"Hoover vs. The Kennedys: The Second Civil War" makes Camelot look a lot worse than Knots Landing. A two-part, four-hour syndicated movie airing at 8 tonight and tomorrow night on Channel 5, the film serves as a video clearinghouse for moldering rumors about the Kennedy years.
Poorly acted by a second-rate cast, this lurid exercise in historical gossip plays like tabloid Shakespeare, a tale of rulers and potentates and behind-the-throne skulduggeries. Numerous dubious sources are cited in the closing credits, with the disclaimer that the script was "freely adapted" from them.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played stonily by Jack Warden, ranks as the villain of the piece -- a cold, manipulative, self-aggrandizing racist. But President John F. Kennedy, ridiculously interpreted by Robert Pine (looking more like a bad Reagan impersonator), comes off as a hedonistic lightweight more interested in sexual conquests than the judgments of history.
In a scene set at the home of Bing Crosby (not portrayed), JFK nuzzles with Marilyn Monroe (Heather Thomas). He is earlier seen shacked up in a New York hotel with Judith Campbell. The existence of Jacqueline Kennedy is a mere whisper in the president's life.
But Robert Kennedy, played by sleepy-eyed Nicholas Campbell (who does look like Bobby in long shots), is tireless and diligent in his push for civil rights legislation and a crackdown on organized crime. The script, by Lionel E. Siegel, subscribes to the theory of a link between Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and the Mafia. It contends the Kennedy assassination may have been reprisal for Bobby's pursuit of mobsters.
If such theories are a dime a dozen now, even allowing for inflation, so, perhaps, are dramatizations of them, and of the Kennedy epoch in general. Operation Prime Time, which is distributing "Hoover vs. The Kennedys," mined the lode previously with "Blood Feud," the story of Robert Kennedy's conflicts with Jimmy Hoffa.
Contemporary Washington is such a lively, eventful novel-in-progress right now that "Hoover vs. The Kennedys" seems particularly marginal. And Michael O'Herlihy, the director, fails to build any narrative momentum from Siegel's grab bag of modular scenes. This is less a film than a procession of confrontations.
Hoover, depicted as an ultimate bureaucrat and consummate louse, tells one associate, "There is no such thing as organized crime." He tells another, "Brains ain't the coloreds' strong suit." Of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hoover insisted was conspiring with Communists, he declares, "I want this moral degenerate destroyed."
Bobby Kennedy is called "that little punk," "that little SOB," and Jack's "snot-nosed kid brother." However, very early in the film, Hoover lauds Richard Nixon as "a man of solid moral values."
King is played by Leland Gantt, who doesn't have the stature for the part, but how many actors do? In an attempt to spread some of its besmirching around, the film includes a scene in which Coretta Scott King pleads with her husband to keep some of the money that went with the Nobel Peace Prize and not donate it all to the civil rights movement.
Crudely enough, the producers interpolate actual news footage of JFK's funeral and the journey of the train that carried Robert Kennedy's body to Washington. Shots of the train are accompanied by a recording of brother Ted Kennedy delivering his memorable eulogy to Robert. Such a heartfelt moment should not end up as the punch line for a sleazy pageant like this.
As another sign of insensitivity, blacks are referred to throughout the film, too many times to count, as "Negroes" or "the Negroes." Even if common in the early '60s, the usage seems gratuitously excessive now.
A few times during the long, repetitious film there are intrusively human touches. These involve Kennedy family lore and are signaled by a hauntingly pretty synthesizer rendition of the old Irish tune "The Minstrel Boy" on the sound track. Some sentimentality about the Kennedy years survives; in this context, it's fresh air.