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A mix of narrative and documentary that works better than it sounds, Killing Kennedy—premiering on National Geographic Channel Nov. 10—provides a tantalizing, if shallow, taste of history.
This is the second in a trilogy based on books by Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly; the first, Killing Lincoln, earned the channel record-high ratings in February and Killing Jesus is planned for 2014.
O’Reilly’s controversial book, which many critics accuse of ignoring unanswered questions about Kennedy’s assassination, only contributes the skeleton of the movie. Killing Kennedy, like Killing Lincoln before it, is much more intent on empathizing with the assassin than in resurrecting a dead president.
The high-caliber cast—Rob Lowe as John F. Kennedy, Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy, Jack Noseworthy as Bobby Kennedy—prevent the Kennedys from becoming mere cameos in a movie that plays hopscotch with the major events that defined JFK’s presidency, barely touching on the Bay of Pigs invasion or civil rights. Instead, the movie spends time on JFK’s womanizing, including one pool scene that features a woman’s nude behind. (Later, another character, Jack Ruby, is introduced in a strip club.)
Lee Harvey Oswald’s life runs parallel to JFK’s, in this portrayal. Will Rothhaar, who plays Oswald, told WORLD he played him as desperate for love and support. Oswald in the movie is a bully, a self-pitying, self-righteous narcissist. And not particularly clever.
In contrast to Goodwin’s misty-eyed, in-love, and endlessly supportive Jackie, Oswald’s Russian-speaking wife Marina—played by Michelle Trachtenberg —questions her husband’s character and actions. At one point, Oswald slaps her.
If you are as ignorant of history as National Geographic assumes, you might learn a few superficial details from this movie. But the details O’Reilly’s book dwelt on are lost in favor of compelling visuals. The movie recreates many of the iconic shots from JFK’s presidency, and plucks others from the archives.
The movie never loses sight of the fact that it is retelling history—though it uses a light touch that allows for some moments of levity—and that gives it gravitas even though much is left untold.