I’ve been watching the Reelz Channel miniseries “The Kennedys.” How could I not? First, there’s Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper. They’ve both impressed me many times over, and they’re both doing it again. Barry Pepper is especially good, I think, but appreciate the fact that neither overdoes the accent and neither performance comes off as a caricature of a well-known personage. And Tom Wilkinson is excellent as Joe Kennedy.
How could I not? #2: The controversy over the series really stirred my interest as a lover and occasional writer of historical fiction. The mini-series was originally a History Channel project, but they backed out on it after—as I understand it—it was completed, saying it wasn’t “a good fit.” Apparently the story has been deemed historically accurate by scholars and other advisors, but it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff the HC had trouble with—the private moments. In those scenes, historical figures become characters. The writer must use her imagination.
I used to be a serious History Channel fan. I like documentaries. I’m finding less appeal in much of their programming these days. Most of the contemporary reality stuff isn’t for me, although I will watch “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers.” When it comes to old junk, I’m a pack rat. I love the idea that an old toy or some kitchen tool or piece of clothing actually played a part in people’s lives a hundred years ago, and I can hold it in my hand and imagine who those people were. But much of the HC’s programming just doesn’t feed the history buff in me, which is why, frankly, it surprised me that they pulled the plug on “The Kennedys.” No, it isn’t a documentary. Would it qualify as a “docu-drama”? (Anybody know what that is?) But it has been vetted by respected people in the know, and HC standards being what they have been lately along with the need to boost ratings, well…
Or is it simply too soon to produce good historical fiction about the Kennedys? That brings me to How could I not #3: I’m pretty nostalgic about the 1960’s. I was a 6th grader when I first heard of the Kennedys. We’d been living in Western Massachusetts for a year, and I was still an outsider among my peers. I remember being asked for an opinion about JFK, who was running for president. I shrugged. My father had expressed a preference for Nixon, but Daddy was not interested in politics, so neither was I Then. “You’re not Catholic, are you? Is that why you don’t like him?” Huh? Okay, that was my first Kennedy moment. The rest is history. Or, rather, the backdrop for my youth. So I’m watching this miniseries and remembering what I knew about it when it was happening and how my views changed over the years to the point where, in 1968, I became politically active for the first time and was devastated by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
My high school U.S. History teacher, Mr. Foley (who terrified me, but he was probably the best teacher I ever had) said that history really doesn’t become history during our lifetime because we cannot be objective in the face of our nostalgia. I can still see and hear the moment when he said that, but I’ve only recently come to fully understand his point. As I’m watching “The Kennedys” I’m walking at least three paths. There’s Memory Lane with its nostalgic landscape. There’s the lover of historical fiction, who’s enjoying the story road. And there’s the history buff, who has to climb into the back seat on this journey.
Is anyone else watching “The Kennedys”? How does it strike you? How far back do we have to go before we can call events “history”? For the sake of historical fiction what’s the latest period you’d term “history”? What makes you get all nostalgic?