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American Experience: John F. Kennedy

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Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.


The biggest surprise about American Experience’s profile of John F. Kennedy is that it’s not a rerun. In its first season back in 1988, PBS’ flagship U.S. history-documentary series featured an update of Robert Drew’s 1963 film Crisis, a cinema verité documentary about the showdown between the Kennedy brothers in the White House and Alabama governor George Wallace over school desegregation. And four years ago, American Experience did a two-parter on “The Kennedys,” the first half of which was devoted to the patriarch, Joe Kennedy, with his sons crammed together in the same box.

But it’s probably not an accident that—having done two-part installments on the lives and presidencies of both Roosevelts, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton—the series held off on JFK until the 50th anniversary of his assassination. It was a sensible decision, and the film that’s been made right on schedule is a serviceable educational tool: “JFK For Beginners.” But JFK has a cut-and-dried, obligatory feel to it, as if the producers almost let the date sneak up on them and had to hustle to get it made before another 10 years passed.


Part one crams the first 44 years of Kennedy’s life into two hours of screen time, ending the day after he was elected president. The best thing about having waited all this time is that the filmmakers can take advantage of the recent disclosures about just how terrible Kennedy’s health was for most of his life. Even the deep tan that seemed to symbolize the “vigor” and “vitality” that were such an important part of the Camelot mythology was actually a sign of the bad shape that Kennedy was in. It wasn’t really a tan at all, but skin discoloration, resulting from the cortisone treatments necessary for his Addison’s disease, a life-threatening endocrine disorder he was diagnosed with during his first year in Congress. Kennedy learned to be outwardly good-natured about his poor health when he was still in prep school; from a bed in the sick ward at Choate, after he had been stricken with colitis, he told someone, “Took a peek at my chart today and could see they were mentally measuring me for a coffin.”

He was in agony for much of his life, and his well-reported back pain was only the tip of the iceberg. (The Kennedys may have been relatively open about his back pain, because it could be blamed on his World War II heroics.) Historian Robert Dallek, who was granted unprecedented access to Kennedy’s medical records for his 2003 book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, makes a good case here that Kennedy’s pushing through the pain amounts to a sustained act of heroism in itself, even if the false image he worked to present to the public amounted to a cover-up. But this show doesn’t mention the likelihood that Kennedy brought at least some of his health problems, including the Addison’s, on himself by taking steroids to bulk up as a spindly kid trying to get into the Navy. It glides past the near-certainty that speechwriter Ted Sorensen didn’t just “help” Kennedy write Profiles In Courage; he pretty much wrote the thing himself. And it wants nothing to do with Kennedy’s posthumous reputation as a sexual dynamo, even in the White House.

Part two, which covers the scant three years of Kennedy’s time in the White House, actually feels more rushed than the first half. Narrator Oliver Platt hustles the viewer from one crisis and highpoint to the next—the Bay Of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, civil rights, Vietnam, and finally the fateful trip to Dallas. The meatiest section, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, benefits from recent disclosures that have led historians to revise the conventional wisdom on Kennedy’s performance during those nerve-racking 13 days. (Old-school texts, such as the 1974 TV docudrama The Missiles Of October, made Kennedy’s behavior look reckless, while insisting it was brilliant. Yet the more we have come to learn what really happened, the more he looks cautious and strategic.)

The most exciting moments in JFK are those in which the career politician actually engages in politics, such as when, during the competition for the 1960 Democratic nomination, he reacts to Hubert Humphrey’s adopting “the anti-Catholic dog-whistle” song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” as his campaign song by repeatedly telling audiences that, as a decorated war hero, he thinks it’s terribly unfair for people to constantly accuse Humphrey of having dodged the draft in World War II. Stuff like this is refreshing to see, just because Americans have such an aversion to politics, they tend to behave as if any politician found attractive was just standing around radiating charisma when a swarm of people appeared and voted him into high office.


American Experience: JFK isn’t out to tear Kennedy down or venerate him. It doesn’t try to re-create the excitement about him and his moment that can still be tasted when looking at Robert Drew’s Primary or reading Norman Mailer’s “Superman Comes To The Supermarket.” In classic PBS style, it just wants to redefine him as a normal-scale human. After 50 years of passionate celebrations of his memory and equally passionate takedowns of his myth, that would be some trick.