Tom Shales Reviews HBO's Kennedy Biopic 'Teddy: In His Own Words'

HBO's "Teddy" chronicles the life and career of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, in his own words. The documentary debuts July 13 at 9 p.m. EST. Video courtesy of HBO
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

The neatest trick of the week would be to make a film about the life of Edward M. Kennedy that wasn't compelling. The man has lived the equivalent of a hyper-dramatic autobiographical novel, a story to give one's emotions a workout and a continuing saga that involves the great issues -- and one of the major political dynasties -- of the 20th century.

Even considering the intrinsic richness of the material, HBO producers have done a particularly laudable job with "Teddy: In His Own Words," a 90-minute film (premiering tonight) that follows the format of previous, similarly titled documentaries on other notable nabobs. The only narrator heard is Kennedy himself; he recalls his highs and lows as filmed moments of his life unreel -- some familiar, some rarely or never seen.

The film covers Teddy's life up to the present, including his fight against a brain tumor discovered last year. Attempting to speak in tribute to his longtime colleague on the Senate floor, Robert Byrd breaks down weeping at his desk. Kennedy's own words at the 2008 Democratic convention sound inescapably prophetic: "The torch will be passed again," he said. And reworking a famous quotation of his own, he declared: "The work begins anew, the hope rises again, and the dream lives on."

It was at the 1980 convention, his voice seeming to tremble, that Kennedy withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination with the benediction, "The work goes on, the cause continues, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die." The reference to passing a torch echoes a line from his brother John's inaugural address: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage . . ."

Produced by Peter Kunhardt and Sheila Nevins, "Teddy" is far more a tribute than a blistering warts-and-all portrait of Kennedy -- who in his majestic mane of white now resembles Claude Rains in the role of a venerated senior senator in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But the film doesn't duck the scandals of his public life. The most notorious, of course, is the automobile accident that took the life of secretary Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969; Kennedy, who had been driving the car, disappeared for eight hours before notifying local police. He later pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, but troubling questions remain to this day.

In addition, the film covers the litany of tragedies that is part of Kennedy family mythology -- the early deaths of brother Joe and sister Kathleen, the assassinations of brothers John and Robert, and other tribulations. The dark legacy led Barbara Walters to ask Kennedy on the "Today" show in 1970, "Is the prize worth the pain?" There were also tabloid headlines related to first wife Joan's "battle with alcoholism," as it became known.

"I recognize my own shortcomings," Kennedy says in a sound bite from 1991, describing himself as "basically a hopeful and optimistic person" despite the many setbacks.

Among the less familiar moments recalled are then-President Richard M. Nixon's efforts to "get" Teddy with a smear and thereby cripple him politically. On audiotapes from the Oval Office, Nixon advocates "a lot more use of wiretapping" as a political weapon, and when he hears a rumor that Arthur Bremer, charged with the 1972 assassination attempt on segregationist George Wallace, was a Kennedy supporter, Nixon tells underlings to "put that out" -- to get the rumor into heavy rotation.

There's a wealth of great historical footage and of priceless Kennedy home movies in the report, including shots of a heavily freckled Teddy as a privileged, adorable little boy, cutting the ribbon that opened a new London zoo when daddy Joe was ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Later, Teddy is a prominent part of a striking, dashing trio: John, Robert and Edward, those overachieving Kennedy boys who were apparently never unaware of what was expected of them.

"My brothers really thought that politics was an honorable profession," Kennedy recalls. Many of the moments evoked now seem like pungent or poignant signs of the times, as when Kennedy, asked by NBC newsman Frank McGee to describe his political stance, says casually, "Well, I certainly consider myself a liberal." The word "liberal" hadn't yet been demonized by some; few politicians would make that statement today.

"Teddy" is both an intimate portrait and a resonant historical pageant, a march through time that even contains a narrative "arc" -- as it's called in Hollywood filmmaking -- for the hero. He goes from being probably the most underestimated of the Kennedy boys to becoming the rowdy avatar of old-style politics and a passionate fighter for such causes as the Equal Rights Amendment and the civil rights struggle. He was also at the forefront of battles to keep Robert Bork from becoming a Supreme Court justice; to limit warmaking in the Persian Gulf; and, in a rousing 2008 tour de force at the American University, to make Barack Obama the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.

That last ebullient speech showed Kennedy at his most infectious, relishing the moment and the role. He's a character as rich and colorful as any of the fictitious politicians dreamed up by novelists for potboilers. A viewer well might wish for more unfettered candor on Kennedy's part in the film, but we can appreciate that he's not about to sully or diminish the myth.

"Now are you glad to see Old Kennedy?" he playfully taunts a crowd at a late-'90s appearance. "Are you glad to see me?" He knows they are, he knows what an icon of icons he has become, and he seems to be enjoying the role as much as his audience does.

Teddy: In His Own Words (90 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on HBO.

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