Mediating the Past: JFK and the Docudrama
JFK has consistently been polled as the most popular past president of the United States. There are perhaps many reasons for this, and I am sure the mythic Camelot discourse that surrounded his presidency and his tragic death play a part in JFK’s continued popularity. However, Kennedy’s political career also coincided with the rise of television broadcasting, and his administration was one of the first to exploit television and mass media to promote JFK, his family, and his policies to the public. JFK is significant to the mediation of history in many ways, and the least of which is the fact that his presidency occurred in a modern era, and recordings of his speeches, or Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous televised tour of the White House, or even his death as documented in the Zapruder film, have become important stock footage that not only convey meaning about the Kennedy family or his presidency, but can also represent the turmoil and loss of innocence many associate with 1960s America. The recreation of this stock footage is one of the elements often used in scripted docudramas about the Kennedy clan, which encourages viewers to make sense of televisual recreations of the past as “authentic” cultural memory, and provide those of us who were not alive at the time an engagement with our collective national history. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, this post considers how fictional depictions of Kennedy represent history and engage cultural memory.
In the history of broadcast television in the United States, there have been no less than eight fictional historical mini-series and made-for-TV movies about the Kennedy family.Those that have focused on JFK specifically include ABC’s 1974 made-for-TV movie Missiles of October, which told the story of the Kennedy Administration’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and based. There is also NBC’s 1983 Kennedy, which is a five-part mini-series depicting JFK’s presidency, and notably starred Martin Sheen as the ill-fated president. ABC showed the three-part miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts in 1990, which primarily focuses on the early history of the family, beginning with Joseph Kennedy’s courtship of Rose Fitzgerald and ending with JFK’s inauguration speech. One of my personal favorites is ABC’s 1993 miniseries JFK: Reckless Youth, which starred Patrick Dempsey as John F. Kennedy, and chronicled JFK’s youth through to his first congressional election. These representations, for the most part, reinforce JFK’s public persona as a cold war warrior, and are emblematic of a 1960s brand of New Frontiersman masculinity, typified by his reputation as a brilliant scholar and athlete at an Ivy League university, and membership within groups mainly exclusive to men, including boarding schools, fraternities, the military, clubs, and government. And yet, also personalized by his unique Boston accent, and Irish Catholic ethnicity.
In January, 2011, The History Channel announced that it would not be airing its mini-series The Kennedys for U.S. audiences. THC picked up The Kennedys project in December, 2009, and it starred Greg Kinnear as JFK, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy, and was produced by 24 creator Joel Surnow. It was part of the network’s greater push from Executive Vice President and General Manager Nancy Dubuc to expand into glossy, cinematic fare, and The Kennedys was slated to be THC’s first scripted original docudrama program. As you may know, THC decided to drop The Kennedys after a series of protests online at Stop Kennedy Smears, although it still aired on THC’s global network in the UK, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Looking at the objections protestors had about The Kennedys, which were based on leaked copies of the miniseries script, it is clear the JFK’s masculinity is at the forefront of concerns. Protestors comments that this miniseries demeans JFK’s legacy by making him out to be emotionally and physically weak, portraying him as a man with a crippling back injury, as well as a sex addict and a drug addict. This public outcry illuminates how The Kennedys was interpreted as a challenge to JFK’s mythic New Frontiersman masculinity.
The infamous 2011 The Kennedys mini-series is a bit heavy handed in its re-telling of John F. Kennedy’s story. The Kennedys begins its program with an emphasis on JFK’s back pain, and throughout the series is aggressive in its characterization of Jack Kennedy as an incapacitated leader during his presidency. This is compounded as he is treated in secret for his back pain with shots of methamphetamine, and when he isn’t grimacing in pain, or getting doped up on meth, he is usually overshadowed by a father he cannot stand up to or lying to Jackie about his infidelities. And while some of these aspects may be backed up by historical evidence, it is a portrayal US audiences are not accustomed to seeing, and which did not resonant with some viewers’ conception of who JFK was. What this does demonstrate is the role of audiences in historical meaning making through television, as well as the contested nature of historical television and collective memory.
National Geographic’s Killing Kennedy is the most recent JFK historical docudrama to air on television in the United States. In the As you know, it is not the first televisual account of JFK’s life, however it is the first to be based on a book written by Bill O’Reilly, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Rob Lowe in the titular role as Kennedy. His Kennedy accent alone is worth the watch. This miniseries is perhaps different from its predecessors in the way it parallels the story of JFK and Jackie along side Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife Marina. In this sense, it is an attempt to reassert the official narrative about JFK’s assassination by a lone gunman on the grassy knoll, and attempts to explain Oswald’s motivations for killing the president. O’Reilly’s book is reportedly full of factual inaccuracies, and this straightforward story about the assassination challenges the conspiracy theories still circulating about JFK’s death. Nevertheless, Killing Kennedy drew 3.4 M viewers to National Geographic when it aired on Sunday, November 10th, which is a viewership record for National Geographic. More importantly, both the production investments in big name producers, stars, and a Hollywood director, as well as the popularity of Killing Kennedy, demonstrate the continued fascination with retelling JFK’s story through televisual docudrama.