History's Bunkmates on Cable

By Rob Patterson

Winston Churchill said that “history is written by the victors.” These days its gets rewritten by Hollywood, and often in ways that fit Voltaire’s contention that “history is fables agreed on.”

The eight-part mini-series The Kennedys that recently aired on the Reelz cable channel unfortunately reduces much of that family’s personal and political history to fairy tale. Given the dangerous downward slide of the American educational system, this gives me great pause.

To its credit, the series includes some fairly strong performances. Greg Kinnear manages to look and sound like John F, Kennedy, Katie Holmes channels a credible Jackie and Tom Wilkinson gives an especially pungent reading of Joe Kennedy as a ruthless bastard.

On the other hand, Teddy Kennedy, arguably as politically important as Jack and Bobby Kennedy over his near-half century in the Senate, is nowhere to be seen and not even mentioned. The tragedy of Kennedy daughter Rosemary’s retardation and lobotomy is a big dramatic beat. But rebellious daughter Kathleen’s death in a plane crash in 1948 is absent. The rest of the Kennedy daughters are faceless shadows. Joe, Jack and Bobby are the focus. Maybe the series should have been called Some Of The Kennedys.

Even worse is how it tosses aside the historical record. An article on the ABC News website that fact checks some glaring inaccuracies quotes recently deceased JFK advisor Ted Sorenson’s take after reading the script that the scenes and conversations he was shown in “never happened.” I noted a rather gaping hole in its depiction of the Bay of Pigs crisis: Jack Kennedy had promised air cover for the invaders if they got on shore and then failed to follow through. Those who contend that rogue elements from the CIA who Kennedy purged after the fiasco and angered Cuban expatriates had a role in JFK’s assassination cite that as a key factor.

The series also largely goes with the single gunman theory of the assassination (but veers off at the last minute to not show Lee Harvey Oswald pulling the trigger). Given that even the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded the President Kennedy’s murder was likely the result of a conspiracy, this is a huge flaw in the TV drama.

Of course, as all too usual with historical dramas, dramatic “license” takes so much precedence its becomes reckless driving along the plot line. Those of us who grew up in the Kennedy era — I was nearly 10 years old when JFK was shot — at least have some sense of what really happened. But younger generations may well buy this twaddle as the way it was.

The $25 million dollar production was in fact abandoned by the History Channel, which initially optioned the mini-series, because they felt it didn’t meet their standards. So it’s reassuring that accuracy and truth are still valued somewhere.

But to me the biggest shame about how history gets rewritten in dramatic works is their producers somehow seem to think that fictional revisions and reductions make for better drama.

This struck me in a major way after seeing the megahit film Titanic, and marveling at how little of what led to and caused that tragedy made it into the movie other than the iceberg.

Yet the real story has far more drama, and the love tale that was the center of its plot would have been even more resonant in that context.

And few family stories are as rich with drama and tragedy as that of the Kennedys. Yes, writers of such works as The Kennedys do have to make choices and adapt. But too often it seems they toss aside genuinely stirring real life drama for far less effective fiction.

And subsequently distort the record. Witness how The Kennedys makes way too much of whatever happened between JFK and Marilyn Monroe.

Fascinating as that may be as tabloid fodder, it was something of little actual historical impact.

I subscribe in part to Santayana’s notion that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. History offers much to learn that can aid us now and in the future, and America’s rising tide of cultural illiteracy works against that in a dangerous fashion. With shows like The Kennedys, history sadly becomes bunk.

Rob Patterson is an entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2011


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