John F. Kennedy was assassinated 48 years ago today, bringing a tragic close to a life that was filled with as many cinematic twists and turns as anything you’ll find at the local multiplex. In memory of one of America’s most celebrated presidents, let’s take a look back at the top on-screen Kennedys, and which actors best captured both his unique appeal and dark flaws.
The thrilling title sequence portends a crackling retelling of a great American story, assembling all the most energized visuals of the series to a throbbing score from Sean Callery. Alas, the series can’t deliver on the high-tempo promise of its intro. It wants to be Oliver Stone‘s Nixon - a warts-and-all portrait that nevertheless maintains a sympathetic attitude towards its subject – but director Jon Cassar has nowhere near the skill set of Stone. With no interesting or new angle, the series atrophies very quickly into a big-budget game of dress-up, where even the Cuban missile crisis is treated with the yawn-inducing torpor of a bored adjunct professor. Even so, Greg Kinnear manages a very solid performance as Kennedy, suggesting the humanity of the character (particularly in his tender moments with Jackie) without relying too much on histrionics. Bonus points for Tom Wilkinson’s scene-stealing turn as Joe Kennedy Sr.!
Former CSI‘er Petersen probably doesn’t need to practice saying “I’d like to thank the Academy” any time soon, but he is an effective Kennedy in this breezy movie about the Kings of Cool. In fact, Frank Sinatra’s strained relationship with Kennedy dominates the movie to such a degree that it could easily be retitled Frank And Jack. Petersen and Ray Liotta (as Sinatra) play well off one another, maintaining a captivating sense of camaraderie even as they tease out the complex emotional valences of their friendship. Rob Cohen directs with polish and confidence, making both Petersen’s performance and this film one of the better Kennedy-related projects.
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but who better to play Kennedy than the man himself? Oliver Stone uses archive footage and speech excerpts to suggest the presence and power of the president, only occasionally resorting to stand-ins in long shots. When you add John Williams’s heartfelt score, the movie is able to conjure the Kennedy myth with more skill than any of the straight-forward biopics. The opening sequence alone, with its chilling transition from Kennedy’s famous speech at American University to Sally Kirkland’s desperate pleas about the impending assassination, contains more emotional punch than the entire 2011 miniseries. The film’s historical accuracy may be debated, but as nerve-jangling, heartrending cinema, JFK is one of the best.
Greenwood retroactively poisoned this performance slightly by appearing as the commander-in-chief in National Treasure 2, but taken on its own merits, this is the definitive on-screen take of the 35th president. Eschewing the Frank Caliendo-style impersonation that plagues most Kennedy performances, Greenwood plays the role straight. This is a risky decision with any figure as familiar as JFK, but it gives the audience a direct line to Kennedy’s emotional core without the mediation of a ham-fisted accent or impression. If you have doubts, just listen to Kevin Costner’s nauseating “have you seen this report caaahd?” Boston accent, which has all the appeal of a heaping spoonful of day-old New England clam chowder.
What have we learned? The best screen JFKs leave the accent at Harvard Yard, pull Kennedy off the half-dollar and focus on the elements that render him human . . . friendships, family, moments of vulnerability, or the softer elements in his famous public addresses. We all know the iconographic Kennedy, pronouncing his new vision of America, but it’s those unguarded moments, filled in by actors and screenwriters, that make the slain leader one of cinema’s most interesting presidents.
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