Review: PBS’ ‘American Experience: JFK’ is the Kennedy special to see

During the next two weeks, the networks will be chockablock with tributes marking the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. If you watch only one, let it be “American Experience: JFK,” which premieres Monday.

In two two-hour segments on PBS, director and producer Susan Bellows and her team chronicle the life of the 35th president with a near-miraculous balance of admiration and clear-eyed assessment.

Ken Burns may have invented the notion of the blockbuster television documentary, but no one does these sorts of series better, whether the subject is a well-known president or the history of Tupperware. Wielding the combined power of digital technology and old-fashioned exhaustive research, the producers at “American Experience” have helped make the documentary a modern art form.

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And “JFK” is a perfect fit for its documentarians — Jack Kennedy was, after all, the first truly modern president, an embodiment of a sociopolitical shift from one age to another. Celebrating rather than apologizing for his youth, Kennedy understood the media, especially television, which was as crucial to his political success as his father’s deep pockets or famous family competitiveness.


The Kennedy archives, crammed with photos, tape and television recordings and all those home movies, were already a documentarian’s dream. Add to that recently revealed information, including documents about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the president’s health, and the primary sources alone tell a story different from, and in the end, more powerful than the various mythologies spun before and after his death.

Indeed, much of “JFK,” which is narrated by Oliver Platt and studded with commentary from historians, deals specifically with the gap between the man’s image and his reality. Kennedy was well aware of that gap and exerted himself, at times unscrupulously, to paper over it.

Yet even stripped of political spin and the martyr’s halo, his story remains an American epic. The second son of a highly successful Irish American intent on founding a dynasty, Kennedy suffered several life-threatening childhood illnesses and would be plagued by a host of crippling health problems throughout his life.

Much of the copious footage and photos from the first hours of “JFK” show a man struggling to project vigor despite an at times pitifully wasted body (even the suntan for which he was famous in later years was mostly a side effect of the medication he took to control his Addison’s disease.)

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Yet when his older brother, Joe, the great hope of the family, was killed during World War II, Jack stepped into his place. The future president embarked on a life of political service and influence at a time when the world was rapidly changing — technologically, politically and socially.

It is impossible not to succumb to the physical beauty of the Kennedy family in its endless array of home movies. Or to be moved by the sheer grit of a man who rarely knew an hour without pain and yet always seemed to be on his feet and smiling.

But “JFK” does not romanticize its subject. His life of unthinking privilege, incessant womanizing, more than occasional ruthless ambition, and, of course, his gimlet-eyed manipulation of the media are all given as much weight as his glamour, popularity and his willingness to fight for racial and social equality.

Kennedy was confident to the point of arrogance. As president, he assembled groups not so much for their opinions as their information. But neither was he above turning to an antagonist like Lyndon B. Johnson for help or even his Republican predecessor for advice.

As the documentary concludes, there is really no way to gauge whether he would have been a great president. His time in office was too short and as marked by failure as it was by potential. Even his intentions in Vietnam remain open for debate.

For all his forward-thinking, Kennedy believed still in the “great man” theory — a 19th century idea that described history as a series of events shaped for better and worse by powerful and influential men. Watching “JFK,” it becomes clear that the presidency’s first modern man may also have been its last truly great one as well.


‘American Experience: JFK’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)