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November 01, 2017

54 years later, JFK is still a star

Morbid anniversary returns JFK to November spotlight

Brace yourself, for it is coming as surely as dawn follows night. We speak, of course, of the inevitable onslaught of television programming commemorating the Nov. 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. 

More than a half-century after that dark day in Dallas, TV rehashes of the murder are as much a part of late-November American ritual as Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

Such programs come in two primary flavors: Those that depend on grainy, black and white, you-are-there archival footage to tell the basic story, and those that utilize state-of-the-art technology in attempts to solve the assassination mystery once and for all.

But there is also a third category: Scripted programs/films in which JFK is a central figure. Here are five of interest:

"PT-109" (1963)

The Kennedy myth-making machine fired up in earnest with the release of this reverential biopic that chronicles JFK’s World War II service, including his near-superhuman efforts to lead survivors to safety--and, in particular, save a wounded sailor-- after the PT Boat the future prez was commanding was split in half by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific.

Cliff Robertson, one of the more bankable actors of the 1960s, played Kennedy, and was an inspired choice, as he captured JFK’s ruggedly handsome features and indomitable “can-do” spirit.

Fun fact: Released in June 1963, “PT-109” was the first movie about a U.S. president to be distributed while the subject was still in office.

“PT-109” trailer:

"JFK" (1991)

To be sure, “JFK” is an exercise in fever-dream paranoia. But Oliver Stone's fascinating take on former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's doomed crusade to convict a Crescent City businessman for his alleged involvement in Kennedy's murder has a lot going for it. 

Foremost is a cast comprised of a Murderers Row of late-20th century male character actors who surround star Kevin Costner. There are too many standout turns from the supporting cast to list them all, but they include those by Ed Asner (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) as the sinister, rabidly right-wing ex-FBI agent Guy Bannister; the late comic actor John Candy as a sketchy southern-fried lawyer; Joe Pesci as the utterly bizarre, pro-Cuban-rebel airplane pilot, David Ferrie and an extremely brave Kevin Bacon as a (fictional) nazified gay hooker.

Then there is Stone's fascinating mashup of documentary and fantasy in which celluloid is chipped, rearranged and pasted by Stone in a near-hallucinogenic manner to advance the theory that the assassination was a joint effort by treasonous elements in the CIA and Pentagon.

Add in the most obsessed-over and vexing murder mystery in American history, and you have a pretty compelling flick, albeit one whose victim is only seen in film clips from real life.

Kevin Costner and Kevin Bacon in “JFK”:

"The Rat Pack" (1998)

Technically, this made-for-HBO movie probably doesn’t count as a “JFK” piece. Kennedy is a somewhat peripheral—but crucial—character in this ring-a-ding portrayal of the turn-of-the-1960s era when Frank Sinatra and his pals (including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.) ruled the show business universe.

This is about as far from the JFK of “PT-109” as it gets: Kennedy (played by William Petersen of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” fame) is framed here as a party boy to whom “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” is merely a suggestion, rather than a divine injunction. In an early scene set at a Los Angeles bar, Kennedy’s libido is ignited by mob moll Judith Campbell Exner. Sinatra (Ray Liotta), offers her to his new pal Kennedy with amoral nonchalance and Kennedy—who was about to declare his candidacy for the 1960 presidential election) accepts with leering satisfaction (as we now know, Kennedy conducted an affair with Exner even though he knew she was also the mistress of Chicago Mafia overlord Sam Giancana).

“The Rat Pack” trailer:

"Thirteen Days" (2000)

Another Costner star turn, this time in the tale of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Costner plays Ken O'Donnell, Kennedy’s longtime political director and confidante, and the character from whose point of view the film unfolds.

Directed by Aussie Roger Donaldson (“The Bank Job”) “Thirteen Days” is based on O’Donnell’s experience during the series of events that brought the U.S. and USSR to the brink of nuclear war. Which is why it tends to embiggen (as they would say on “The Simpsons”) O’Donnell’s role in the proceedings. Apparently, David Powers, another key member of Kennedy’s “Irish Mafia,” was at least as integral to the story as was O’Donnell, but he is MIA in the movie.

Nonetheless, “Thirteen Days” is a taught, well-acted and real-feeling presentation that probably deserved more critical and commercial success than it ever received, if only for Bruce Greenwood's stellar work as JFK.

Fun fact: An Air Force spy-plane pilot was played by Christopher Lawford, a real-life nephew of the slain president.

Bruce Greenwood as JFK in “Thirteen Days”:

"The Kennedys" (2011)

Originally planned for The History Channel, this $30 million, eight-part miniseries ultimately wound up on Reelz Channel after members of the Kennedy family allegedly exerted pressure on History Channel execs because of “inaccuracies” in the script.

The critics weren’t particularly kind: The Hollywood Reporter called the miniseries “dull,” “unwatchable” and “a ham-fisted mess,” while Variety dubbed it “painfully shallow and woefully bad.” Sure, some important elements (like Vietnam) are glossed over, and others, like the Missile Crisis are given short (and not necessarily accurate) shrift. But this is worth watching for the performances. Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes turn in unexpectedly strong work as Jack and Jackie Kennedy, while Barry Pepper copped an Outstanding Lead Actor in A Miniseries or Movie Emmy for his role as Robert F. Kennedy (who is as prominent as JFK in this production).

But the most riveting performance is turned in by British character actor Tom Wilkinson, who earned an Emmy nomination for playing Joseph P. Kennedy, the clan’s loving, but darkly ambitious and dictatorial, patriarch.

“The Kennedys” trailer:

Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860),, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.

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