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Politics and perception play roles in moving 'The Kennedys'

History network declines to air miniseries, which will air on little-known ReelzChannel.

April 01, 2011|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes is Jacqueline Kennedy in "The Kennedys."
Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes is Jacqueline Kennedy… (ReelzChannel, ReelzChannel )

The night before he started filming "The Kennedys" last summer in Toronto, Greg Kinnear got his first inkling that the project might be headed for trouble.

Kinnear, tapped to play John F. Kennedy in the sprawling miniseries about America's premier political dynasty, was told that some of the family's high-profile defenders were pressuring the network over a show they were convinced would be a hatchet job.

"I didn't ask a lot of questions about it," Kinnear said recently, referring to his dinner that night with Nancy Dubuc, president of the cable network History, "because I had bigger problems on my hands, which was how the hell was I gonna play Jack Kennedy."

But the controversy soon became a big problem indeed for "The Kennedys." In January, History decided to yank the $30-million miniseries off its schedule, saying it was "not a fit" for the network's brand, and slogged through an embarrassing and heavily publicized quest over the next few weeks to find a new home for the project. Media accounts suggested that the family itself had tried to quash the project, although no family member has publicly admitted to having done so.

On Sunday, "The Kennedys" will finally premiere in the U.S. on ReelzChannel, a little-known, family-owned independent cable network that's hoping the miniseries can instantly vault it into the big leagues of outlets offering splashy original programming.

Viewers will be able to judge for themselves the show's quality. But History's shedding of the project has already taken a toll. The channel will likely lose a substantial portion of its $15-million investment (the rest came from producing partners). The controversy has reignited an old debate about the importance of accuracy in historical fiction.

"A lot's wrong," said Cari Beauchamp, a historian and author of "Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years," who watched the entire eight-hour miniseries at The Times' request. "They missed an incredible opportunity because what really happened I think frankly was much more dramatic."

Meanwhile, because History has had little to say about the history of its own decision-making in this case, ordinary viewers are left wondering about the slippery politics behind TV programming moves — just as they were in 2003, when CBS bumped "The Reagans" movie to its sister network Showtime after complaints from conservatives.

Joel Surnow, an outspoken conservative who was the creator of Fox's "24" and who executive produced "The Kennedys," views political cowardice as the hand guiding History's move.

"I truly believe that this project would have seen the light of day on History Channel if the exact same film had been produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg," Surnow said recently. Hanks and Spielberg have been connected with liberal causes.

"It always felt from the very, very beginning of the project that at one point my known politics as a conservative might be a problem," Surnow added. "I'd always assumed the Kennedy family might have an objection to their family story being told by somebody that they perceive to be not friendly to them."

But he said: "I've never had any political agenda" in producing the film, which he intended as a family drama.

History and the producers could be forgiven if at first they imagined the challenge behind the project would be not too much controversy but rather too little. The tale behind the Kennedy family's rise to wealth and the White House has been told many times in dramatized TV versions. Or rather, pieces of the tale have been told: Martin Sheen played President Kennedy in a 1983 NBC miniseries. Robert F. Kennedy (played by Barry Pepper in "The Kennedys") was the subject of a 1985 miniseries and a 2002 made-for-TV movie. And the domestic side was covered with "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot," a 2001 TV movie about the Kennedy brothers' wives.

None of those projects attracted particularly fierce attacks from family defenders, even though each contained a long list of historical goofs and anachronisms faithfully cataloged on TV websites.

But "The Kennedys" was the first TV project to tell the story using patriarch Joseph Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson) as the centerpiece. And it was, perhaps more important, the first to count a Hollywood right-winger, Surnow, among its producers, as well as the first to premiere in an age of Twitter and other social media, when controversies can escalate in minutes compared with weeks or months as in the past.

Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who obtained early drafts of scripts for "The Kennedys," attacked the project in the New York Times and on a website, http://www.stopkennedysmears.com. Historians who the producers say had signed off on the factual accuracy of the teleplay later withdrew their support (one of the historians who consulted on the project, noted presidential biographer Robert Dallek, did not respond to a request for comment).

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