A PBS Documentary Sheds New Light on JFK
The incisive film reveals little-known aspects of Kennedy's life
As the whole world is surely aware, November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. PBS has commemorated the occasion with JFK, a two-part documentary in its award-winning series The Presidents. If you missed its premier broadcast on November 11 and 12, you can still watch parts one and two online.
This 17th biopic in the American Experience series features a trove of videos and photographs as well as interviews with family members, key Kennedy advisers and prominent historians.
“It was interesting to have the opportunity to see who he was intellectually and not just a rich, good-looking playboy,” says the film’s director and producer Susan Bellows, who has worked on the American Experience series for the past nine years.
The four-hour documentary doesn’t disappoint. From the opening scene — a tense point during the Cuban Missile Crisis — to the end, I felt like I was thrust back in time, shocked at how much innocence the world has lost in the interim.
Behind the Scenes
“Where were you when you heard JFK was shot?” is a question every boomer can answer. I was in first grade, waiting for my bus to be called, when a voice crackled over the PA, announcing the shocking news.
Bellows had just turned 4. “I remember being in the back seat of the car with the radio on,” she says, “and my mother pulling over and saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ I remember asking what was wrong, but I don’t remember what she said.”
Bellows was too young to process the tragedy, but knew that JFK had been an icon for her parents’ generation and that his death was a seminal moment in the country’s history. “Even though I had more tangible memories of the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, JFK was a presence in my life,” Bellows says.
American Experience has done 16 presidential bios (most recently Bill Clinton), but never got around to Kennedy, partly because the program had already done a series on the Kennedy family, told largely through the eyes of the patriarch, Joe Sr. Even though only half an hour of it was devoted to Jack’s administration, every time the team discussed which president to cover next, they put off doing JFK.
“But as the 50th anniversary approached,” Bellows says, “it seemed like a good idea to reconsider his presidency, which, though too short, had a huge impact on American politics.”
Right around the time Bellows and company began their research, about two years ago, new books, documents and videos about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs came out, as well as Kennedy's medical records. As a result, the documentary covers new ground and offers startling revelations.
“We wanted to get to the man behind the myth,” Bellows says. “We were interested in his successes and failures and wanted to go beynd his good looks. We wanted to look at all aspects that shaped his childhood and legacy.”
The producers started with how JFK transformed the presidential primary process and established the importance of a charismatic personality in the White House as well as his ambivalence toward civil rights and his handling of foreign affairs, particularly with Russia (regarding Cuba), Germany and Vietnam. Then they worked backward, gathering the material and shaping a narrative.
Four Transfixing Hours
Though I was too young to remember the events of the Kennedy era firsthand, I nevertheless felt like I had a working knowledge of them. Yet watching the film, I realized how much I didn’t know and I was riveted.
The old family videos and photos, which comprise a big chunk of the first half, bring Jack’s story to life. Part One focuses on Kennedy the boy turned man turned politician, with a great deal of attention paid to his highly influential father. A few things that I was expecting were not included, notably references to matriarch Rose Kennedy and to Joe Sr.’s alleged bootlegging.
When I asked Bellows about these omissions, she explained that they couldn’t cover everything in four hours. Additionally, while Rose had been a major figure in the home, she didn’t shape Jack’s public life.
As for the father’s rumored illicit activities, Bellows cited David Nasaw’s scholarly book The Patriarch. Based on his research, she told me that “most of the stories about bootlegging originated in unsubstantiated, usually off-the-cuff remarks made in the 1970s and 1980s by Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno and other Mob figures not particularly known for their truth telling.”
Bellows says her biggest surprise, like mine, was discovering how extensive and crippling Kennedy’s health conditions were throughout his life. (I won’t give anything away except to say that they explain a lot about the man and make him a more sympathetic character.)
The biopic doesn’t tiptoe around JFK’s well-known affairs. “We don’t name names,” says Bellows, “but we don’t dodge the womanizing.”
Nor does the film whitewash his well-known political failures, like the Bay of Pigs debacle, which is covered in great depth.
The Kennedys are the closest thing America has to a royal family. It was fascinating to watch the old family movies and see how competitive they all were. One Kennedy friend comments that everything was a contest and there was “almost a meanness” to their machinations.
Jackie Kennedy comes off well, though mostly we see as a foil to her husband. Lyndon Johnson is not an agreeable character in the least, yet we come to understand why he was a savvy choice for Vice President.
In Part Two, we are thrust into the three short years of Kennedy's presidency, reminded that nuclear war was a real and constant threat — and how scarily close we came to it. Snippets of JFK's major speeches are presented in context and we learn that not only did he write his own speeches, but that sometimes he actually winged them.
To my mind, this documentary is required viewing for all serious students and aficionados of American history. But even the most casual observer — and Kennedy cynic — will come to appreciate just how much this man did for his country.
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