“Beautiful, vivacious, bright, witty, and very naughty… a Kennedy, through and through” writes Chris Buckley of his daughter’s friend Kate Kennedy. Buckley’s philosophical apple may have fallen far from his father’s, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s, tree, but his description of America’s answer to English gentry is spot on. Joe Kennedy’s dynasty has fascinated, intrigued, infuriated, and – with questionable success – governed America for decades. And they’re at it again, in the re-issued PBS documentary “The Kennedys.”
The film, scaled back from its original four hours, traces the family’s rise from investor, influencer, and bootlegger Joe to his nine children, and their heirs. The documentary is worthwhile historically, and also for its rare footage of super-lawyer Clark Clifford (a native Missourian), enlisted by Jack Kennedy to talk his father, Joe, out of an ill-conceived decision to have Jack’s brother Robert made attorney general. Joe was shortly thereafter relieved of an Ambassadorship for his Nazi sympathies.
If nothing else, the film is an eloquent study in power and drive: Joe’s. By hook or by crook, the Kennedy patriarch built an empire for his family and saw to it that they took advantage of his work. “The Kennedys” is a story of that uniquely American vision, to build a family, twisted to the power of one hundred, and its tag-line could well be Hawthorne’s old adage: “Families are always rising and falling in America.” In Joe’s family, the rise is meteoric. The fall is equally so, although more quiet: the family’s position, so painstakingly constructed, is the perfect foundation for infighting and dysfunction. The documentary, in detailing an American dream gone awry, is an equally American cautionary tale.