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Saturday, July 21, 2018

July 21-22, 2018: KennedyStudying: Historical Films

[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to this weekend post on film representations of the family!]
On three Kennedy-inspired movies that offer three distinct visions of history in film.
1)      Thirteen Days (2001): Thirteen Days is by far the most typical historical film of these three, a documentary-style drama (based on Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s 1997 book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis) set during the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet even within that nonfiction origin text, and with at least some of the story’s figures still alive during filmmaking, no historical drama is a documentary or a work of nonfiction. John and Robert Kennedy are (like every figure in the film) played by Hollywood actors (Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp respectively), and the film is headlined by a major Hollywood star (Kevin Costner) playing a relatively minor figure (consultant Kenneth O’Donnell) elevated to a central role for obvious reasons. Those are the requirements of Hollywood historical filmmaking—they don’t necessarily render the story any less accurate (nor any more so of course), but they are factors we have to keep in mind for such films regardless.
2)      Chappaquiddick (2018): I haven’t seen Chappaquiddick, the newest feature film about the Kennedys, and perhaps it’s just as much a historical docudrama as Thirteen Days. But in truth, American culture is in a radically different place in 2018 than it was in 2001, and the very act of making a film about the Kennedy family’s darkest and most divisive history and story (and I’m not trying to minimize that tragedy nor Ted Kennedy’s culpability in it, as I wrote in Wednesday’s post) is a necessarily political one in our current moment. Historical films can certainly be political (with Oliver Stone’s JFK a serious case in point), and that element likewise does not necessarily render them less accurate (nor again more so, although nobody tell Oliver Stone). But those that overtly connect to contemporary political debates or perspectives are shaded differently than those (like Thirteen Days) that do not, and that too becomes a factor in considering these films.
3)      Bubba Ho-Tep (2002): And then there’s Bubba Ho-Tep. No sentence or two of description can do justice to this comic horror film, in which an aged Elvis Presley (or someone who delusionally believes he is) and an aged John F. Kennedy-who-happens-to-have-been-turned-into-an-African-American-man (or someone who delusionally believes he is) battle an invasion of the undead in their nursing home. Well, maybe that sentence does do some justice to the film’s unique craziness, one sold pitch-perfectly by stars Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. That craziness might not sound particularly historical, or at best like the sorts of silly alternative history featured in films like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. But many of the details of Davis’s Kennedy—such as Lyndon Johnson’s abandonment of him in a hospital in order to take the presidency for himself—do at least comment provocatively on historical figures and issues. As this trio of films demonstrates, there’s no one way to creatively engage with the past, and the more genres and styles we add into the mix, the broader and richer the engagement gets.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy texts or connections you’d highlight?

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