documenting all the time that Joseph P. Kennedy was the ambassador to English. So that was critical, and I was so glad that you mentioned Mr. Drew and his cinema vérité with “Crisis” and primarily because no other President has ever done that where they’ve had the cameras right in the White House, right in the Oval Office so that you could see the discussions that are occurring in real time. So that was it’s a great gift that we have from that era, and that was because, I think, President Kennedy had the confidence that what he was doing was worthwhile….”
Tim Naftali gave some perspective on why this production of the JFK story was so compelling, TIM NAFTALI: “The reason that a portrait of Kennedy can be so much richer now than it could have been ten years ago or even five years ago is that John Kennedy taped 260 hours of his conversation, and until a year and a half ago, they weren’t all available. It’s also that the data, just the stuff of history, is so much broader on Kennedy than it was five years ago. And it makes for a much subtler and a much more interesting picture.”
Producer Susan Bellows bristled a bit at the suggestion that this most recent JFK documentary was an exercise in revisionist history, SUSAN BELLOWS: “ I think we’re looking at this as trying to be a comprehensive portrait that’s drawing upon all of the most recent scholarship.” Bellows went on, “… the adjective of revisionist doesn’t really fall in there.”
Author Sally Bedell Smith tried to explain the continuing interest in the JFK legend despite the brevity of his tenure as President, SALLY BEDELL SMITH: “ I think the Kennedys really captured the American imagination in part because of the way Jackie, after the assassination, created the whole mythology, to some extent, but there was the reality of Camelot, and nobody had ever kind of described a presidential administration in those terms. And because they were so young, and they were so glamorous, I think people have been naturally drawn to them, and of course it was all cut short tragically. So I think those dimensions are very important in the impulse to go back and revisit those times.”