The American Experience examines the life and times of the 35th President of the United States.
The WGBH/PBS two-part four-hour production, JFK, premieres on November 11 and 12. This is a unique and intriguing profile of the life of the 35th president of the United States. It begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Why? Because as a college student and best-selling author of Why England Slept Kennedy had argued that, “Democracies have to be ready to fight at all times.” But in late 1962, it was estimated that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would result in somewhere between 175 and 300 million deaths “in one hour” (to use Kennedy’s own terms). So John Kennedy stepped back, remained calm and avoided war in his finest hour as the leader of the Free World.
After this opening, JFK takes a traditional biographical, chronological look at the life of the man who, when he took the oath of office, was the youngest president in our history. In this documentary narrated by Oliver Platt, we hear from multiple historians, writers and former members of the Kennedy administration. Most importantly, we hear from Kennedy himself, on Dictaphone recordings that he made while in the White House.
The Kennedys were raised to be ambitious and to be agents of change. As Platt states, “The past was not the point in the Kennedy family.” It was all about the future – a future that was to rest, in large part, on the shoulders of Joe Kennedy, Jr. As is well detailed in JFK, John Kennedy battled significant health problems his entire life, beginning with a near-death experience at the age of three.
After the death of Joe Jr. in World War II, no one expected that Jack Kennedy would have the stamina and strength to pursue a political campaign. But he successfully did so, campaigning each day from sunrise to midnight in order to become a Congressman at the age of 29. He subsequently became a U.S. Senator at the age of 34, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952.
Kennedy stated that, “The presidency is the ultimate source of action.” Despite being saddled with constant physical pain he would settle for nothing less than becoming the person to occupy the oval office.
JFK provides some fascinating photographs and video footage of Kennedy in his youth, some taken while he was in college at Princeton and Harvard. It’s a bit frightening to see how much of John Kennedy, Jr. could be seen in a young, thin John Kennedy.
One of the fascinating pieces of information we learn from JFK is that the prized golden tan he possessed was actually a discoloration of his skin caused by the medications taken to control his Addison’s disease.
This PBS program takes us from the initial difficult two years of the Kennedy administration, when relatively little was accomplished legislatively, to the activist final months of the Kennedy White House. John Kennedy, according to a niece, “loved being president.” Kennedy believed in the Great Man theory of governance, and he was growing in stature and confidence during the final months of his life.
This look at the Kennedy presidency provides a clear explanation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In this, it is exemplary. Where the documentary trips up a bit is in including a brief (fortunately brief) segment on Kennedy’s womanizing. The section feels like something that was dropped in as an after-thought; it would have best been left on the cutting room floor.
The first two hours of JFK and even part of the third hour will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the fourth and final hour justifies the time spent in revisiting history. In that hour we observe the John Kennedy who was accepted by the Free World as its fearless leader – the Kennedy who was as much loved in France and Germany as in his ancestral home of Ireland. We also glimpse a man who enjoyed being a father, and who grew closer to his wife before the journey to Dallas. (This was the first and only time that Jackie Kennedy traveled with her husband on a domestic political trip.)
JFK takes us to the final hours and minutes of Kennedy’s life. Out of respect for the man, no footage of the assassination is displayed. What we do see and share in is the enormous sense of grief and sorrow that people around the world experienced after his untimely death. Even Nikita Khrushchev was visibly shaken as he signed a guest book in sorrow.
To this day, John F. Kennedy is a man missed by many – both by those who met him and by those who never did. JFK succeeds in examining and detailing the importance of his life, a life which ended in horrific tragedy.