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

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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

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