Images Of Disorder And Early Sorrow

PrintPrintEmailEmail

William C. Davis and his collaborators have brought them out again, and even now the crudest images retain the power to shock. There are pictures here of hundreds of dead men and boys sprawled on half a hundred battlefields. But for me the most horrific photograph was a close-in view of a stack of bare feet, each one surprisingly white and no two precisely alike, hacked off by battlefield surgeons after some forgotten fight. It is probably worth looking at things like that from time to time to remind us of what has already happened here.

Our memories of the Civil War may be stirred by old photographs, but those of more recent trauma are literally composed of television images, at once so powerful and so frequently repeated that they have become a part of our collective remembrance: the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong suspect, or the Kennedy limousine endlessly rolling out from behind the highway sign in Dallas. This fact has not been lost on the makers of television mini-series.

The producers of “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” the seven-hour drama that will soon run on CBS over three evenings, seem more interested in impressing us with their ability to match our old television memories than in Robert Kennedy himself. It is as if they were afraid we would not believe in the authenticity of the events they are dramatizing unless we were made to see them from precisely the same vantage point as we did the first time around. Authentic newsreels are interspersed with newly made ones; familiar black-and-white photographs are made slowly to come alive in color; familiar scenes are re-created (I counted six games of touch football); and the best-remembered news footage—such as Kennedy’s final appearance before his delirious California followers on the night of June 4, 1968—is methodically restaged, almost frame by frame. Much of this is ingeniously done, but it is no more revealing of what was really going on than were the evening news programs on which we initially saw these scenes.

I was struck by the relentless grubbiness of much of everyday America in the 1860s: the Civil War was clearly fought with a lot of spit and very little polish.

Then, too, the series tries to cover too much too fast—Robert Kennedy’s whole truncated career, from his tentative entry into politics as a distinctly junior campaign worker in his brother’s first congressional campaign in 1946, through his own frenetic last-minute plunge for the Presidency twenty-two years later. The whole array of men and issues he confronted is hurried past the camera—Joe McCarthy and Jimmy Hoffa and J. Edgar Hoover, civil rights, the Cuban missile crisis, Latin America, Vietnam, city slums and rural poor, his own position in the Kennedy family and in the public mind. Little time is left to explore the development of the complex and passionate human being whom Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., portrayed with such shrewdness and affection in the biography upon which the series is based. Most of Kennedy’s irony and wit has been jettisoned, along with all but a moment or two of the abrupt impatience that won him early the reputation for ruthlessness that he spent the rest of his short life trying to overcome: the TY Bobby Kennedy always has time to stop and remove a thorn from the huge paw of Brumus, the family dog.

The busy performance of Brad Davis in the title role does not help. He is convincing enough in the long shots: he gets Kennedy’s brisk, oddly hunched walk right, and his manner on the podium evokes the real RFK, leaning into the microphone, gripping the lectern with both hands and the crowd with his earnestness. But things go seriously wrong whenever we get closer. The genuine Kennedy grin was memorable, for example, a winning symbol of shyness conquered (at least for an instant), and filled with amusement at the absurdity of fame. Brad Davis’s version of it is an actor’s studied grimace, a coy, crinkly attempt at self-deprecation that made me look away in embarrassment every time the camera moved in to capture it.

There is some very good acting here: Ned Beatty, minus his Southern accent and wearing a suit two sizes too small, makes a fine, twitchy Hoover; J. D. Spradlin manages without caricature to convey the sense that Lyndon Johnson was at once able and disturbed; and Veronica Cartwright manages to inject her Ethel Kennedy with warmth and intelligence, despite the direction that makes her undertake a peppy little leap into the air nearly every time her husband smiles at her.

And after Dallas, as Robert Kennedy emerges from his brother’s shadow and his own grief, the program picks up considerable momentum. I could not help but be moved by its re-creation of the turbulent spring, almost seventeen years ago now, when—for some of us at least —hope itself seemed to have been murdered in that kitchen in Los Angeles.