Last evening I attended a rather remarkable event: the world premiere screening of the new highly-touted National Geographic Channel TV movie Killing Kennedy. (The program will be telecast on November 10.)What made the evening remarkable was the fact that, instead of premiering the film in a New York or L.A. prestigious venue, National Geographic in association with Cablevision, chose Greenbriar, a senior citizens community in the central New Jersey town of Marlboro. It seems the channel is taking a populist approach to publicizing their most prestigious productions and it was decided to premiere the Kennedy film before an audience of people who were alive during the events recounted on screen. Several politicos were on hand (there is an election in New Jersey next week, after all) including Jonathan Hornki, the mayor of Marlboro -who used some clout to get the event held at Greenbriar- and state senator Joe Kryllos (R). Also in attendance was Charlie Parsons, one of the executive producers. Discussing historical facts among senior citizens who lived through the actual events is generally a risky business. I taught classes about films pertaining to the Cold War to adult ed students at NYU and found that I learned as much from the class as they did, thanks to their personal insights. Thus, National Geographic felt very confident that they had a good product with this high budget, slickly made recreation of the events that unfolded 50 years ago on that somber day in Dallas.
Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin as JFK and Jackie Kennedy.
There are plenty of landmark moments in American history that have taken place over the last century, but few that can be called genuinely seminal. I would list the attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the moon landing, the 9/11 terrorism acts and certainly the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With the 50th anniversary upon us, there is no shortage of beings and entities that are trying to exploit this dreadful day in U.S. history. Some are motivated purely by profit others by profit and a desire to enlighten people. The National Geographic Channel falls squarely into the latter category. Producer Parsons explained that the channel prides itself on presenting fact, not fiction or speculation. He also said the decision was made to go with the traditional theories about the assassination (i.e, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.) This is, in itself, refreshing. The two most prominent major feature films made about the death of Kennedy- Executive Action (1973) and Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)- both propagated conspiracy theories. Parsons didn't endorse or dismiss such theories but simply said that, had the project delved into those waters, the film would have been too large in scope to cover the key events effectively in an 88 minute time slot. There are plenty of intelligent people who believe in the conspiracies and others who are genuine nutcases...the kind of folks who believe President Bush orchestrated the destruction of the World Trade Center and that President Obama is a Marxist illegal alien from Kenya. The channel will take a lot of heat from this crowd for presenting a straight-forward view that Oswald alone killed Kennedy; in essence presenting the Warren Report version of events. However, it is now unusual to see this traditional interpretation of the assassination being put forward since conspiracy-oriented films and TV show have been sucking up all the oxygen on the subject for the last couple of decades.
National Geographic Channel had a major success with their February airing of Killing Lincoln, a truly outstanding production that rightly earned the highest ratings in the channel's history. That film was based on a best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly (yes, that Bill O'Reilly) and his co-author Martin Dugard. The success of the book led to the two collaborating on Killing Kennedy and-most recently- Killing Jesus. Whether you love or loathe O'Reilly for his controversial political punditry on Fox News (and there is no middle ground), you have to credit him for bringing historical events back into the public mainstream through his books. In an increasingly dumbed-down world, anyone who helps elevate interest in history is to be commended. The new Killing Kennedy production represents new ground for National Geographic: it's the channel's first scripted docudrama. (In the parlance of the 1970s, it would be called a "TV movie".) That is, is has no narration and the scripted project stars professional actors. This is a bit risky for a venture that prides itself on historical accuracy as scripted dramas always run the risk of reflecting the biases of the screenwriters. While I don't profess to be a JFK assassination scholar, it seemed to me that overall production was accurate based up on what we know, not supposition. (There is some clunky ambiguity about JFK's removal of missiles from Turkey in order to give Kruschev a fig leaf to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that's a minor criticism.)
Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald
The film traces parallel story lines involving the rendezvous with destiny that both John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were approaching from disparate paths. The movie presents interesting insights into Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union and his ultimate disappointment about living in the decrepit "Worker's Paradise". He ultimately returns to America with his Russian wife with the dream that he will somehow be the center of a major news story. When that fails to happen, his life rapidly disintegrates. His marriage begins to unwind, his wife and children move out and he is relegated to a menial job in the Dallas school book depository from which the deadly shots were fired. Meanwhile, JFK is nursing his wounds over his bungling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and trying to prevent all out nuclear war when the Soviets move missiles into Cuba. The President is very well-played by Rob Lowe, who opts to capture the essence of the character as opposed to attempting a flat-out imitation of the man. It's a wise move. Lowe conveys Kennedy's charm, intelligence and swagger but also reveals his self-centered side through his dalliances with other women (as aspect of White House life that is conveyed strongly, but briefly.) JFK becomes a more mature and thoughtful person following the tragic death of his infant son. Jackie Kennedy (played by Ginnifer Goodwin as a sympathetic and tolerant figure) finally sees her husband becoming the man she knew he could be- but, of course, tragedy will cut short this transformation. Oswald's marriage is also delved into in a detailed way with Michelle Trachtenberg outstanding as his long-suffering Russian immigrant wife. (Impressively, Trachtenberg learned how to speak Russian phonetically from her mother, who was born in the Soviet Union.) As Oswald comes to the realization that his dreams of grandeur are destined for failure, he makes a rather spontaneous decision to make history by assassinating the president. As Oswald, newcomer Will Rothhaar gives a very impressive performance, avoiding the types of pretentious quirks or overt signs of villainy that one might have anticipated. Instead, he plays Oswald as a somewhat sympathetic loser; a man who is capable of having genuine empathy for the civil rights movement, yet is equally capable of manhandling his wife in a rage. Other key historical figures such as LBJ, Jack Ruby and Bobby Kennedy remain peripheral characters out of necessity due to time constraints but every supporting performance is played to perfection. The film actually gets better as it nears its inevitable and tragic conclusion. It's hard to ring suspense out of a drama when we all know how it ends. Fred Zinnemann achieved this with his brilliant 1973 film The Day of the Jackal about a fictitious plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle and director Nelson McCormick manages to do the same with Killing Kennedy. Production values are top-notch as is the editing and cinematography. None of this is surprising given the impressive talent behind the scenes (both Ridley Scott and David Zucker are among the executive producers.) Oliver Stone may get his knickers twisted when he sees this non-conspiratorial view of the JFK assassination but the truth is that no one can say they really know the truth. Despite compelling questions, mysteries and inconsistencies regarding key aspects of the Warren Report, no one has ever produced definitive evidence of a plot that went beyond the mad act of a desperate man who wanted to known for making some kind of mark on society, even if it were to be a tragic one.
Killing Kennedy is sure to get a huge audience when it is broadcast on November 10 (a DVD release will follow shortly thereafter). Hopefully, an enthusiastic response to a production this good will only encourage the National Geographic Channel to continue to elevate the standards of historical dramas with similarly-themed programming. Everyone involved should take a well-deserved bow.