'The Rat Pack' Revisited HBO Brings the Swingin '60S to Life in This Dubious Story of Frank Sinatra's Political Dealings

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Byline: Ted Cox TV/radio columnist

Pity poor Bill Clinton. No sooner does he get to be leader of the free world than they close all the loopholes on having presidential fun. If only he had held office in the JFK era of the early '60s, he would have had Marilyn Monroe fawning over him and Frank Sinatra pimping for him.

In any case, that's the impression of the times created by "The Rat Pack," a new made-for-TV movie based on Sinatra and his singing, swinging, '60s cronies, which debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO. It does a generally fine job of capturing both the grace points and the excesses of the main characters. But the story's framing device - which concerns Sinatra's rise and fall in presidential politics - is considerably more dubious.

Understand, I'm not suggesting Sinatra didn't pal around with the prez and do him some considerable favors. But the film strains credibility with the way Old Joe Kennedy micromanages his son's political affairs, right down to having Sinatra swing the 1960 West Virginia primary by using his mob influence to call off the Teamsters. Old Joe pulled strings, sure, but I don't believe he was all that concerned with the minutiae of Sinatra's life. Here, you almost expect him to call Sinatra up and order him to record a Nelson Riddle version of "Danny Boy" on his next album.

Screenwriter Kario Salem (who previously did the fine docudrama "Don King: Only in America" for HBO) must have believed he couldn't have the title characters - Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford - just hanging around acting cool. The story needed something for narrative drive. But I think most viewers will find the JFK angle to be a distraction. Maybe it would have been enough to turn this movie into a four- or five-man character sketch.

Because the thing that carries "The Rat Pack" is the high spirits of the actors. Ray Liotta as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Martin, Don Cheadle as Davis and, yes, even Billy Peterson as JFK all revel in their roles and the license they're allowed as the reigning arbiters of '60s taste. They have a blast, baby; if you're willing to let the movie play fast and loose with history, it's a kick.

From the opening montage of the accouterments of cool (rows of suits, drawers lined with show hankies and dishes filled with cigarettes that are scooped up by the fistful like M&Ms), Rob Cohen's direction is stylish, as is the production design, all woody browns and golds when it's not flashing neon. Into this milieu strolls Sinatra in the twilight of his career, ordering flunkies to "match me" only to break down and confess, "I miss my guys." This preamble reverie flashes back to the '60s and the glory days of the Rat Pack.

Mantegna and Cheadle both bring unexpected depth to their characters. …