John F. Kennedy was a star in life and politics, and the movies often treated him as such. We go 'through the looking glass’ with a few that played with the myth.
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1 Nov 2013 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 18 Nov 2014 - 5:18 PM

In his coruscating riposte to JFK boosters everywhere, The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), esteemed American journalist Seymour Hersh summed up the personal appeal of the man who would become the 35th President of the USA: “Stunning good looks, an inquisitive mind, a biting sense of humour that was self-mocking, he thrived on adoration. Women swooned. Men stood in awe [of his way with women].” One eyewitness to the President's charms told Hersh that when JFK arrived at a party, the temperature went up 150 degrees.

[ Watch: JFK Season throughout November on SBS ONE ]

This is not quite the JFK we know from the movies. Indeed, few of the theatrical features that have elected the President to a lead role have attempted to capture his well-documented magnetism or the cult of personality that seems to be the all-pervasive characteristic of his life in and out of politics. Instead, the JFK of the movies is accorded the kind of reverence that filmmakers reserve for deities and cuddly heroic animals. Still, once all facts are considered, it seems historically irresponsible for apportioning all blame and scorn on Hollywood for, say, the bloated epic that is PT 109. Speaking of which…

PT 109

(Leslie H. Martinson, 1963)

A portrait of JFK's genuinely breathtaking actions in the Pacific during World War II, when he lead his crew to safety in hazardous waters after the torpedo boat he was commanding was sliced in two by a Japanese destroyer, this was the first film made about a sitting president and JFK, father Joe and god knows who else in the Kennedy clan behaved like they were executive producers, with the ability to sanction every facet of the big-budget production. Jack himself cast Cliff Robertson as JFK. A fine actor, Robertson couldn't do much with a part that was set in stone, but he gets the smile, the hair and six-pack right. Kennedy Snr. bullied studio boss Jack Warner while two directors including the great Lewis Milestone were driven from the project before TV helmer Leslie Martinson took on the gig; he directs with flat feet. This is a war picture with no horror or grief. Released only months before Kennedy was killed in Dallas, it's tempting to imagine that PT 109 was a conspiracy of politics, a reminder to a jaded public and increasingly sceptical media that JFK may be flawed in policy but he was a first class warrior/knight. After all, the Bay of Pigs disaster had the President branded a coward of sorts. And then there was Cuba.

 

The Missiles of October

(Anthony Page, 1974)

In October 1962, a US spy plane discovered that the Soviets had deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. A strike at the continental USA could mean 80 million dead in minutes. In the White House, Kennedy's advisors pressed the case for direct action. Jack and brother Bobby stymied talk of a Cuban invasion or pre-emptive attack. Non-combat options were contemplated as Kennedy pursued back-channel diplomatic solutions to the crisis. After 13 days of nuclear brinkmanship, the Soviets and Cubans agreed to withdraw the missiles and a compromise was reached. An image of Kennedy as a cautious statesman, a reconstructed Cold Warrior, emerged. Naysayers felt the outcome proved that Kennedy had been soft on the Commies all along.

A modified version of this Kennedy is on show in The Missiles of October, a two-and-a-half-hour made-for-TV talk-fest depicting the think-tank negotiations and backroom wrangling that occurred in the White House during the crisis. It features William Devane as a President who grins bravely in the face of Armageddon and finds solace in his rocking chair while making self-deprecating gags about earning his keep as the administration contemplates one bleak option after another. Martin Sheen is very good as Bobby.

 

Thirteen Days

(Roger Donaldson, 2000)

In the '80s, it was fashionable for twenty-somethings to pour scorn on the Cuban Missile crisis as the exaggerated imaginings of baby boomers. Declassified documents in the post-Soviet years confirm what historians and the sane always knew: that a thermonuclear-charged WWIII was only narrowly averted. Indeed, the ad-line for Roger Donaldson's dramatisation of the crisis solemnly underscores the point: 'You won't believe how close we came'. Beautifully crafted, exciting and well acted, Thirteen Days covers the same ground as Missiles, though its mega-budget means it can spike the heated chat with lavish photo-real special effects. Will Self's literate and dynamic script is fanciful – it has Kevin Costner's Ken O'Donnell a key player in the crisis when in fact his was a bit part – but its view of politics and diplomacy and leadership is sober, serious, complex and pragmatic. Bruce Greenwood is a glamour-free Jack, decent and reasonable, Steve Culp is a superbly nervy Bobby, and Costner is strong, too, in a silly role. Still, it's not without its romance: “There's some thing immoral about abandoning your own judgement,” says JFK, sounding like Hamlet and thinking of the intrigue of men who live by the sword and his own poor past judgements (like the Bay of Pigs debacle). In short, it's a buddy pic about three old friends getting their hands dirty on a job no one wants.

The Movie Show review: Thirteen Days

 

JFK

(Oliver Stone, 1991)

The hysteria that whipped Oliver Stone and his dazzling epic – an attenuated demolition job on the Warren Report on the JFK assassination – is now the stuff of pop culture legend. The director was branded a nut and the film irresponsible. Kennedy isn't 'dramatised' in the film but his politics and aura haunt the story like a dead 'King'. (Classical references abound.) Stone was condemned, perhaps justly, for attempting to revise the dead President as an opponent of Vietnam and – after Cuba and the Bay of Pigs – a reformed Cold Warrior exhausted by CIA black-op intrigues.Still, the attacks on JFK had an historical precedent...

The Movie Show review: JFK

 

Executive Action

(David Miller, 1973)

Consider the fate of David Miller's Executive Action. Stone's plot – a coup d'état founded by Kennedy's enemies, ex-intel operatives, military hawks and industrialists – has its antecedents in this barely remembered thriller that recounts with cool precision an intricate scheme to kill the President, told entirely from the point of view of the conspirators. The script offers JFK's increasingly 'liberal' sympathies as motivation for the hit. Written by Dalton Trumbo, it has its basis in the research of famed Kennedy assassination author Mark Lane (who scripted the first draft), famous for Rush to Judgement and later Plausible Denial. Made under the sign of Costa-Gavras (the cruel ironies and sense of political inevitability of Z is clearly in evidence), Executive Action is terse and smart, and Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster add macho gravitas. Unlike Stone, Miller does not directly indict any government agency as colluding in the JFK plot. Released almost exactly a decade after the assassination, TV stations and newspapers, seemingly offended by its premise, refused to take its ads, and good reviews failed to rescue it from commercial oblivion.

 

The Greek Tycoon

(J. Lee Thompson, 1978)

Kennedy doesn't appear in this movie exactly. All the characters are fictional. But for contemporaries, they knew the story. On its release in 1978, Variety summed up the weird de ja vu experience of sitting thru this airport novel of a movie nicely: 'You've watched the headlines, now you can read the movie.' But then I think Roger Ebert put it best in his original review. Abandoning any attempt at playing along with the film's jet-setting plotline, he wrote: “The hell with it: The movie's about Aristotle Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy, and let's have no more beating about the bush.”

This is a bedroom farce soap opera told in the breathless martinis at sunset in best bed-wear style of Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey, starring the President of the United States, his restless and beautiful wife and a tycoon who wants to be a President… in his case, Greece will do.

Jacqueline Bisset makes a good model in the Jackie O role, Anthony Quinn is good as the tycoon, and James Franciscus doesn't have the hair, the smile or, one suspects, the pecs to pull off Jack even if he's playing a President called Cassidy. He looks good in a suit, though.