With just two weeks until the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, tributes aren't exactly in short supply. But in the large pool of films and documentaries devoted to JFK, National Geographic's Killing Kennedy might be the most ambitious.
On Sunday, National Geographic is premiering Killing Kennedy, a docudrama based on the Bill O'Reilly book of the same name. The film's bifurcated approach splits its narrative between John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, beginning with Kennedy's election and depicting the events that led to November 22, 1963. I recently attended a press junket in Texas that culminated with a screening of Killing Kennedy in the same movie theater where Oswald was captured and arrested.
National Geographic and producer Ridley Scott have assembled a formidable cast to bring this story to life. Killing Kennedy boasts lead performances from Rob Lowe (John F. Kennedy), Ginnifer Goodwin (Jackie Kennedy), Will Rothhaar (Lee Harvey Oswald), and Michelle Trachtenberg (Marina Oswald). Based on the movie's extensive promotional campaign, it's clear that Lowe and Goodwin are supposed to be the main draws here — but as it turn out, the far more interesting story in Killing Kennedy is the one that follows Lee Harvey Oswald and Marina.
The strength of the Oswald narrative is aided in no small part by the excellent performances of Rothhaar and Trachtenberg. Rothhaar is easily the least famous of the four main cast members — if you've seen him in anything recently, it was probably in a supporting role on ABC's short-lived drama Last Resort — but he turns in Killing Kennedy's strongest performance. His Oswald is smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is, and he carries a perpetual chip on his shoulder that makes him simultaneously sympathetic and infuriating. Most adaptations of the Kennedy assassination simplify Oswald, or relegate him to a minor character. Rothhaar's performance is the most complete and comprehensible Oswald I've seen on screen.
Almost as strong is Trachtenberg, fleshing out a role that could easily have been the thinnest in Killing Kennedy. As a Russian woman who married Oswald less than two months after they first met, she reluctantly defected with him from the Soviet Union to the United States. Her Marina is trapped; a woman locked in a failing marriage with a husband who's becoming increasingly unhinged, and stuck in a country with few friends. She barely speaks the language. (Trachtenberg actually speaks fluent Russian, but has never had the chance to use it in a performance until now.) It's a tragic story, and one that's been underrepresented in the conventional narrative of the JFK assassination.
Meanwhile... I'm not sure Killing Kennedy actually needed the Kennedys. The film makes a perfunctory march through his election, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unlike the story of Lee Harvey Oswald — which is clearly where both the story and the filmmakers' true interests lie — these scenes feel dutiful and undernourished; other than a brief depiction of JFK skinny-dipping with a couple young conquests, there's nothing here that paints him as anything other than a saint.
Lowe is solid but unspectacular as Kennedy, with a decent resemblance and an accent that he maintains most of the time. Goodwin, who doesn't really resemble Jackie Kennedy, manages to make up for it with a strong performance — particularly in the heartrending scenes immediately after JFK's death. When there are flaws in their performances, it's hard to blame either of them; over the past 50 years, the Kennedys have become so deeply embedded in popular culture that attempting to channel them has an inevitable degree of caricature. Unfortunately, the script doesn't help, with a few too many winks at the audience — including a groan-worthy scene in which JFK alludes to his skepticism of Artistotle Onassis.
Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed to learn that Killing Kennedy walks the party line on the Kennedy assassination. While the film doesn't explicitly dismiss the idea of a second shooter, Oswald is depicted firing at Kennedy from the window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, and Jack Ruby is depicted as a regular guy who was simply enraged at what Oswald had done to Jackie Kennedy. Over the next few weeks, there will be no shortage of documentaries exploring the many, many controversies, inconsistencies, and theories about the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination. Killing Kennedy ignores those issues in favor of character and storytelling clarity, which will undoubtedly relieve some viewers as much as it irritates others.
Killing Kennedy is certainly not the last word on the Kennedy assassination, but it's worth watching. It's a beautifully shot, generally well-acted drama that works hard to strip away all the muddled, controversial details that have clouded the Kennedy assassination and present it as it truly was: An American tragedy. As we prepare to commemorate John F. Kennedy on the anniversary of his death, it's worth taking the opportunity to reflect on the real people who have long since become a part of a national legend.