It’s always interesting to see how film makers present historical figures to their audience. John Kennedy a was good looking and charismatic American leader and after watching the TV mini series Kennedy I thought I’d take a closer look at how JFK has been portrayed in film and TV.
Strolling through St Annes not long ago I dropped Liz off at the hairdressers and wandered into a nearby shop that sells secondhand books, DVDs and CDs. It was there I spotted the DVD of a mini series from the 80’s called simply Kennedy with Martin Sheen playing the part of John F Kennedy. The DVD box set had been on my shelf for a while until one cold and wet evening when I thought it was time to pour a small port and settle down to watch it.
The first episode opens on election day revealing the Kennedys at their compound in Massachusetts with Bobby and Ted and their volunteers manning the phones trying to get the latest info in from the election count. The series goes on to follow the Kennedy administration through various issues including civil rights, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, problems with US Steel, the Cuban Missile crisis and finishes with the President’s death in Dallas.
Sheen captures the president’s clipped Boston accent pretty well and Blair Brown who plays Jackie has an uncanny likeness to Jackie herself, especially when she dons the First Lady’s pink suit for the trip to Dallas. Nothing controversial is included although the film does show how J Edgar Hoover kept close tabs on Kennedy’s private life and how Bobby apparently made many efforts to keep the President from compromising himself.
This series had me hooked from the beginning and I could feel the excitement the Kennedy team felt themselves when they knew that JFK had won the election.
Martin Sheen was much shorter than the real JFK and that brought to mind the closing lines from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. One of the Dallas doctors who fought to save Kennedy looked at his lifeless body and thought what a big man the President was, bigger than he had previously thought. Yes, says Manchester, the President was indeed a big man.
After watching the mini-series over a couple of days I thought that I’d settle down to watch the Oliver Stone movie JFK. Oliver Stone’s film focuses on Kennedy’s death rather than his life. It follows the investigation of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison and his attempt to investigate the assassination. Kevin Costner plays Garrison and the film opens with the shooting in Dallas and Garrison watching the events unfold on TV. Stone uses the Garrison investigation as a framework on which to hang various theories, the main one being that the ‘military industrial complex’ was responsible. The film is well put together and expertly combines archive film with new footage as well as different film types, 16mm and 35mm, black and white and colour as well as square and wide screen film.
The centre of the Garrison investigation is New Orleans where Oswald visited and the various contacts he had there including David Ferrie, a strange individual active in the anti-Castro community who had lost his hair and wore a wig and Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI agent who ran a private investigation business. Located in the same building as Bannister’s office was one used by Lee Oswald for his fake Pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba committee.
Jim Garrison himself has a small role as Earl Warren, the chairman of the Warren Commission which investigated the murder at the behest of President Johnson.
The finale of the film involves the showing of the 16mm film of the assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder, to the jury. Garrison tried to show that local businessman Clay Shaw was part of the conspiracy but failed.
I’ve always found the film totally engrossing but it proved to be controversial, however the film did lead to the JFK Assassinations Records Act which enabled the release of the remaining assassination documents held by the US government.
Even if you don’t have a conspiracy theory or even a viewpoint about the death of JFK this is a powerful and interesting film and well worth watching.
PT 109 is an account of John Kennedy’s time as commander of a Patrol Torpedo Boat in World War II. The young Kennedy was enrolled in the US Navy and was sent to the Solomon Islands to take over his command. He had suffered for a long time with a bad back and had to get his father Joe to use his influence to get him into the war. Kennedy completed his training in 1942 and after a short period as an instructor, he was finally assigned to PT Boat 109.
While on patrol one night PT 109 was hit by a Japanese destroyer which cut the torpedo boat in two. Two crew members were killed but Kennedy led his remaining crew, including one severely burned man, on a long swim to Plum Pudding Island. It took the crew four hours to swim the 3.5 miles to the island and Kennedy himself had to tow the injured man by clenching a strap in his teeth.
Later when help had still not arrived, JFK had to take his crew on second swim to another island where they met a native who took a message carved on a coconut shell to the Allied forces and they were eventually rescued.
Kennedy was played by Cliff Robertson whose casting was personally approved by President Kennedy and the film was released in the summer of 1963. I saw the film on TV a few years ago and I’d have to agree with those who weren’t overly impressed by it.
In real life the Kennedy brothers were highly competitive and Joe Kennedy junior, after hearing of his younger brother’s exploits in PT Boats, volunteered for a dangerous mission which led to his death in England flying an aircraft filled with explosives.
Thirteen Days was a 2000 film about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and stars Bruce Greenwood as John F Kennedy. In 1962 U2 flights over Cuba doing photo reconnaissance, spotted the build up of missiles sent to the area by the Soviet Union. Kennedy created an executive committee to deal with the emergency and the meetings were recorded. The film was based on the 1997 book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow so it was therefore pretty accurate. The odd thing about the film is that the star is not the JFK character played by Greenwood but Kennedy’s assistant Ken O’Donnell played by Kevin Costner and the film seems to be saying that it was O’Donnell who motivated the President and saved the day and not the President himself, which was clearly not the case.
Many in the military wanted a full-scale invasion of Cuba but Kennedy himself hung on for a diplomatic solution.
Bruce Greenwood didn’t do it for me as JFK but Thirteen Days is an interesting film and well worth watching but I feel I got a better sense of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the TV series Kennedy.
Having watched all this about John F Kennedy, I thought it might be time to take a look at the real JFK. In my VHS collection I have quite a few documentaries about him, some date back to the 1960’s and on the 25th anniversary of his death in 1987, many of these films were shown on television and I recorded a lot of them on my very expensive video recorder. One was called Crisis which looked at how the President handled the civil rights issue in the USA. Another was about the election of 1960 including Kennedy’s selection as the Democratic candidate. He competed in the primaries against Hubert Humphrey and when Kennedy utilised his entire family, brothers, sister and his mother, Humphrey complained that he wasn’t just fighting one man but an entire family. The film shows Kennedy at an election meeting with his family all shaking hands and smiling to the public.
One last film I watched was in Channel Four’s Secret Lives season. This episode from 1997 was written and directed by Mark Obenhaus and based, I think, on research by Seymour Hersh who afterwards published The Dark Side of Camelot. It showed former secret service agents talking about Kennedy’s affairs and numerous liaisons with prostitutes. The agents were forced to explain away the women as ‘secretaries’ to those around them who were not in the know. They also talked about Kennedy’s meetings with a man they nicknamed Doctor Feelgood, Max Jacobson, who was apparently treating JFK with amphetamines. In later years after the death of JFK, Jacobson lost his license.
Of course, in this short blog post I cannot hope to get close to the real character of JFK. To journalist Hugh Sidey he talked about the aristocrats of Victorian England who defended the principles of law and democracy on a weekday but retired to their country mansions at the weekend for wife swapping parties and other hedonistic diversions. Sidey explained that after Kennedy told him that, he felt he finally understood the real character of the President.
Whatever he did in his private life, as president, John Kennedy averted a nuclear war and spoke what I think were some of the most memorable phrases ever spoken by any politician. Let me leave you then with these words, delivered at the American University in 1963, a matter of months before his death. Talking about the Soviet Union he said:
So, let us not be blind to our differences but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.
As usual I’ve tried to find video links that do not start with an advertisement although it isn’t always possible.
For the full text of JFK’s American University speech, click here.