The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Teddy Kennedy gets his close-up on HBO

July 10, 2009 |  6:08 pm

No one has done more to keep documentaries in the spotlight in America than HBO's indefatigable Sheila Nevins, who's at it again with the launch of HBO's second annual weekly summer documentary series, which begins Monday night with the airing of "Teddy: In His Own Words." The documentary, helmed by Peter Kunhardt, has an especially autumnal feel with Kennedy having been away from the Senate as he continues his battle against brain cancer. The film is clearly an authorized look at the aging liberal icon, who's been a senator since 1962, when Barack Obama was just a toddler. But it doesn't pull all its punches, taking time to show almost as many of Kennedy's missteps as his triumphs.


For me, the best moments are the ones that often get lost in appreciations of the big events of Kennedy's career. The camera rarely lies, so if you watch the grainy footage of the virile young Teddy, running for the Senate for the first time at age 30, you see a man who looks altogether unprepared for higher office, much less the family tragedies still to come. Kennedy tells a revealing story of visiting his brother at the White House when Teddy is preparing for his debut appearance on "Meet the Press," clearly slated to pave the way for the announcement of his Senate run. Worried about his younger brother's lack of experience, JFK, the old pro, grills Teddy, asking the kind of tough questions he expects Teddy will have to answer on the show. It's a sign of Teddy's self-deprecating charm that, to hear him tell the story, JFK was so unimpressed by his answers that he told him to skip going out to dinner, insisting that stay home and come up with some better responses. (The film's footage from the "Meet the Press" appearance allows us to see for ourselves that, early on, Teddy was largely getting by on the strength of his family name.)

One of the other great, rarely seen moments from the film shows Teddy returning to the Senate in the mid-1960s after he'd suffered a broken back in an airplane crash. His brother, Robert Kennedy, then a senator himself from New York, is standing outside, waiting to greet him. What we get to see is RFK spotting Teddy pulling up to the curb, so excited that he starts to dance a little jig, then sprints over to greet his baby brother with a big hug. The documentary has other striking moments. We see Teddy on "The Dick Cavett Show" just days after the Watergate break-in, with Cavett joking that it sounds like a James Bond-style caper; Kennedy campaigning for healthcare legislation way back in 1979, being introduced by an impossibly young Bill Clinton; and the post-JFK and RFK assassination Teddy, surrounded by his family as he announces yet another reelection campaign, looking somber and forlorn, as if he were wishing he could be somewhere--anywhere--else, the mantle of Kennedy-dom looking as if it were far more of a burden than a blessing.

Oddly enough, Kennedy is one of the few politicians who actually looks more comfortable, not to mention more energetic, as he has aged. When you see him in his later years, the young Adonis gone all doughy and white-haired, he finally seems at ease and comfortable in his own skin. He certainly knows how to deliver a roundhouse punch, as he does when he eviscerates some of the Reagan-era cuts in poverty programs by saying, as he shakes his fist in the air: "Ronald Reagan must love poor people because he's creating so many more of them." Once a young idealist, now a lion in winter, Kennedy is someone who was often underestimated, even more often envied, but who turns out to have lived long enough to emerge as a master of the craft of politics. It's nice to see a film that gives us such an intimate view of his life and gives him his due as well.

"Teddy" airs Monday at 9 p.m., again at 10:30 a.m. July 19, 7:30 a.m. July 21, 2:30 p.m. July 25 and 3 p.m. July 29. (Check out our TV critic Mary McNamara's full review of it in Monday's Calendar.)

Photo: A young Ted Kennedy shakes hands with his father Joseph Kennedy in 1938 in London, where the elder Kennedy served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Photo credit: Hulton-Deutch Collection.