September 29, 2014 / Theology, Uncategorized
Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you. —Wendell Berry …
April 12, 2011
Sunday night was the premiere of the controversial four-part miniseries “The Kennedys,” a show dropped by the History Channel in the U.S. and subsequently relegated to the hitherto unknown ReelzChannel (in Canada, it was shown on History Television, a Global affiliate). The controversy surrounding the show does seem a little strange in this day and age; there is nothing particularly novel or shocking about portraying the ‘darker side’ of powerful, iconic historical families, from “The Borgias” to “The Tudors.” In fact, a biopic that failed to show the flaws of its character(s)/antiheroes would, at least according to the way contemporary audiences conceive of character development, be unable to depict their greatest triumphs. Think of Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” who despite his addictions and philandering creates incredible music, or even Colin Firth in last year’s “The King’s Speech.” What has perhaps inspired particular uproar over “The Kennedys,” however, is the near-hagiographical status history has accorded to the Kennedy clan, saints who walked among us in the not-so-distant past. JFK, and later Bobby (see also his 2006 biopic), represented the future of the country to a generation of Americans: a future where the gap between black and white, rich and poor, even the earth and the moon seemed to be surmountable. The tragic assassination of both brothers only a few years apart is a poignant symbol of the collapse of hope in the twentieth century, but their courage and conviction has ensured them a place in world consciousness as martyrs of the civil rights movement and emblems of the American democratic ideal. Subsequently, every element of the lives of the Kennedy clan, from their formative years to fashion sense to home movies and even (in the case of the brothers) the minute details of their deaths, has become for the public an endless source of fascination.
Katie Holmes, who plays Jacqueline Kennedy in the series, has said that she sees the epic story of the Kennedys as akin to a Greek tragedy; a more fitting comparison for this particular depiction of them, which has already been made by a few reviewers, is “The Godfather.” Joe Kennedy, Sr. is shown as a ruthlessly ambitious, opportunistic paterfamilias hell-bent on getting a Kennedy in the White House. His political mistakes, such as lobbying to keep the U.S. out of WWII, and the untimely death of the firstborn son he was grooming for power, are what eventually propel him to make getting Jack into the White House his sole dream and life’s work. In fact, Joe (played by Tom Wilkinson) was arguably the main character of this first episode. In a particularly telling scene, he tears a crucifix off the wall in anger when he hears of Joe Jr.’s army death, despite the protestations of his devout Catholic wife. Earlier, speaking to his secretary/lover, he had described “God’s hand” and his own “hand,” bringing them together to demonstrate his power to make kings and wield the power of a nation; however, the death of his son, the primal trauma at the heart of the family and the JFK presidential run, destroys for the senior Kennedy any residual hope in divine providence. “God’s hand” wasn’t there to protect Joe; it isn’t “God’s hand” that lets them win the election, but his backroom machinations. The diabolical picture painted of Joe Kennedy is fleshed out somewhat by the other characters; Bobby is an ingenue swept up in a familial game of manipulation, and JFK (played by Greg Kinnear, with a fairly convincing accent) struggles to remain faithful to Jackie even as he reluctantly grows into the shoes he is expected to fill. Katie Holmes is also a fairly strong point as a wife who must cede her own ambitions to her husband’s political career, her depiction of the soft-voiced First Lady avoiding the obvious sin of impersonation.
“The Kennedys” does not have the same emotional range or visual impact of HBO’s “Mad Men,” which is set in the same period of history. It has also been criticized as the attempt of a Republican, possibly isolationist director to cast a shadow over the ‘royal family’ of the Democrat party, not to mention for accruing a number of historical inaccuracies. However, there is enough here to warrant watching the second episode, in the hopes that the arc of the story (we all know what’s coming) will help bring together some of the important themes of this tragic tale: freedom, responsibility, ambition, providence, integrity, faithfulness and the unique phenomenon of the American empire.
Brett David Potter