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July 22, 2014

Is 'The Kennedys' Miniseries a 'Political Character Assassination'?

by Gary Susman, posted Feb 17th 2010 3:53PM
Coming soon from two of the makers of '24': Another tale of a president whose scandalous, secretive behavior jeopardized America's national security. Only this time, the president is John F. Kennedy, and the project is 'The Kennedys,' an eight-hour docudrama miniseries due in 2011 on the History Channel.

Not a frame has been shot yet, but one documentarian and several JFK historians who claim to have seen the script say 'The Kennedys' as written is full of smears, distortions, and an emphasis on the 35th president's lurid sex life at the expense of his historical achievements. They've formed an ad hoc group, StopKennedySmears.com, and have launched an online petition drive threatening a boycott of the channel if the miniseries airs with the script's alleged falsehoods intact.

The group's founder, Robert Greenwald, is a filmmaker known for left-leaning agitprop documentaries like 'Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism' and 'Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers.' But before he started making such films, he directed many standard-issue Hollywood movies and miniseries, and he tells the New York Times that contacts in the industry leaked him the script.

Although the author of the script, '24's' Stephen Kronish, calls himself a liberal Democrat, the project's director is '24' co-creator Joel Surnow, one of Hollywood's most outspoken conservatives. It's Surnow whom Greenwald blames for what he calls the script's "political character assassination" of the Democratic icon.

True to form, Greenwald has made a 12-minute documentary, marshaling historians who object to specific scenes in the draft of 'The Kennedys' Greenwald showed them. Former JFK aide Ted Sorenson says none of the script's conversations between him and the president ever took place. Greenwald and his team object to scenes like one where JFK is committing adultery in the White House swimming pool while a Secret Service agent tries to get him to attend to a national security matter, or the one where JFK tells an aide that if he doesn't cheat every other day, he gets a migraine headache. Even Nigel Hamilton, whose unflattering 1992 history 'JFK: Restless Youth' drew the ire of the Kennedy family, thinks the script's portrayal is over the top and better suited to the National Enquirer than the History Channel.

Robert Greenwald's 'Stop Kennedy Smears'


Kronish responds that the script is still being revised, and that he thinks Greenwald & Co. shouldn't criticize the project until it's finished. (It hasn't even been cast yet, though Surnow and Kronish hope to shoot this spring, with an eye toward an early 2011 airdate, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of JFK's inauguration.) Kronish also says that he's consulted multiple biographies of JFK, including left-wing muckraker Seymour Hersh's 'The Dark Side of Camelot' (which has accounts of JFK's swimming pool sexcapades and the migraine remark - h/t to No More Mister Nice Blog for those finds). Kronish says the script will be annotated by scholars and vetted by lawyers before the cameras roll. However, he does admit to fudging some timeline details for dramatic purposes. He also addresses Sorenson's specific criticism about invented conversations and tells The Huffington Post, "If it turns out that that's the case we will take it out." He says other obvious errors, like attributing the idea for the Berlin Wall to JFK, have already been fixed or will be fixed.

The controversy is reminiscent of the one over CBS' 2003 miniseries 'The Reagans.' Then, it was conservatives who objected to what they claimed were unflattering and distorted portraits of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. CBS responded by booting the project to premium cable sibling Showtime, where the potential audience was much smaller.

Of course, the audience for a basic cable miniseries, even on the Kennedys, is bound to be small, too. And expecting historical accuracy on the History Channel -- better known today for fare like 'UFO Hunters,' 'Ice Road Truckers,' and 'MonsterQuest' than for the World War II documentaries that used to be so pervasive they earned the network the nickname "The Hitler Channel" - seems naive and quaint. (Having aired 'The People Speak,' a documentary based on the writings of left-wing historian Howard Zinn, in December, the History Channel can't be accused of being a right-wing propaganda factory.)

And despite the countless unflattering miniseries about the Kennedys (including one based on Hamilton's 'Reckless Youth,' starring Patrick Dempsey as the young JFK), with so many reputation-trashing allegations about the famous family, the Camelot mystique endures, even in a country where most citizens are too young to remember the slain Kennedy brothers firsthand.

Still, a Kennedy docudrama that (as Team Greenwald alleges) contains a dozen sex scenes but scant mention of the Cuban Missile Crisis doesn't seem to be doing much to illuminate history or to create gripping drama.

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