'RFK': moral 'vision' and murky history

Television

August 25, 2002|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The reordering of American history, our history, our shared memory -- that's what really matters about RFK, the made-for-television movie about the life and death of Robert Kennedy premiering tonight on the FX cable channel.

There is, of course, added regional interest and discussion about the film because Robert F. Kennedy's eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is involved in what is shaping up as a close race for governor in Maryland. Given the state of talk radio these days, there are sure to be those on the airwaves who will question the timing, if not see some sort of conspiracy afoot between Hollywood and the Kennedys with the film airing now.

Let me be frank: Such thinking is crackpot.

There's nothing crackpot, though, about the impulse to question how such history-based television programs as RFK affect our lives. Such a question seems especially relevant now, in fact, as we are about to be deluged with programming about last Sept. 11 and trying to reorder that traumatic piece of history.

History is a big word with lots of definitions, but there is nothing more important when watching a prime-time docudrama like RFK than reminding yourself that at best it qualifies as pseudo-history -- a story shaped to fit the demands of a multimillion-dollar entertainment environment. It's the past re-imagined for the midway rather than the museum.

We are reminded of that at exactly 13 minutes and 31 seconds into RFK, when Bobby (Linus Roache) is shown trying on the presidential flight jacket of his brother Jack just after JFK's assassination in Dallas. The image of the dead president (played by Martin Donovan) appears in the mirror and says to Bobby: "It's a little big in the shoulders. But I suppose you could grow into it."

Bobby replies that he doesn't know if he wants to "grow into" being president.

"Things don't make sense any more, Jack," he says. "I don't know what to believe in."

It is the first of many conversations that Bobby has with his dead brother during RFK, and I abandoned any great hopes I had for the film the moment I saw it. (I still have not gotten over the scenes in Elvis, the 1979 ABC docudrama starring Kurt Russell as Elvis Presley, that featured the singer talking to his twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth.)

Advice from JFK

Did Bobby Kennedy have such Banquo-like visitations from his dead brother at key moments in his life? Such conversations are at the heart of the drama here, with Jack suggesting in one highly emotional conversation that Bobby's over-zealous political attacks on Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, gangster Sam Giancana, union boss Jimmy Hoffa and others were in part responsible for Jack's assassination.

Ultimately, Jack serves as a moral guide in this story of the last five years of Bobby's life, pointing his younger brother to the hero quest on which he must embark to redeem himself and the American political system. The great moral choice he must make is renouncing the Vietnam War during his 1968 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. The big battle he must fight is with Lyndon Baines Johnson, who succeeded Jack as president.

But wait a minute, didn't another cable docudrama earlier this summer, HBO's Path to War, say that Johnson wasn't really such a monster, after all, and that his aides were greatly responsible for leading him and us deeper into Vietnam? And wasn't one of those aides speechwriter Richard Goodwin?

Yes and yes, and one of the most powerful moments in Path to War had Johnson telling Goodwin that he and other aides, like Bill Moyers, had the "blood of dead Marines in Vietnam" on their hands, too.

But in RFK, Goodwin is as much a moral guide as the dead JFK, popping up time and again to urge Bobby to listen to his better angels. Goodwin is, in fact, the very person who pushes Bobby to renounce the war.

Confused by the contradiction? Maybe this will help: Richard Goodwin is the "executive consultant" on RFK. See what I mean about the way prime-time "history" can be shaped?

Major moments of life

Lawrence E. Mintz, professor of popular culture in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that films like RFK are among the most problematic when it comes to national memory.

"The films like Rambo that try to reorder the Vietnam experience in a way that makes us winners don't really worry me, because they are so obviously fictional that I don't think too many reasonably intelligent people would take them as history," says Mintz.

"The ones that concern me are films like JFK [the Oliver Stone feature film starring Kevin Costner] because it mixes enough fact and research with pure fiction to the point where I think even a fairly sophisticated viewer could confuse the two," he adds.

Which is exactly what happens in RFK -- and is what ultimately gives it such emotional power at the end, despite the cooked-up conversations between a living Bobby and a dead Jack throughout the film.

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