HBO's portrait of RFK lacks a critical element


November 20, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

It is certainly true that "the Kennedys have brightened the American landscape with their triumphs and darkened it with their tragedies," as a scroll contends at the beginning of an interesting historical documentary on cable tonight.

But far from obvious in "Bobby Kennedy: In His Own Words" (premiering at 8 on the HBO premium channel, with repeats Nov. 24, 26 and 28, and Dec. 2 and 6) is any understanding of those tragedies, the assassinations of President Kennedy (27 years ago Thursday) and his younger brother Bobby (in June 1968).

Robert Francis Kennedy would have been 65 today, and the HBO documentary is fairly called "a tribute" in observance of the occasion. Produced by Kunhardt Productions Inc., it follows the producers' early "JFK: In His Own Words," using the same techniques of remarkable archival film footage ranging from the evening news to Kennedy family home movies.

Viewers should know this is the video equivalent of commissioned portrait to hang in a hall of honor, not a warts-and-all collection of candid snapshots. There is also no narration, and that is both the hour-long show's strength and its significant weakness.

We do get persuasive pictures of a man committed to public service and high ideals. In chronological order, we see a young boy talking about his first trip to Europe and slowly developing into a strong personality. Intelligently selected clips include him and others talking about the major milestones of his life -- as a congressional attorney, U.S. attorney general under his brother and, finally, as a New York senator and presidential candidate.

"We were brought up with the idea that a lot of people were less fortunate . . . and that you had a social responsibility to do something about it," he is heard saying early on, for example.

But even for viewers with a grasp of recent American history, some narrative "captions" would help clarify these pictures. For instance, following his resignation from the infamous investigative subcommittee of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, someone says of RFK that he is "the Boston terrier who also barks and bites." But just who is speaking is not clear, nor is the exact context.

Similarly, we see Kennedy grilling a pugnacious Jimmy Hoffa, but the context of his work as an attorney for a Senate racketeering committee is lacking. (Naturally, this being a tribute and not an investigative documentary, there's no mention of all that ugly innuendo about Marilyn Monroe and a mob grudge against the Kennedy brothers.)

Perhaps most surprising, the show devotes scant attention to Kennedy's assassination. We see none of the familiar still photos of RFK lying in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, nor any of Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of the crime.

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