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'JFK, American Experience' review: What might have been

Senator John F. Kennedy in Seattle on the

Senator John F. Kennedy in Seattle on the first day of his presidential campaign in 1959. Credit: CORBIS

THE SHOW "JFK: American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Monday night and Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Over four hours, "AmEx" frames John F. Kennedy's entire life, with appraisals by many leading historians -- including David Nasaw of Roslyn, the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York -- along with a few family interviews, most notably Jean Kennedy Smith, 85, last surviving child of Joseph Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

MY SAY "JFK" breaks no new ground, offers no new assessments, and doesn't tell people anything they didn't already know -- unless they haven't been paying attention the past 50 years. This is JFK by the book. But that's fine, and, in fact, a virtue. A week and a half before the 50th anniversary of the assassination, there probably are plenty of viewers who need -- and want -- a reminder of why the country grieved so deeply, and in one real sense, still does, considering the industry in conspiracy theories that so desperately seeks closure.

"JFK" provides exactly that, but also offers a convenient boundary, so viewers can decide which night they want to watch. The best is Tuesday's, which covers the presidency. Monday night's is fast and perfunctory -- a portrait of callow, privileged youth through the 1960 run for the White House. Tuesday covers not quite three years -- January 1961 to November 1963. "JFK" indicates Kennedy's entire legacy rests on just one 13-month period, from October 1962 until his death.

That was when civil rights legislation began, a nuclear test ban treaty was forged and (of course) the Cuban missile crisis was resolved. It's all cleanly, crisply told, while the assessments seem exactly right. But Tuesday's episode also reveals a president getting a second wind, learning from his mistakes, and finally realizing his full potential. As one commentator says, that's the vital image "fixed" forever in our minds -- and one that still stokes a measure of melancholy over what might have been.

BOTTOM LINE Good primer Monday night, though Tuesday is better.

GRADES Monday night: B; Tuesday: A

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