Kennedy is an eight-part docuseries, directed by Ashton Gleckman, that takes an extensive and sometimes unsparing look at John F. Kennedy’s life, sixty years after his assassination. Narrated by Peter Coyote, Gleckman examines Kennedy’s life through archival footage and photos and interviews with myriad experts.
KENNEDY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “John F. Kennedy lived a life that defined an entire generation,” says narrator Peter Coyote as we see scenes of JFK campaigning for president in 1960.
The Gist: Among the experts Gleckman talks to for Kennedy are historians like David M. Kennedy and authors like Douglas Brinkley, but there are also discussions with Kennedy family members as well as family members of people who worked in his administration. Gleckman also speaks to Bruce Greenwood, who played JFK in Thirteen Days, journalist Chris Matthews and Conan O’Brien, who has been on the board of directors of the JFK Library Foundation since 2010.
The first episode explores the first 22 years of Kennedy’s life, from his birth to Joe and Rose Kennedy in 1917 to the year he graduated from Harvard in 1940. One of nine kids, Jack Kennedy contracted scarlet fever before his third birthday; he became so sick that he was given last rites. That was the first of many instances where Kennedy came close to death, and it was also a harbinger of a lifetime spent overcoming chronic pain. What his sickness as a toddler demonstrated is that Joe Kennedy was in the position of being the more attached parent, as Rose rarely even visited her son in the hospital.
One of the other interesting pieces of information is that Joe Kennedy thought his oldest son, Joe Jr., was more likely to become president than Jack, who was smart and personable but goofed around in school and got poor grades in subjects that didn’t interest him. As he went to the prestigious Choate School and then to Harvard, he had more of a reputation for chasing women and being boozily social than for academics. But he got more serious during his final two years, and he also traveled the world after his father became the US ambassador to England right as England was drawn into war with Nazi Germany. Those travels gave Kennedy a world view that was different than his father, who was against the US entering the war.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Kennedy‘s style is more straightforward than what we’ve seen from History’s presidential docuseries in the recent past. It’s more like a Ken Burns-style docuseries like Thomas Jefferson than the hybrid scripted-docuseries that History has been doing lately.
Our Take: What we really appreciate about Kennedy is that it’s trying to assess JFK’s legacy honestly, even if the tone is pretty reverent. Gleckman covers a lot of bases in the first episode, even though it covers a lot longer period of time than later episodes, which will examine his presidency and assassination, will.
Hearing that Kennedy wasn’t a great student, despite his intelligence, wasn’t necessarily new information, but it brings his humanity back into focus, as does the numerous times he came close to death in the first 22 years of his life. It’s a good way of showing just how full JFK’s 46-and-a-half years were, and why he seemed ready to take risks at every stage. The sardonic remarks about death that O’Brien and others remarked about in the first episode stemmed from more than just Catholic guilt; Kennedy seemed to know his time on this planet was achingly short, given his brushes with death and near-constant physical pain.
It’ll be interesting to see how that translates to Kennedy’s adult life, manifested in both good and not-so-good behavior. He was a war hero, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a U.S. Senator before he was 40, and the youngest elected president at 43. But the seemingly idyllic family-man image he projected, the whole “Camelot” thing, has proven to be not as idyllic as people thought sixty years ago. It’ll be interesting to see how his affairs are discussed, along with the chances he took as president, along with some of of the parts of his presidency that ended up being on the wrong side of history, like getting the country involved in the Vietnam conflict.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Scenes from the second episode, which discusses his heroism as a Naval lieutenant in World War II.
Sleeper Star: Who knew Conan O’Brien was such a knowledgeable Kennedy historian? His interview snippets were as serious and information-filled as any of the authors and other historians that were interviewed for the series. We figured he was interviewed since they are both from Brookline and both went to Harvard. But it seems that Conan is a real expert.
Most Pilot-y Line: This didn’t really detract from the episode, but there was a fair amount of time spent on Kennedy’s friendship with Lem Billings and how Billings, who was gay but closeted as most people in the LGBTQ community were in the early part of the 20th century. There was even time given to the speculation that Billings wrote JFK a note on a piece of toilet paper, something done at Choate because of its impermanence, stating his feelings towards Kennedy. The speculative nature of that anecdote needed to be fleshed out more.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Kennedy goes more in depth about the life of JFK than most documentaries about him, and has enlisted an impressive roster of experts to discuss Kennedy’s life.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.