RFK, Sunday, August 25, 8 P.M., Channel FX
t must be said at once that this is an uncommonly stupid movie. The acting is stilted, the characterization flat, the plot bathetic melodrama, the aggregate value of the historical insights nil. The animating idea that the assassination of President Kennedy, in November 1963, wrought a series of changes in his brother Bobby that continued until the very hour of RFK's own death in June 1968 is unoriginal; and the device used to illuminate the singular metamorphosis Bobby's progress from preppie creep to passionate idealist is, well, silly.
The dramatic mechanism by which Bobby's transformation is explained takes the form of series of conversations between the young hero (played by Linus Roache) and the ghost of his assassinated brother (Martin Donovan). The makers of RFK unwisely departed from the available precedents for this sort of thing. The compressed colloquy between Brutus and the ghost of Caesar ("Thy evil spirit, Brutus") in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is a model of demonic conversation for the stage or the screen: "'Tis brief, my lord as woman's love." The ghost of Hamlet Sr. is almost as laconic. But the garrulous demon-spirit in RFK has been constructed rather on the model of Polonius: his language is as trite as it is ponderous. "It's not about me any more," the ghostly JFK tells Bobby at one point in the movie. "It's always been about you," the younger brother whines in reply. The creators of RFK seem to have overlooked Benjamin C. Bradlee's book, Conversations with Kennedy, which contains more accurate specimens of the play of the late president's private wit.
How did the makers of this movie accomplished, intelligent, talented people manage to produce so disfigured a drama? It is tempting to ascribe the movie's failings to the political whimsies of the entertainment world, those bien-pensant orthodoxies which so many Hollywood productions faithfully reproduce. Certainly RFK is a recitation of political pieties fashionable, I suppose, in places like Malibu, California; but it takes something more than politics to make a film this dreadful. Besides, the makers of RFK, although they dutifully chant the progressive mantras, are decidedly unenthusiastic in their devotions. The film has not the courage of its professed convictions. The American effort to protect the free régime in South Vietnam from the tyranny of Hanoi is, predictably enough, shown in the movie to be bad; but the makers of RFK are too indifferent to the history of the period to explain why modern progressives believe that America's actions in Vietnam were bad.
Oliver Stone, say what you will about him, took pains, in his movies, to lay out what he believed to be the historical basis for his beliefs, the evils of big business, the growth of the military-industrial complex, the rise of America as an imperial war state, the ongoing corruption of the country's political life. Dismiss his history, if you like, as shallow and contemptible, the unappetizing daubery of a Sixties' recusant; but it is impossible to deny that he aimed, in such a movie as JFK, at an historical treatment of the events with which he dealt. RFK, by contrast, exists in a kind of parallel made-for-television universe, one from which history has, through some sweet oblivious antidote, been banished.
When, in the movie, Bobby is shown traveling to Bedford-Stuyvesant in order to come to terms with the failure of welfare-state poverty programs there, my heart leapt up. Surely the movie will now have to explain why Kennedy went to Bedford-Stuyvesant; surely it will have to describe his growing dissatisfaction with the approach to urban renewal favored by the architects of the Great Society. But although Kennedy is made, in the movie, to talk about the necessity of enlisting private enterprise in the effort to rebuild degenerate neighborhoods, the grander questions which he asked questions about the usefulness of government action and the evils of the dole are never broached.
The thinness of the movie's moral and historical content is all the more surprising when one sees Richard Goodwin's name among the credits. Mr. Goodwin served as the "executive consultant" to RFK; but other than the fact that the actor playing Richard Goodwin in the film (David Paymer) has a disproportionately large role in it, there is in RFK not a trace of Mr. Goodwin's intelligence. Mr. Goodwin is it is not to be denied a smart fellow, a graduate of the Harvard Law School even, one who carried away from that institution its highest prizes and honors. He served as a law clerk to Mr. Justice Frankfurter, as a counselor to President Kennedy, as troubadour-in-chief to President Johnson, for whom he composed the rhapsodic cantos of the "Great Society" speech, first recited by LBJ at Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 22, 1964. What could have induced Mr. Goodwin to attach his name to such wretched hackney work as this?
Either Mr. Goodwin's advice was not taken by the makers of RFK or he himself has grown lazy and dull in his dotage. Mr. Goodwin composed memorable political poetry for Lyndon Johnson, for Robert Kennedy, for Eugene McCarthy; but RFK is equally destitute of imaginative finesse and technical prowess. There is no intimation, here, of Goodwinian genius, only hints of Goodwinian pique. The movie is, in part, about the Bright Young Men who surrounded Robert Kennedy in the 1960s; Adam Walinksy and Mr. Goodwin himself are among those depicted. But where are the Bright Old Men? Where is Arthur Schlesinger? No Kennedy courtier committed more elegant English prose than Arthur; and no Kennedy clerk penned a more consummate Kennedy life than Robert Kennedy and His Times, a masterpiece of modern biographical writing. The rival wordsmith, however, was written out of this picture. Could it be that Mr. Goodwin was more eager, in RFK, to settle old scores than to portray the hero of the piece in an original way? Perhaps; and yet even a film in thrall to the petty vanity of speechwriters most films, after all, are in thrall to someone's petty vanity will not necessarily be a bad film.
