Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kinnear Nails It as JFK in The Kennedys

There's a saying in Hollywood that goes like this: "He was born to play this role." Sometimes it is used flippantly or disingenuously as a means of garnering publicity for a film or show. And it's possibly overstated most of the time, but Greg Kinnear as JFK in the 2011 mini-series The Kennedys is literally uncanny.  

History is about people, for it is the decisions of people that make the events of history. No person is an island. We all come from somewhere and have been shaped by a context. Certain families have cast such large shadows over our American history that their achievements, exploits and shortcomings have become legendary. Presidents like Lincoln, JFK and FDR almost cease to be human, until a proper treatment takes place in one form or another. Steven Spielberg placed a microscope on a very narrow slice of Lincoln's life to transform the sixteenth president into a human being who struggled with relationship issues, wrestled with all the challenges to his convictions as he fought to be true to his personal vision. This mini-series takes the opposite approach, merging past and present to paint a vivid family portrait.

Numerous attempts have been made to tell the John F. Kennedy story. It's a story that is impossible to fully grasp without bringing in the rest of the family beginning with the primal force Joe Kennedy, the politically potent Irish Catholic businesssman and former ambassador who proved to be the driving force behind the Kennedy ascendancy.

Tom Wilkinson was the actor tapped for the role of Joe Kennedy, and once again it's a winning performance. Wilkinson first caught my attention in the Clooney film Michael Clayton which I've watched several times. The British character actor appears in numerous other places including Valkyrie, The Conspirator and The Ghost Writer, a personal favorite. He knows how to play the heavy and shows us a very human multi-faceted character driven by power and passions.

Barry Pepper's portrayal of Bobby is equally fascinating. We've seen much about the public Bobby but not as much about the development of his personal values. At one point his mother Rose Kennedy explains the difference in her sons. Joe Jr. and Jack were "Joe's boys," whereas Bobby was my son.

Then there's Kinnear, who at times leaves you convinced you're seeing footage of the real deal, JFK himself. We've all seen films where actors are chosen to portray famously familiar faces and at certain points we say, "Oh, he looks just like him." But you know it's orchestrated carefully and is not something that holds throughout. Nixon/Frost comes to mind here, a film which is surprisingly good, and the lack of perfect semblance is not a problem.  

The challenges of this presidency are many, the biggest one being who to trust, who to rely on for good information and wise counsel. Whether it's the Bay of Pigs, Berlin Wall or Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon brass seems to offer a single solution: nuke 'em. It would seem the adage applies, "To a hammer, everything is a nail." With the civil rights movement is simmering, and Viet Nam is deteriorating, where does one go for real wisdom? Everyone seems to have an agenda.

The series begins with election night 1960 with background stories shared in a variety of flashbacks. In many stories flashbacks can be overdone, but with this family's stories so familiar it all works fine in my estimation. Backstory gives clarity.

On one level Joe got what he wanted, perhaps even more than he ever dreamed. His son became president, another became an attorney general. But then there's the law of unintended consequences at play and we know how badly the story ends for both of these boys, boys who were forced by circumstances to become men first.  

Then there are the women in these men's lives who suffer so much. Beneficiaries of the clan who must also get more than they bargained for. Rosemarie's episode is unvarnished. 

Greg Kinnear caught my attention and won my favor when he played the gay artist in As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Kinnear, superb then and with more than a dozen years experience since, stepped into John Kennedy's shoes in a manner that I can't imagine will ever be better emulated.

The screenplay pulls no punches. Even the most far-fetched fiction writer couldn't fabricate a story like this. See it if you can.

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