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Docurama presents
Taking on the Kennedys (1996)

"Underdogs are what America is all about." 
- Kevin Vigilante, in his race for Congress against Patrick Kennedy

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 16, 2005

Stars: Kevin Vigilante, Patrick Kennedy
Other Stars: Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., Buddy Cianci, Tony Bennett
Director: Joshua Seftel

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:51m:30s
Release Date: January 25, 2005
UPC: 767685965832
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+BB- B-

DVD Review

So what's your image of choice of the Kennedy family? Do they occupy the rarified air of Camelot? Or have they taken a Marxian turn, from tragedy (JFK, RFK) to farce (William Kennedy Smith)? That's not exactly the subject of this documentary, but it may color your response to it. This is an inside look at the campaign of Kevin Vigilante, a doctor working with the poorest citizens of Providence, who decided, in 1994, to run for Congress; he won the Republican nomination, and his opponent in the general election was Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island legislator and, not incidentally, youngest son of Senator Ted Kennedy. This isn't exactly a David-and-Goliath story, but it's telling about the ways of hardball politics, especially when you've got some serious family muscle to back you up.

Vigilante, when we meet him, seems like more than a solid citizen: he works at an inner-city clinic, and brings both expertise and compassion to his patients. Why exactly he decides to run for office is never made entirely clear; but after he fights off a primary opponent, he goes toe to toe with young Patrick, and even the most ardent Democrat would have to admit that with a different surname, this callow young man in his 20s would certainly not be taken seriously in this sort of race. Patrick has the full Kennedy apparatus at his disposal—Dad comes over from Massachusetts to campaign, as does cousin Caroline; now, with the benefit of hindsight, the appearance at the polls of John Kennedy Jr. seems more rueful than comic, but still, there's humor in JFK Jr.'s rock star status: he poses for Polaroids outside polling places with prospective voters, then encourages them to go on inside and vote for cousin Pat. Patrick himself isn't nearly as dynamic, but he's got the right blood lines—as a sweet old lady says when she meets him at a barbeque: "He's a Kennedy, you understand? A Kennedy."

But the focus is more solidly on Vigilante, and his transformation really is sort of a sad one—the gloves come off early in this battle, and Vigilante, who starts with such honorable intentions, seeks merely to inflict as much public damage on his opponent as possible. It's sort of amateur hour at his campaign—his brother shows up at a Kennedy press conference merely to heckle, and he's taken on a political consultant, who seems to be sort of Carville Lite. Faring even worse on screen than the good doctor is his wife, who seems to transform before our eyes from adoring political spouse in the Pat Nixon mode into a vengeful dragon lady spewing Kennedy hatred.

Some of the best stuff here has to do with the context of the race; Rhode Island is notorious for its political corruption, and of course there's the obligatory appearance by former Providence mayor and current prison inmate Buddy Cianci. Joshua Seftel's documentary is at its best with Vigilante when the candidate is in combat with his opponent; in fairness, this film should probably have been called Taking on the Kennedy. The outcome of the race is never really in doubt; Patrick Kennedy really seems like more of a dilettante than a monster. Still, it's a candid and frequently disheartening tale about a decent man getting punished for wanting to become involved in public life.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The handheld camera work looks a little shaky and grainy, but then, that's what you'd expect; the transfer itself seems to have been done with appropriate care.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: You may have heard talk of Providence's awful traffic patterns; you'll certainly get an earful from the location shooting. Also, high marks to the filmmakers for opening and closing with the delightful Blossom Dearie and her version of Rhode Island Is Famous For You.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
10 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back , Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Keep the River On Your Right, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, See How They Run, The Smashing Machine, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, The Weather Underground
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Deleted Scenes
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Joshua Seftel
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. original campaign ads for Vigilante and Kennedy
  2. Docurama catalog
Extras Review: Director Joshua Seftel provides an informative commentary track, recorded in September 2004, ten years after he made the film; he had a pre-existing relationship with Vigilante—Seftel had made a documentary about Vigilante's work with Romanian orphans—and so the director, a self-described liberal Democrat, but aside his differences to make this movie: "I always thought that he was a good guy, so I was surprised to learn that he's a Republican." The Kennedy camp was much more hostile; they saw that they had nothing to gain by granting Seftel access. (As the director remembers, "Neither campaign really wanted me around.") He also discusses the influences on this movie, which are pretty readily evident: Robert Drew's Primary, The War Room, and The Candidate.

The one outtake (01m:05s) is of Vigilante's concession phone call to Kennedy, in which he puts on the best face he can. You can nearly smell the sewage flying with the original campaign commercials—there are four 30-second spots from Vigilante's campaign, and five from Kennedy's. What's billed as a making-of documentary (03m:30s) is really a chat with the filmmaker's parents, in their home in Schenectady, NY; they're proud of their boy, but it's about as interesting as watching some other family's home movies. An interview (01m:03s) with Seftel is very brief, as is the promo spot for P.O.V., the PBS series on which this first aired.

Perhaps most interesting of all is The Real Russell (13m:19s), a piece commissioned by CBS News in 1996; Seftel teams up with journalist Michael Lewis to visit the home town of Bob Dole, where the residents are hoping that a victory by the Republican candidate in that year's Presidential campaign will save their village. It's really kind of a smarmy exercise, though it's heartbreaking, too, these people with a huge financial incentive in the Bob Dole industry; Lewis and Seftel soon get bigfooted, though, when the national press corps comes to town. (Gracious heavens, it's Barbara Walters!) Seftel provides commentary on this, too; the folks at CBS hired him for this after seeing Taking on the Kennedys, and the director teamed up with Lewis after reading Lewis's campaign pieces in The New Republic; ultimately, though, the network didn't know what to do with it, and it never aired.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A sharp, almost acrid look at how fame and reflected glory frequently trump policy issues and the public interest in the political arena. If you've ever gone to the voting booth, held your nose and chosen between the lesser of two evils, you'll learn something about how things got that way from this documentary. 


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