By Ken Tucker
Updated November 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

By now, John F. Kennedy exists less as a figure in history than as a series of dreams culminating in a nightmare. The nightmare, his assassination in 1963, should have served to make the dreams — the pop anecdotes about his idyllic big- family childhood, his heroic war years, and his destiny as President of the United States — more vivid and poignant. But over the 30 years since his death, the story of JFK’s career has been told so many times that the details have blurred into myth. Then too, no retelling of Kennedy’s tale these days is thought to be complete without containing some criticism of him — some portentous revelation that he was a shameless philanderer, a vacillating leader, or worse.

The third-decade commemoration of Kennedy’s death has brought an avalanche of JFK-related material to television, reaching as far afield as a portrait of the wife of his assassin, Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald, and a Larry King call-in special, November 22, 1963: Where Were You?. The most prominent piece of revisionist entertainment, however, is JFK: Reckless Youth, an adaptation of Nigel Hamilton’s 1992 best-selling biography about Kennedy’s years through his election to Congress in 1946.

In an afterword to the new paperback version of his book, Hamilton notes with barely disguised glee that the initial publication of Reckless Youth “generated more controversy than its author had envisioned.” Hamilton quotes a letter that a number of Kennedy family members sent last year to The New York Times denouncing the book as “reckless biography” and Hamilton’s work as “not worth the paper it is printed on.”

Whether you think the TV version of Reckless Youth is worth the film it was recorded on probably depends on how you feel about the value of a few good acting performances. It’s difficult to imagine that this four-hour production will rile the offended Kennedys, since the TV Reckless Youth mostly just retells all the JFK dreams and includes an elaborately staged reenactment of Kennedy’s naval experiences aboard PT 109.

Patrick Dempsey (In the Mood, Mobsters) captures Kennedy’s charming cockiness and assays the family’s upper-crust Boston accent without turning it into a comic impersonation. But the teleplay, by China Beach‘s William Broyles Jr., is at least as interested in the ambitions of John’s father, Joseph, who gets nearly as much screen time as JFK himself. The elder Kennedy is played by Terry Kinney of The Firm (but best remembered by some of us as one of Polly Draper’s more badly behaved boyfriends in thirtysomething), who is physically perfect for the role. Kinney brings a convincing ferocity to wet-noodle lines like “Don’t mess with me — I get what I want!”