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Kennedy's transformation eludes 'RFK'

Sunday, August 25, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The story of the Kennedy family has always been reminiscent of a soap opera -- tragedy, comedy, larger than life characters -- but FX's "RFK" inadvertently brings a specific soap to mind.

When James Cromwell as Texan Lyndon B. Johnson barks out the name "Bobby" to Robert F. Kennedy (Linus Roache), it's oddly reminiscent of J.R. Ewing calling for his younger brother on "Dallas."



When: Tonight at 8 on FX.

Starring: Linus Roache, James Cromwell, David Paymer, Ving Rhames

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A weird thing to notice, perhaps, but there it is.

"RFK" is actually more Shakespeare than soap opera. It doesn't completely succeed in its portrait of the slain senator, but it is an evocative drama.

An early scene sets the tone: Bobby is at the Kennedy family home in suburban Virginia in November 1963 when the phone rings. As he gets the news that his brother, John F. Kennedy, has been shot, the color drains from the picture and the film slows as a gardener comes running with a portable radio.

This tone permeates the film. Even as Kennedy moves on with his life, he's haunted by the memory of his brother, played by actor Martin Donovan in mostly out of focus sequences in Bobby's imagination.

That dramatic choice by writer Hank Steinberg ("*61") and director Robert Dornhelm (ABC's "Anne Frank") might not sit well with some viewers looking for absolute historical accuracy, but it makes for good television.

"There's no point just repeating the same story you've seen many times before," Dornhelm said during a press conference last month in Pasadena, Calif. "I've tried to understand the human being that must go through some major trauma after the event. I was trying to get into his head."

British actor Roache approximates Bobby Kennedy's voice with only a few hints of Roache's own accent slipping through. His Bobby is insecure and tentative, living in the shadow of his mourned and sainted brother. He struggles with survivor's guilt and also a fear that his own dogged pursuits as attorney general may have played a part in JFK's assassination.

"I was trying to deal with what I call the story of arrested adolescence, about a guy who figures out who he is in the last five years of his life," said Robert Cooper, CEO of Artisan Pictures, which produced the film. "A guy who starts out as ruthless and apparently cold and sort of a hired gun of his brother, his father, and the journey he takes until the fatal and tragic death.

"It's illustrated by his different interests, be it his change in Vietnam, be it domestic policies, but really it's about figuring him out: Who is he?"

Even the spectral ghost of JFK poses that question in the movie, but the transformation is less dramatic than producers intend because so little time is spent on the "old" RFK while JFK was alive.

When RFK begins to come into his own, there's not enough context for how radical the change allegedly is.

"He was a hard-nosed, ruthless man, but he also had a big heart," Roache said.

In "RFK," viewers see the heart, but the hard-nose is merely alluded to and that diminishes the impact of the movie. It's as if in their rush to canonize RFK, producers opted to sweep some of his less upstanding traits under a rug.

As a Hollywood film, that doesn't come a surprise, but it is a disappointment.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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