"Hoover vs. the Kennedys," the syndicated TV movie airing tonight and next Tuesday night at 8 on KCOP Channel 13, carries a hyperbolic subtitle--"The Second Civil War." Here's another possibility that's just as silly but a lot more descriptive: "People on the Phone."
During these four long hours we see J. Edgar Hoover on the phone to his FBI agents, Martin Luther King on the phone to his associates, John F. Kennedy on the phone to his father, and Robert Kennedy on the phone to just about everyone but Pizza Man.
Exciting television this isn't. Nor is it convincing history. Though Lionel E. Siegel's script is "freely adapted from" two books about the early-'60s conflicts between the FBI director and the Kennedy brothers (especially Robert, who was attorney general), it seems like a crude patchwork of material both from the record and from the gossip sheets.
Do we really know--as this program depicts--what J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe said to each other when (and if) they were lounging pool-side? And did he really say "I'm just a whisky smuggler's son" to Judith Campbell (yes, she pops up here, too) when they were alone in a New York hotel?
Ah ha, you're starting to think--good trash! Not really. "Hoover vs. the Kennedys" has enough moments of unintentional humor to rate five Hefty Bags on a good-trash scale of 10, but its hodgepodge of discussions about civil rights and bugging and sexual peccadilloes are ultimately made confusing and dull. The tawdriest thing about the show is its look--the direction, lighting and camera-work are indifferently handled.
Beyond the competent contributions of a couple of veteran character actors--Jack Warden as Hoover (painted pure buffoon/villain here; even his attempts at dieting seem slightly sinister) and Barry Morse as Joseph Kennedy--some of the acting is phoned in, too, or lands way off the mark. Worst of all is LeLand Gantt as King. It's as if the actor rehearsed for "The Eddie Murphy Story" and had the role switched on him at the last moment.
The show continually pivots upon the character of Robert Kennedy, who's portrayed as little more than a walking short-fuse. Nicholas Campbell seems one-dimensional in the part, but that's probably more the fault of a script that has Kennedy reacting to almost every person and bit of news (and every phone call, of course) the same, frustrated way.
A shame, because the real story here is a fascinating one about momentous occurences and complex personalities. This version gives little sense of such qualities. It's like a semi-amateur play where half the characters are represented by those cardboard stand-ups of famous people that sidewalk photographers use. Only these have cardboard phones continually clutched in their cardboard hands.