Friday, May 29, 2015

JFK and RFK: A few movies about their lives

The Kennedy brothers are among the most fascinating people in American history. When I say this, I'm not talking about Ted Kennedy (the Democratic Senator), or eldest brother Joe Kennedy, Jr. (who was killed in World War II); but rather, JFK and RFK. I'm not a big fan of Teddy Kennedy, as he represented everything that's wrong with today's Democrats; but the Kennedy president and his brother Robert (who served as attorney general) were actually quite good.

(from left ro right)
Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy

Joe Kennedy, Jr.

JFK has the distinction of being the last good Democrat president. With the chain of incompetents the Democrats have produced since these times, it's hard to fathom that there was once actual competence in the Democratic Party; but in these days, they had FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. FDR was incompetent on economic policy, but compensated for it in his handling of World War II; and Truman and Kennedy were great on both foreign and domestic policy. I won't spend too much time evaluating the Kennedy presidency, as this blog post is about the different Kennedy media; but suffice it to say here he was good.

Movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis

The first things I'll mention are two full-length movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis. (For those unfamiliar with what this is, I'll briefly say that this was the moment in history when the world came closest to nuclear war.) This was the greatest event of the Kennedy presidency by far, and these movies both depict it in great detail. I will not describe either one extensively here, as I have already done so in another blog post, where I compare the two movies to each other. Each one has strengths the other does not, and each one is quite impressive in its own right. Viewers interested in learning more about it are advised to consult this other blog post. I will spend the rest of this blog post talking about documentaries.

Documentary about Bobby Kennedy

First of all, there is PBS's documentary about Bobby Kennedy, which is two hours long. Bobby Kennedy served as his brother's attorney general, and he was an important figure in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the unrelated battle over civil rights. I'm sure it was his role in the civil rights movements of the sixties that interested filmmaker David Grubin and the other liberals at PBS; but they do not ignore other aspects of his life, focusing on both his important role in his brother's administration, and his presidential candidacy in 1968. I think he was the best presidential candidate in '68; as he was better than Richard Nixon, and far better than LBJ. It's quite possible he would have won in '68, but for an assassin's bullet that took his life. Like his brother, he died quite young, and was robbed of the opportunity to prove himself in a more extensive political career. Suffice it to say here that this documentary covers his life very well, and is recommended to those interested in him.

Documentaries about John F. Kennedy

The other two documentaries I will mention here are both about JFK, the one who actually became president. One of them is a two-hour History Channel one, and the other is a four-hour PBS one. The History Channel one is a good one; and for some time, the only one I knew about. (The PBS one only came out more recently, near the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.) But the PBS one is by far the better of the two, as it is more extensive and generally better-made. History Channel documentaries are often a bit on the sensationalistic side, and this one is no exception. The PBS one, by contrast, is more dramatic; which is something that makes the PBS one more compelling.

JFK's early life through the elections of 1960

The area where the PBS one especially stands out is in its treatment of Kennedy's pre-presidency life; as the History Channel one virtually ignores it. The History Channel one focuses entirely on Kennedy's presidency, and advertises this in its title ("JFK: A Presidency Revealed"). But the PBS one dedicates a full two hours to Kennedy's pre-presidency life; including an hour or so about the election of 1960. This was a groundbreaking election in several ways; the most important of which were that Kennedy was the first Catholic president, and that there were televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon. It's widely known that JFK was well-suited to the television medium, possessing both good looks and boyish charm that were lacked by Nixon; and he was made-up for the cameras to look good on television. Nixon, by contrast, refused to wear makeup; and showed up with a strong five o'clock shadow that was highly visible on the era's black-and-white television screens. Nixon was one of those men whose facial hair grows very fast, and thus had something of a beard that night; which didn't help his case. He learned his lessons in the later debates, showing up with proper television makeup and a face shaved more recently; but the damage was done, and it may well have cost him the election. Suffice it to say here that the PBS coverage is fascinating; as is their coverage of Kennedy's early life, and his service in World War II. It's generally better on every level.

Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, 1960

JFK's presidency and legacy

Even in their coverage of his presidency, the PBS one stands out; as they give better analysis in two hours than the History Channel one does in two-and-a-half. I don't wish to say that the History Channel one was bad; but the PBS one is definitely the better of the two. If you're only going to watch one, setting aside a little extra time might get you some better information, and even better storytelling. This is the JFK documentary I recommend.


So to recap, there are two movies about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a documentary about RFK, and two documentaries about JFK (one by the History Channel, and one by PBS). All are quite good, although the History Channel one less so; and are well-recommended to those interested in the Kennedys.

Thirteen Days (Cuban Missile Crisis)

The Missiles of October (Cuban Missile Crisis)

RFK (Bobby Kennedy) - can be viewed online

JFK: A Presidency Revealed

American Experience JFK - can be viewed online

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Dwight Eisenhower movies

Richard Nixon movie

Cuban Missile Crisis movies

Cold War miniseries

Lyndon B. Johnson movie

Part of a series about
The Presidents

George Washington 1789-1797
John Adams 1797-1801
Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
James Madison 1809-1817
John Quincy Adams 1825-1829
Andrew Jackson 1829-1837
Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865
Ulysses S. Grant 1869-1877
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1933-1945
Harry Truman 1945-1953
Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969
Richard Nixon 1969-1974
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989
George H. W. Bush 1989-1993
Bill Clinton 1993-2001

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