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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Robert Kennedy: His Tragedy

January 25, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Sometimes they're adored. Sometimes they're scorned. The Kennedys are always fascinating, though, a remarkable family that has worn its epic problems on the nation's sleeve, a family whose own tragedies are America's tragedies.

Those memories are painfully recalled in "Robert Kennedy and His Times," the seven-hour CBS miniseries premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday (on Channels 2 and 8) and continuing at 8 p.m. Monday and 9 p.m. Tuesday.

It's a heavy load, but ever interesting and in many ways simply first class.

It's a heavy load, but ever interesting and in many ways simply first class.

Based on a biography by family friend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "Robert Kennedy and His Times" is also relentlessly romantic and uncompromisingly and brutally favorable to its subject, demonstrating awkwardness in squaring public image with private reality.

Brad Davis, probably best known for playing Turkish prison escapee Billy Hayes in "Midnight Express," gives a passionate, honest and sometimes commanding performance as Kennedy.

Davis captures the same melancholy and ambivalence--a mix of ambition and vulnerability--that I detected as a green reporter covering the Indiana presidential primary for the Louisville Times in 1968. Kennedy appeared frail and tired from campaigning then. I especially recall his eyes, which seemed sad. Brad Davis brings all that back for me.

The seasons of Kennedy's life here are like rungs on a ladder: the young political neophyte leading to the tough attorney general, leading to the U.S. senator, leading to the presidential candidate cut down by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968.

Given the role of television docudrama as enduring pop history, this CBS vision of Robert Kennedy, brought to the small screen by producers Rick Rosenberg and Robert Christiansen, will be lasting, at least until something even bigger comes along.

Your initial impressions of this miniseries are that Robert Kennedy is too short and Edward Kennedy and Pierre Salinger too tall, that few of the characters resemble their real-life counterparts. But those distractions eventually fade.

The three-hour first segment mostly ticks off familiar footnotes (J.F.K.'s presidency, the seeds of America's Vietnam disaster, civil rights, the Cuban missile crisis and so on) the way pages are ripped from a calendar. They culminate with Bobby Kennedy--his face tensing and eyes appearing ready to explode--learning of his brother's assassination in Dallas.

It's a moving--and terrifying--scene.

A fuller Robert Kennedy emerges in the second two episodes, a man whose public career exemplifies the tenuous coexistence of politics and ideals, a man sometimes immobilized by doubts about his ability to move and charm masses as his older brother had done.

Unfortunately, most of Robert Kennedy's political enemies--Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover, former New York Sen. Kenneth Keating--are reduced here to shallow caricatures. They seem at times to sit on his shoulder for the sole purpose of being swatted away.

The exception is Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Cliff De Young, Veronica Cartwright and Jack Warden do nicely as J.F.K., Ethel Kennedy and Joseph Kennedy Sr., respectively. But it's G.D. Spradlin who steals every scene he is in as Johnson, the Kennedy political foe whose decision under fire not to run for reelection in 1968 boosted Kennedy's candidacy.

The L.B.J./R.F.K. rivalry almost dominates the last two hours in Walon Green's teleplay, a fascinating duel between two strong-willed opposites with clashing mind-sets and visions of America. There is L.B.J. as President, holding forth in his underwear, bristling at Robert Kennedy's popularity, pursing his lips while watching his political rival gain stature amid growing opposition to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Some of Robert Kennedy's dialogue is unnaturally stiff (there he is discussing legislation while cuddling in bed with Ethel).

And TV drama has a way of compressing life into a sort of shorthand. There are some curious omissions here. We hear about President Kennedy's great personal triumph in the missile crisis episode, for example, but not about the great debacle of his botched Bay of Pigs invasion.

Yet director Marvin J. Chomsky crafts many evocative scenes.

What grim irony it is to see John and Robert Kennedy watching Martin Luther King Jr. give his rousing "I have a dream" speech on TV, knowing that in a few years all three men would be murder victims.

Chomsky also occasionally slices in some humor, such as having Robert Kennedy's dog continually irritate J. Edgar Hoover by growling at the FBI chief's feet.

The mood is mostly somber, though, showing a nation of dreams and disappointments, a time of chaos and violence. With sad inevitability, the story presses toward its terrible conclusion in Los Angeles where Kennedy was mortally wounded on the eve of his victory in the California primary.

Democracies can be defined by their leaders. "Robert Kennedy and His Times" pointedly recalls the America of the 1960s and makes you wonder how history might have changed had he lived.

See related story. Page 20.

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