Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Of the thousands of ways to begin the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Killing Kennedy settles on the most obvious: Lee Harvey Oswald heading into work on November 22, 1963, with murder on his mind. Turning one of the most famous acts of violence in American history into a time-jump cold open isn’t tasteless or offensive—but it is predictable, unimaginative, and deeply uninspired. After 50 years of books, movies, and TV shows about Kennedy’s death and Oswald’s involvement, there’s little tension to be had from showing a weaselly man take aim from the window of a Texas book depository. The visual is familiar, and while the context provides some basic eeriness, there’s nothing new to be had from simple repetition.
Adapted from the book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Killing Kennedy follows the lives of victim and killer, cutting between JFK and Oswald over the four years prior to that fateful day in Dallas. Oswald renounces his citizenship and moves to Russia just as Kennedy ascends to the highest office in the land; Oswald struggles with cold winters and surly co-workers as Kennedy faces self-doubt and his first major ordeal in the Cuban missile crisis. Scenes are short, pragmatic, and light on complexity, as characters converse through dialogue that is by turns expository and trite. The characterizations are broad and muted: Oswald is angry, desperate, and hungry for fame, while Kennedy, occasional dalliances aside, is a noble white knight struggling to hold onto his dignity in the face of a compromised, cynical world. Events play out in abbreviated form, as if the entire movie was intended as supplementary material for a grade-school class on American history.
The film’s main draw is its cast, primarily for name value. Rob Lowe finds his favorite note for Kennedy early on—sorrowful nobility—and largely sticks with it; his accent skirts caricature only because any attempt at the Kennedy accent skirts caricature, and his work never hits the highs or lows that great camp requires. As Oswald, Will Rothhaar is the only member of the main cast to disappear into his part, largely because Oswald is, understandably, the most dynamic figure in the story. Rothhaar sells the resentment and pettiness well enough, even though the portrayal never gets past the most obvious conclusions.
But at least he has an arc. Killing Kennedy does its best to emphasize the presence of its two leads’ wives, with limited results. Ginnifer Goodwin’s Jacqueline Kennedy comes across as a woman alternately wounded by and doting on her husband, while, as Marina Oswald, Michelle Trachtenberg manages a strong Russian accent and a face perpetually on the border of wounded surprise.
It’s hard to blame either actress for their work, though, since the script is so determined to stick to the same handful of beats. The subtitle of O’Reilly and Dugan’s book is The End Of Camelot, and in case that over-used (and childishly banal) metaphor fails to register with viewers, the adaptation makes sure to underline the concept in as literal a fashion as possible. Kennedy’s womanizing is limited to a handful of scenes—a laughing conversation with two young women, a late-night skinny dip in the White House pool—and while it’s acknowledged that these events put a slight damper on his relationship with his wife, the infidelities are quickly put aside in favor of sentimental, unconvincing protestations of devotion. His leadership is a pure and perfect good, a hero standing up to the decadence of old politics. (It doesn’t help that the government appears to be staffed by maybe a dozen people—the Kennedys are less like the First Couple and more like honeymooners on a private island.) Oswald’s domineering attitude toward Marina is evident, but, like Kennedy’s sexual adventures, limited largely to implication—there’s physical abuse in one scene, a black eye on Marina’s face in another, but these events are noted with a perfunctory emptiness. These aren’t people—they’re animatronic figures going through the motions.
What little value Killing Kennedy has to offer, then, is in its straightforward presentation of basic facts. There’s no real attempt at authenticity or immediacy, but the clarity of simple A to B to C storytelling offers some satisfaction. On the whole, it’s an unengaged affair. If anyone involved was trying to convince the audience that something precious was lost when Oswald took aim, they should’ve tried harder.
Directed by: Nelson McCormick; adapted from the book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Airs: Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic
Format: Historical biopic