Before he was Josiah Bartlett, the President everyone wishes was real, Martin Sheen played another iconic White House leader, one who has also become a totem for those who wish that American international politics could play out some other way.

It's possibly Sheen's popularity in The West Wing that has resulted in this 1983 mini-series being released on DVD now, though the JFK industry is certainly always thriving. But this well-produced series, while it has its faults, has more to recommend it.

The story focuses on one particular part of Kennedy's life, from the triumphant election night to the last day in Dallas. The gory murder, uncomfortable to watch even in a re-enactment, which can never really live up to the original image, comes first, before the flashback to the high point of his life, thus ensuring that his end dominates the whole affair. Early on, Jackie Kennedy (a shy, tremulous performance from uncanny lookalike Blair Brown) recites the Alan Seeger poem, I Have A Rendezvous With Death, but otherwise, thankfully, there's a minimum of foreshadowing.

This is a largely tasteful, delicate look at the legend. The series was made 20 years after his death; 20 years after that, we can perhaps look at "Camelot" with clearer eyes. There's little analysis here, or real political debate, just the usual personality and family issues - and the series is ridiculously reticent about Kennedy's extra-marital affairs, seen only as oblique discussions on how to handle the fallout.

Use of real news broadcasts adds authenticity but while many details are accurate, so much is necessarily conjecture and it doesn't really "feel" real - the emotions aren't quite true, the dialogue is often stilted. Although there are a few corny and sentimental moments in the script, some very decent performances shine through with dignity.

Chief amongst these is the always-reliable Sheen, though it's hard to separate him from his Bartlett role, despite a damn good take on JFK's extraordinary Boston Brahmin accent, with the 'ah' sounds, the pauses and, yes, the corset. Also a stand-out is John Shea, who despite looking nothing like him, is a very dynamic and engaging Bobby Kennedy. Shea's career since has been mostly in amiable TV tosh like The New Adventures Of Superman and Mutant X; a waste, going by his performance here.

EG Thompson - the "I have a reasonable doubt, now" juror from 12 Angry Men - is a rather watered-down version of the manipulative Joe Kennedy, while Vincent Gardenia plays J Edgar Hoover as strange and spooky: everything stops whenever his deliberately slow drawl and menacingly shot figure appears, like the sinister villain in a horror film, which, indeed, is how he is portrayed. It's also fun to spot a terribly young, and hairy, Kelsey Grammer in a small role.

This series is very much of its time; it would be done quite differently if made now - the recent controversy over a mini-series about Reagan's life, which was cancelled by the network at the last minute after complaints of disrespect, is a telling comparison. But it's worth viewing for its cast and as a handy primer for someone seeking to learn the basics about the period.

And the story, of course, can't help but be moving, whatever your own take on Kennedy and his presidency might be. As it reaches its inevitable end, the motorcade's long, initially cheerful procession hideously drawn out to heighten what you know is coming, director Jim Goddard manages to make the well-worn tragedy freshly shocking again.

Reviewed on: 24 Nov 2003
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TV mini-series on the life and death of an American president.
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Director: Jim Goddard

Writer: Reg Gadney

Starring: Martin Sheen, John Shea, E.G. Marshall, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Vincent Gardenia, Blair Brown

Year: 1983

Runtime: 313 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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