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History in a rush: National Geo's Killing Kennedy

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Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald co-stars with Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin in Killing Kennedy. National Geographic Channel photo

From a pure publicity standpoint, this month’s Kennedy assassination anniversary onslaught is led by National Geographic Channel’s Killing Kennedy.

It’s adapted from the huge bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, includes a name brand star in Rob Lowe and has been advertised all over the place. The drum-beating included a day-and-a-half junket last month, in which media members were flown to North Texas for a screening of the movie and a bus tour through sites tied to the dark day of Nov. 22, 1963.

Despite all this, the Sunday, Nov. 10th premiere of Killing Kennedy (7 p.m. central on National Geo) will likely attract only a relative handful of real-time viewers in the city where it all happened. That’s because it just happens to be scheduled opposite the Dallas Cowboys-New Orleans Saints game on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

The Cowboys’ first two SNF games this season each drew more than 1.5 million D-FW viewers, ranking them one-two among the nine games played so far. Killing Kennedy may well find its way onto a good number of recording devices for its Sunday night unveiling. But while the Cowboys are on, other programming bets for the most part are off.

Directed by Nelson McCormick (Prom Night) with a screenplay by Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), the film is competently made and superior to National Geo’s narrative-heavy Killing Lincoln, which aired last February. It’s also “stolen” in large part by the relatively unknown Will Rothhaar, whose portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald gets more screen time and makes a sharper impression.

Lowe’s John F. Kennedy is suitably Eastern accented but somewhat flat. Jack Noseworthy as Bobby Kennedy never really registers at all. Nor does Francis Guinan’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, who mostly stands around colorlessly.

Ginnifer Goodwin, currently starring in ABC’s Once Upon A Time, has some solid scenes as Jacqueline Kennedy. But they primarily come after JFK is dead and she’s grieving him at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The film’s other principal, Oswald’s abused wife, Marina, is well-played by Michelle Trachtenberg, who navigates the part by speaking either in Russian or broken English. Casey Siemaszko chips in with a few scenes as Jack Ruby, the strip club owner who impulsively killed Oswald.

None of Killing Kennedy was filmed in Dallas. National Geo instead opted for Richmond, VA and a fast-paced 18-day shooting schedule. The filmmakers also had to cram a lot of story into an actual running time of less than 90 minutes. Commercials will fill the rest of a two-hour time slot.

The required hurry-up storytelling short-cuts its way through the bungled Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis and President Kennedy’s White House womanizing. The latter is accomplished via a scene of giggling interns in the company of JFK, followed by some frolicking in the White House pool. An eavesdropping, crestfallen Jackie is told that the pool is closed. But she later drops in to see a bikini top afloat in otherwise still waters before Bobby privately lectures Jack on his “woman problem” and tells him to cut it out. Cut, print, let’s move on.

Rothhaar’s Oswald in turn is depicted as a moody nobody yearning to be a somebody. On two occasions he envisions himself as a big-time newsmaker being interviewed by a gaggle of reporters. Instead the FBI dogs him before deducing he’s far more of a wacko than a Russian spy. Oswald’s domestic policies -- “You just do as I say. I’m the man of this house” -- include physical reinforcement. His slapping of Marina foreshadows a later scene in which she suddenly has a badly bruised left eye.

Some of the Jack and Jackie interludes are painfully awkward. Fuming over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he tells his commiserating wife, “I’m supposed to be the most powerful man in the world. And I’m impotent. Well, I’ll tell you what. This is the last time anybody’s going to make a decision like that for me.”

Later, after their baby Patrick lives just two days, Jack tries a little tenderness while also ordering Jackie to get some rest on the Greek Isles. “I want you to be very careful around that Onassis character,” he adds. “And then I want you to come back to me.” Jackie responds with a somewhat quizzical look at her Commander in Chief.

Meanwhile, Dallas takes a number of heavy/heavy-handed punches during the course of firming up its “City of Hate” credentials.

“Dallas no good,” says Marina.

“Dallas isn’t safe,” says LBJ.

“Dallas is the murder capital of the country,” says a fed who’s worried about the president’s security.

“We’re headed into nut country today,” JFK tells Jackie after she shows him a “Wanted For Treason” leaflet being distributed in Dallas.

In a brief scene at Ruby’s Carousel Club, a Dallas cop derides JFK as a “traitor” who “should be shot.” Ruby cries foul, but then browbeats a bartender who hasn’t been quick enough in serving his cop friends some drinks.

Killing Kennedy easily could have been twice its length, the better to add both nuance and context. Instead it’s a watchable film with many missing parts, a broadly drawn Classics Illustrated version of what happened and why.

Older veterans of many an assassination anniversary easily will be able to fill in many of the missing details. Younger ones will mostly be at a loss when it comes to the film’s cryptic reference to “that Onassis character.” Hey, kids, tycoon Aristotle Onassis became the future husband of Jacqueline Kennedy. And now you know.

GRADE: B-minus

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