by David Itzkoff at New York Times on January 17, 2011
A promotional trailer for “The Kennedys,” a multimillion-dollar mini-series prepared for the History channel, suggests it will offer a sweeping inside look at the backrooms and bedrooms of that political clan. There are stylized re-enactments of the life of President John F. Kennedy and his family, and a title card that reads, “Behind the public image lies the story of an American dynasty.”
Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes in “The Kennedys,” scheduled to be shown in 30 countries but not the United States.
But concerns about the accuracy of the story presented in “The Kennedys” led to a decision by History not to show it. That decision seemed like a sudden reversal, but it came after an unsuccessful yearlong effort to bring the mini-series in line with the historical record. That effort raised questions about the boundaries between dramatic license and documented fact, a particularly fraught issue given enduring sensitivities about the Kennedy legacy.
The announcement by History in December 2009 that it was planning to show “The Kennedys” was a major step for it into scripted programming. It came at a time when History, a cable channel owned by A&E Television Networks, was shedding its reputation for musty war documentaries in favor of red-blooded reality shows like “Ax Men” and “Ice Road Truckers.” The move was meant to bring History prestige, as well as to establish a connection to the “Kennedys” producer Joel Surnow, an Emmy Award-winning co-creator of the Fox series “24” and outspoken political conservative.
But on Jan. 7, History announced that it would not broadcast “The Kennedys” after all. It said, “After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Starz, FX and Showtime also passed on the project. “The Kennedys,” produced by Muse Entertainment, a Canadian company, and Asylum Entertainment in the United States, is scheduled to be shown in the coming months in 30 countries, including Canada and Britain. DirecTV, a subscription satellite television service, has expressed interest in showing the mini-series in the United States but said on Monday that it had not yet seen it.
The cryptic statement from History seemed to reflect criticism that dogged the project for months, even before it started production. In February a group of historians organized by a liberal filmmaker, Robert Greenwald, issued a condemnation based on early drafts of scripts obtained by Mr. Greenwald. These historians said the scripts contained factual errors, fabrications and more than a dash of salacious innuendo. Among the critics was Theodore C. Sorensen, the longtime adviser and speechwriter to President Kennedy. (Mr. Sorensen died in October.)
When those denunciations surfaced, History said that the scripts were incomplete and that the final drafts would be rigorously reviewed for accuracy. With the mini-series under a microscope, its producers turned to two other historians, Steven M. Gillon and Robert Dallek, to help restore its credibility.
The two brought estimable credentials to the table. Mr. Dallek, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written books on the modern presidency, including the biography “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.” And Mr. Gillon, whose books include “The Kennedy Assassination — 24 Hours After” and who serves as the resident historian of the History channel, had taught John F. Kennedy Jr. at Brown University.
No one who worked on the mini-series or reviewed its contents would describe them for attribution. These people either did not want to jeopardize business with History or its parent companies, or to make known their relationship with “The Kennedys” or History’s advisory board. This account is based on conversations with two people involved in reviewing the content of the mini-series and a person familiar with that process; a person on the History advisory board; and a person with direct knowledge of the board’s discussions.
During the winter and spring, Mr. Gillon and Mr. Dallek reviewed screenplays for “The Kennedys” and were concerned with what they read, according to three people with direct knowledge of the review process. These people said there were problematic scenes unsupported by facts, including depictions of the Kennedys’ sexual proclivities.
Some disputed material was altered or taken out. A scene in which Joseph P. Kennedy asks the Chicago mobster Sam Giancana to help throw the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy was updated to add Frank Sinatra as a mediator between Kennedy senior and Giancana.
Not all of Mr. Gillon and Mr. Dallek’s recommendations were taken, but with the clock ticking and the magnitude of the project bearing down on them, the two historians agreed that the scripts met a minimum standard for the production to move forward, according to the people with direct knowledge of the process.
“The Kennedys” was filmed in Toronto from June to September with a cast featuring Greg Kinnear as President Kennedy and Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy. But when edited episodes were presented to the consulting historians in late 2010, they were surprised by what they saw.
Three people who have viewed “The Kennedys” say the filmed episodes still have scenes of questionable factuality. In an episode set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, Jacqueline Kennedy gathers her children and tells President Kennedy she can’t tolerate his behavior and is leaving the White House.
Richard Reeves, a journalist whose books include “President Kennedy: Profile of Power,” said those events most likely never occurred. “It was just the opposite,” he said: the first lady remained with the president during the standoff at his request.
The three viewers said the mini-series also portrayed a sexual relationship between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, which Mr. Reeves dismissed. “There are a thousand books on Kennedy,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s a debate about it among serious historians.”
Mr. Reeves said there was a factual basis for scenes that showed the president and his wife taking pills, prescribed and not, for a variety of ailments.
Mr. Dallek said that in contrast to recent presidencies that had “a desultory quality” and “demoralized” the country, President Kennedy’s was still remembered by many for its optimism and Kennedy’s inspirational speeches.
“These are the kinds of things that give people the feeling that, ‘If only Kennedy was still president,’ ” Mr. Dallek said.
The genre of biographical films has all but trained audiences to expect a certain amount of fictionalization with their facts, said Gary Lico, the chief executive of CableU, a research firm that tracks cable television.
“I don’t think it’s unique to television; talk to me about ‘The Social Network,’ ” Mr. Lico said, referring to David Fincher’s hit film, a fictionalized account of the creation of Facebook.
David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment, said last week that though his network passed on “The Kennedys,” he felt the mini-series “was well-acted, well-made, very watchable.” He said, “I don’t know what the big deal is,” adding that it looked as if it could “play at a lot of places” on American TV.
Whether or not the factual liberties taken by “The Kennedys” are typical of biographical films, the mini-series presented a particular challenge for History, given the show’s venerated subjects and the channel’s reputation for fact-based entertainment.
“One of the tenets of the History channel for years,” Mr. Lico said, “whether it’s been ‘Ice Road Truckers’ or ‘America: The Story of Us,’ has been, tell us something we don’t know about something we think we know.”
After watching “The Kennedys,” Mr. Dallek and Mr. Gillon continued to make their concerns known to History executives. Mr. Dallek, who was compensated for consulting on “The Kennedys” and had an option to be paid for publicly endorsing it, chose not to exercise that option.
If the Kennedy family were to be displeased with the mini-series, it would have the leverage and connections to make this known to History and its governing board, which is made up of executives from NBC Universal, the Disney/ABC Television Group and the Hearst Corporation, A&E’s parent companies. Caroline Kennedy writes books for Hyperion, the publishing imprint of the Disney/ABC Television Group; and Anne Sweeney, president of that television group and a History board member, is a friend of Maria Shriver’s.
But people familiar with the discussions of the History board say that when it convened at the end of 2010, its unease about the accuracy of “The Kennedys” was more than sufficient to turn it against the project.
Neither Mr. Dallek nor Mr. Gillon felt the mini-series met History’s standards. The board was also said to be strongly influenced by memos from the historians detailing remaining factual inaccuracies and errors, a board member said. When the final votes were tallied, “The Kennedys” had lost its United States broadcaster.
Michael Prupas, president and chief executive of Muse Entertainment, said the mini-series was “based on the truth, and if anything is a positive, very positive presentation of the Kennedy family.” In a joint statement with Muse, Asylum Entertainment said it was proud of the “painstaking efforts that went into creating a drama that is compelling while rich in historic detail.”
Whatever happens with “The Kennedys,” Mr. Reeves offered a prediction about America’s fascination with that family:
“People thought it would end with a certain generation, and it won’t end because they are cultural figures. The Kennedys are never going away.”