Rupert Cornwell: Question the Kennedy legend at your peril

Out of America: The row over a TV biopic shows that the US unofficial 'royal family' can still pack a punch

Related Topics

If you're into celebrated Catholic political families, led by a patriarch who will stop at nothing to ensure that he or his children ascend to the most powerful office of the age, then today on American television is as good as it gets.

On Showtime, you can catch the first episode of The Borgias, set in Renaissance Italy and the corridors of the Vatican. Or switch to a little-known station called ReelzChannel, and a drama of 20th-century America, set primarily in the White House. It's called The Kennedys. It only depends where your taste lies: Rodrigo Borgia, aka the infamous Pope Alexander VI, or old Joe Snr, known to his offspring as "The Ambassador".

In one, the future pontiff inquires of a crony how many cardinals must be bought to win the papal election (of 1492). In the other, you will see Joseph Kennedy – one-time US ambassador to London, Hollywood entrepreneur, speculator and rumoured bootlegger – exulting to his family that "the country is ours for the taking". And as mindful as Rodrigo of not paying over the odds, he asks his son John, when the latter points out that his 1960 election victory was razor-thin: "Did you think I was going to pay for a landslide?"

But there has been one big difference between the two productions. You can say anything you like about the Borgias. But put John F Kennedy on screen in a fashion that's anything short of hagiographical and you are asking for trouble. And so it has proved once again.

The $25m (£15.5m), eight-hour series was initially commissioned by the History Channel. But word got out that it might be a little unflattering, and the Kennedy clan, led by JFK's former speechwriter and historian Ted Sorensen, pulled out all the stops to scupper the project. In January, the US History Channel pulled out, claiming that the "dramatic interpretation" was "not a fit for the History brand". Its affiliates abroad will start running it this week, but here it will be shown only by the hitherto obscure ReelzChannel, whose usual fodder is Hollywood news and trailers.

In fact, as biopics go, this one isn't bad. It is indeed far less reverential than the last Kennedy TV miniseries, shown in 1983 and starring Martin Sheen – later of West Wing fame – as the slain president. Greg Kinnear makes a passable JFK, but doesn't really seem to enjoy life. Barry Pepper, though, is terrific as Bobby Kennedy, while Katie Holmes (Mrs Tom Cruise) manages to convey Jackie's mixture of breathy beauty , elegance and toughness. Best of all is Tom Wilkinson as Joe, whose ambition and ruthless determination bind the saga together.

Like every biopic, this one takes liberties with the facts, depicting scenes that never actually happened – a technique justified by Hollywood to convey a psychological truth otherwise impossible to render in the time available.

The advance publicity suggested The Kennedys would be a Borgia-esque mix of sex, drugs and crime – and yes, gentle viewer, such matters do crop up. It has been further noted that the producer of the series, Joel Surnow, who was responsible for the thriller series 24, is one of Hollywood's few avowed conservatives, and that the owner of ReelzChannel is a Republican supporter.

On the other hand, it is not exactly news that the Kennedy men had more than an eye for the ladies, or that the 35th president took a battery of medicaments, including both stimulants and painkillers, to treat his many ailments. As for the talk of Joe Snr's bootlegging, and claims that JFK once shared a mistress with a Mafia don, perish the thought.

But, like the rich, the Kennedys are different. No one complained about Oliver Stone's Nixon, made a year after his death in 1994, or about W when Stone didn't have the decency to at least wait until his subject had left the Oval Office. But when it comes to a hatchet job on the Kennedys, the statute of limitations never quite expires.

At first glance, that's odd. After all, Camelot-on-the-Potomac has all but vanished into the mists of history, and an entire Kennedy generation is as good as gone. Of Old Joe's children, only Jean Kennedy Smith, the former US ambassador to Ireland, is still alive. The death earlier this year of Sargent Shriver, husband to Eunice Kennedy, leaves Bobby's widow, Ethel, as the last surviving original in-law. For about the first time since the Second World War, there is not a single Kennedy in Congress. Surely the family now is as fair game as the Borgias? Apparently not.

Up to a point you can understand. Have not assassinations and other tragedies given the Kennedys the right to be left in peace? And maybe this is a particularly bad time to tackle the subject. A tacky TV series, it could be argued, will sully the myth – exactly half a century after JFK entered the White House, when the grainy anniversary images recall his classiness, youth and style, and again have Americans wondering about what might have been.

But whatever happens, this will not be the end of it. Matt Damon reportedly will soon feature in a new film about RFK, while Leonardo DiCaprio is to star in a film about the 1963 assassination, due for release in 2013, 50 years after the event.

Hollywood simply cannot get enough of the Kennedys.

The saving grace is, it can't do them justice either. Most presidents are complex characters, with lives that dwarf most fiction. Many of them (and I am not referring to Ronald Reagan) are practised actors. But none offers a story to match that of John Kennedy. The movie makers cannot resist, but always fall short. This version of The Kennedys will probably be quickly forgotten. But the legend will live on, and Hollywood will keep trying. When the 100th anniversaries of Kennedy's birth, his inauguration and his murder roll around, people will be writing new books and making new movies about him. And, you may be certain, generating new controversies.

'The Kennedys' airs on the history Channel on Thursday at 9pm

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Day In a Page


Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen