Broadcast and basic cable network schedules during the next three weeks are going to be filled with documentaries and special news programs marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Overload seems to be inevitable, as does relentless repetition, no matter how the subject matter is explored. But there are two very different productions coming from National Geographic Channel that will in many ways stand out from the rest.
To begin with the most ambitious project, “Killing Kennedy,” a made-for-television movie based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, will premiere on National Geographic Channel on Sunday, November 10. The book is a great read, filled with information about President Kennedy and his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald that I wasn’t aware of, even after a lifetime of school lectures, television programs, magazine articles, movies and books about what had been the single most life-altering experience for the American public in modern history until the horrors of September 11, 2001. Understandably, the National Geographic Channel film adaptation is not as rich with period detail as the book in telling the stories of the adult lives of these two men, which tragically intersected on November 22, 1963. How could it be?
Nevertheless, director Nelson McCormick has done an outstanding job packing the book’s most vital scenes and vivid moments involving Kennedy and Oswald and the many important people in both of their lives into a relatively compact production (approximately ninety minutes without commercials) that could also have worked as an extended miniseries. There is never a dull moment in the telling (or re-telling) of a story everyone already knows a good deal about, whether from memory or school lessons.
The two big stars who are drawing the most attention to the film are Rob Lowe, who portrays President Kennedy, and Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. They’re both just fine in their roles, but the movie really belongs to Will Rothhaar and Michelle Trachtenberg as Oswald and his wife, Marina. Rothhaar in particular is riveting throughout, and I have to think we’re going to see a lot more of him once Hollywood sees this movie. In some ways I wish the film had focused exclusively on Oswald’s eerie story, just to see Rothhaar dig even deeper into his portrayal of a man who in the span of six seconds changed the lives of almost everyone on the planet at the time and for generations to come. Yes, he’s that good.
(An aside about the “Killing Kennedy” book: I read it on a recent flight and was struck by the number of people who stopped by my chair in the terminal and at my aisle seat on the plane to remark on it. These people had read it, or were reading it, or were planning to do so. That’s the impact an eye-catching book cover can make. I have had many such random conversations about books on trains and planes, all of them pleasant, and I can’t help but think that if I chose to read them on an e-reader rather than the old fashioned way I would lose this spontaneous social interaction with people I would otherwise never meet — unless they peered over my shoulder to see what I was reading, something I wouldn’t care for at all.)
The other outstanding Kennedy program coming up on National Geographic Channel (on November 8) is “JFK: The Final Hours,” a documentary that reviews in deep detail the last night and day of John F. Kennedy’s life as they played out in San Antonio, Fort Worth and Dallas. There are interesting interviews throughout with many of the people that the Kennedys and Oswald came in contact with during the hours before the assassination, including Julian Reed, the media representative for Texas Governor John B. Connally, who hosted the president’s fateful visit to the Lone Star State; Buell Frazier, a co-worker who drove Oswald to the Texas Schoolbook Depository on November 22 with a package wrapped in brown paper in the back seat that would turn out to contain the rifle that killed Kennedy, and Cornelia Friedman, the wife of former Fort Worth Mayor Bayard Friedman. The Friedmans were seated alongside the Kennedys at the Nov. 22 breakfast at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth that would turn out to be the president’s final meal.
But what makes “JFK: The Final Hours” the best documentary about the murder of President Kennedy since History Channel’s extraordinary “JFK: 3 Shots that Changed America” in 2009 is that, whether by design or default, it showcases the President and the First Lady at their very best, exactly the way most people think of them. As seen in archival footage, they both seemed to greatly enjoy every minute of their time in Texas right up to the moment Oswald fired his gun. History often focuses on the horror of the event and the dark times that followed, but “The Final Hours” reveals the happiness and sense of hope that the Kennedys (and the thousands of people they came into contact with) were enjoying before the unthinkable occurred. That’s a new way of looking at a terrible story that I never thought was possible.
Source: MediaPost, 11/6/13