RFK is an extraordinarily poor specimen of an historical drama; but I am not sure whether it would have been a very much better movie even if more intelligence and imagination had gone into its making. The movie's essential stupidity is something deeper than the carelessness of it makers, the unsatisfied ambitions of its consultant, the quaintness of its politics. Its fundamental premise is unsustainable; as soon doubt that stars are fire as try to make convincing historical drama out of the lives of people who have won fame in the television age.
To produce a persuasive drama about Julius Caesar, or Oliver Cromwell, or Frederick the Great may be a difficult task, but it is not an impossible one. No person now living knows how any of these men really looked, spoke, walked about a room, or cracked a joke. With Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson or some other hero of that vintage the task is more arduous, but not altogether beyond the powers of a spirited artist. Photographs and grainy movie footage give us some idea of how men like Wilson and Roosevelt looked and spoke; but the evidence is highly imperfect, and there is not all that much of it.
Unlike the famous figures of the past, the descendants of Joseph P. Kennedy present the makers of docudramas with insurmountable obstacles. The Kennedy progeny are among the most photographed, televised, newsreel-pictured people who have ever lived; and they are, moreover, celebrated precisely for the way in which they have displayed themselves in photographs, newsreels, and before the television cameras. Their highly idiosyncratic method of performance art is often called the Kennedy style, and though it has, over the years, been faulted and sometimes ridiculed, it was, for a time, impressive enough to seduce even men and women who long before had pledged themselves to observe the precept of Horace, nil admirari marvel at nothing.
No living actors can possibly compete with this greatest of family troupes since the Booths; even those historical prodigies of dramatic art, Garrick or Mrs. Siddons, would doubtless have hesitated to pick up the gauntlet which the Kennedys have thrown down. Beside the Hyannisport Players, the Kembles, Lunts, the Barrymores, and the Fairbankses are merely amateurs. And yet every so often the aspiring docudramatist deceives himself into believing that he can, with a hair dryer and a plastering art, turn some handsome young man into a plausible imitation of the late president or one of his brothers.
Inevitably the docudramatist runs up against the accent. Linus Roache, the actor who plays Bobby in RFK, is described in the publicity materials as a "British stage and screen actor." Mr. Roache's effort to master the inflections of the Kennedys is, to say the least, awkward. In his zeal he salts the familiar intonations of Lace-Curtain Boston and Harvard College with what I took to be the savor of a southern drawl; perhaps RFK's three years at Virginia Law School left some faint stain upon his speech which only Mr. Roache has so far had the wit to detect. Once or twice I seemed to hear, in Mr. Roache's linguistic labors, the music of Australia or New Zealand; perhaps to a Briton bred up in the mother tongue all the colonial accents sound equally, and indistinguishably, odd.
Hamlet, in his capacity as impresario in Shakespeare's play, warns his own players against trying to "out-herod Herod." All the strutting and bellowing in the world will not enable an actor to out-Kennedy a Kennedy. There is, in docudramas such as RFK, a continual tension between the actor's natural propensities and his desire to imitate the manner of the historical character whose part he is playing. This tension is at first distracting to the viewer; it eventually becomes embarrassing to him as he watches character dissolve into caricature. All of the actor's energy is devoted to the maintenance of a conceit too transparent to deceive even for a moment the viewer's instinct to disbelieve; at the same time the viewer is constantly contrasting the actor's performance with his own memory of the historical personage in question. The straining work of emulation exhausts the actor even as the labor of comparison wears down the viewer.
A scrupulous effort at fidelity to the address and carriage of a television-age hero is bound to produce dismal results even where, in contrast to RFK, a rich intelligence has been woven into the fabric of the work. The makers of future docudramas, if they would avoid such a wreck as RFK, ought frankly to confess the impracticability of striving for realism in their productions. As Hamlet to his players, so the critic to the docudramatist: "O! reform it altogether." Abandon the tedious work of imitating diction and mannerism; prefer instead those stylized forms which, because they are avowedly unrealistic, serve to liberate writers and actors from the cartoonish activity of the copy -cat, and leave them free to probe with words the intricacies of character.
A translation of John or Robert Kennedy's thoughts and words into blank verse? The idea is not preposterous. The labor might prove to be a really useful one, an exercise productive of insights into aspiration and motivation far above the powers of this poor piece.
Michael Knox Beran is author of The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.