17 December 2015 | n-mo
Enjoyable, intelligent and even-handed
"American royalty" may not be technically correct, but such a qualifier is not wholly inappropriate when it invokes not only the notoriety but also the fascination and scrutiny to which every aspect of the lives of Joe and Rose Kennedy and their descendants have been subject. The passions they arouse are also very telling: evaluations of the Kennedys tend to fall somewhere on the scale between glorifications of a latter-day Camelot, and cynical exasperation with a band of hypocritical, womanizing, calculating "Massachusetts liberals." For all their very deep flaws, however, the Kennedy's Darwinian and cultural success does command very deep respect: there must be SOME virtuous sensibilities down there.
"The Kennedys of Massachusetts" portrays this integral picture quite well, incorporating the various strains and experiences that made Joe and Rose and their family into who they were. Central to the story is their Roman Catholic identity, to which they were both fervently attached and which they determined (and managed) to pass to their children. But the tension between Catholicism as expressed through Rose's more purely ultramontanist social, psychological and cultural mindset - which she transmitted to none of her children (Eunice a possible, partial exception) - and the ambitions of Joe to rise in WASP society are laid out here, quite skillfully. The film does not condemn Rose's staunch, sometimes brittle approach to her faith nor castigate Joe for his shirking of its finer points or of his numerous betrayals of the matrimonial covenant, but simply lays out the facts for what they are.
All the way, the grace and glamor of the Old vs. New World dynamic is undeniable. The major points in the marriage of Joe and Rose and the evolution of their children are chronicled very cohesively and convincingly. William Petersen and Annette O'Toole play their roles very well and have good chemistry; nevertheless, the scenes between O'Toole and Charles Durning (as John "Honey" Fitzgerald) steal the show, and his cynical recapping of Rose's religious and intellectual path early on turns out to a harbinger for the whole Kennedy political project. We are left at once admiring of the great accomplishments of Joe and the earnest if naïve and not wholly adroit quest for beauty on the part of Rose, if perhaps regretful that he could not have listened to her earlier: "You're a very successful and wealthy man at a young age; isn't that enough?" and spared his family so much of the agony that came as the price of their admission into Anglo-Protestant high society. (An uncharitable cynic might add, spare the U.S. of an incompetent president and an alcoholic road-unworthy senator. I'll let my readers judge for themselves.)
All the same, one ends the mini-series wanting to do something, wanting to beatify one's life. If entertainment can so inspire, perhaps it is not so indispensable as we sometimes suppose.