"No matter what happens, the Kennedys will remain in public life," says Brad Davis as Robert F. Kennedy in "Robert Kennedy and His Times." As long as there is one more mini-series to be made about them, yes they will, whether they want to or not. But this seven-hour, three-part CBS film is probably the best made and most sophisticated of all the fictional TV shows yet made about the Kennedys and their era.
It works not because its portrayal of Robert Kennedy is so authentic and complete but because it successfully reconstructs the sensibilities of a decade we will be studying for decades to come. The "His Times" in the title is the '60s and that is the most arresting portrayal in this production.
Airing on Channel 9 Sunday and Monday nights at 8 and Tuesday night at 9, the story really doesn't hit stride until the second installment. In the first part, we get mostly touch football games and early-Camelot stuff. It does move along though; Robert Kennedy meets Ethel Skakel, who would becomes his wife, in the film's very first scene, at brother Jack's congressional campaign office in 1946.
Bobby and Ethel buy Hickory Hill and Ethel becomes perpetually pregnant. John is elected the youngest American president ever and Robert is appointed attorney general, an office he uses to attack corruption in the Teamsters union. JFK has the not-so-bright idea of sending "military advisers" to Vietnam. The film has somewhat the feeling of being the flip side of "The Godfather," with Robert Kennedy the Michael Corleone character. Of course, he is not corrupted by his rise to power but is instead transformed by it.
Part 2, which opens with John Kennedy's funeral, introduces G.D. Spradlin in the role of Lyndon B. Johnson, the King Lear of this neo-Shakespearean saga, and the film picks up momentum. Marvin J. Chomsky ("Holocaust"), the director, suddenly begins to find the story fascinating, and he accelerates tempos and raises temperatures accordingly. One can view it all as a re-creation of history or as a regurgitation of lofty gossip, as when Bobby walks into the Oval Office not long after the funeral to find LBJ packing up his brother's effects so that the new president can move in. "Couldn't you have even waited a day?" Kennedy asks him.
Later Bobby refers to Lyndon as "someone who knows everything about politics and virtually nothing about human beings." And as "a crazy man." When Kennedy starts grabbing headlines with trips to ghettos and South American countries, LBJ complains mournfully to Lady Bird, "He robs me of moments that should be mine." The two men have a bitter confrontation in the White House over LBJ's disastrous Vietnam policy.
Commendably, the portrait is not entirely lopsided in Kennedy's favor. Spradlin shows us the compensating old-politico earnestness in LBJ's character, and when that turns to fatal stubborn folly over Vietnam ("we are winning this war"), he seems not contemptible but pitiable. Scenes between Kennedy and Ned Beatty as J. Edgar Hoover are not treated as contests between good and evil, either; rather, they seem like clashes of two different forms of arrogance. Both Hoover and Johnson are made less the garish caricatures here than they have been in cheaper treatments of the period.
The mini-series is based on Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s friendly-to-Kennedy book, and anyone expecting a debunking will be disappointed. But who wants another debunking at this point? Bad enough we had to endure "Kennedy," the British-made hate letter to America, the Kennedys and the Irish that NBC callously delivered in November 1983. In a way, the ratings for "Robert Kennedy" may be a kind of political barometer reading, since beyond the drawing power of the Kennedy name, the film recalls an era when being a liberal was not considered a scar of shame and when people talked of problems like poverty and ignorance as if they actually could be solved. And solved by government, of all things.
Walon Green's screenplay brings back a passionate, turbulent time. It's a time we should all perhaps relive now and again, just so we remember it happened. It may be especially valuable for the seemingly numb, MTV-narcotized kids of today. They need to be reminded that once there was something to stand for besides oneself. There were aspirations to greater glories than tax reform and tacking crackpot amendments onto the Constitution.
Images from the era are brought back either through the filter of news footage or through the more distorting lens of dramatization, and not every scene is possessed of bracing verisimilitude, to be very kind about it. Most critically, Brad Davis in the RFK role seems squirrelly and prissy, not the tough-gentle Bobby that lives in memory. When first exposed to his version of the Kennedy accent, one may think one is listening to a sissy rabbit.
Cliff De Young is even worse -- unyieldingly ineffectual -- as John Kennedy, pictured here as having little substance, and Veronica Cartwright, as Ethel, never conveys much brass. She's just smilingly there all the time. The only actor who seems to have been cast partly for his phsyical resemblance to a character is Joe Pantoliano, who offers a fittingly sniveling impression of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy's hatchet man. But by far the dominant presence is Spradlin's LBJ, a ferocious triumph.
Some of the period imagery is deftly evocative: Johnson as commander in chief of his three television sets, watching with dismay as his adminstration crumbles before him; Rose Kennedy (Beatrice Straight) looking at slides of John and Robert, her sons, during a Hyannis Port gathering and declaring as any mother would, "Two such fine-looking boys"; and Bobby's brave, eloquent speech in the rain to a crowd of black citizens on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.
On the other hand, Chomsky occasionally pads and meanders, as when he includes far too much of King's "I have a dream" speech. The footage is too familiar to justify such lengthy excerpting, and it is never particularly edifying to watch characters in a movie as they watch television. Chomsky pulls out all the stops, though, and effectively, when he accompanies shots of Robert Kennedy's funeral train making its way to Washington with the old '60s anthem "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" The question being asked, of course, is where have all the '60s gone? Gone to yuppies every one.
No, the mini-series does not represent, nor even attempt to represent, the whole truth. That is unknowable. And those intimately acqainted with the era may find innumerable deviations from the facts as they remember them. "Robert Kennedy" seeks not to explain what made Bobby tick so much as to illustrate what was lost when the ticking stopped. This is only an impression of Robert Kennedy and his times, but it is a strong one.