Killing Kennedy (2013) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for thematic material, some violence, and mild language
Running Time: 90 min.

Cast: Rob Lowe, Will Rothhaar, Ginnifer Goodwin, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jack Noseworthy, Casey Siemasszko, Francis Guinan
Director: Nelson McCormick
Screenplay: Kelly Masterson (based on the novel by Bill O'Reilly)

Review published November 12, 2013

Killing Kennedy is an original movie produced for the National Geographic Channel (who must think that showing the assassination of a president is a nifty way to learn about Dallas buildings and streets), released in November of 2013, capitalizing on the interest in the subject due to the 50th anniversary of the tragic event. Based on the best-selling novel by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly with Martin Dugard, the film isn't strictly about the killing of John F. Kennedy at the end of Lee Harvey Oswald's rifle, as we spend a great deal of time going through several of the major events of the Kennedy presidency (including, for some reason, his bad back and his propensity to philander), juxtaposed with Oswald's whereabouts and political pursuits that eventually culminated with his taking up arms.

Such things as the Cuban missile crisis are given quite a bit of screen time, as the film posits that Oswald (Rothhaar, Battle: Los Angeles), a disillusioned convert to Communism, had a beef with Kennedy (Lowe, The Invention of Lying) because he felt that Cuba should have been allowed some autonomy to do such things as 'defend itself' by having nuclear missiles aimed at the United States. While the film gives us this tidbit as to why Oswald may have felt compelled to strike out at an agent of the government (Oswald is also shown attempting to assassinate anti-communist conservative General Edwin A. Walker), it doesn't delve into why he fostered such radical notions to begin with, or what might compel him to travel to Russia in order to defect.

The casting in the film is impressive for a basic cable production, but spotty in terms of how fitting these actors are to play their roles. Ginnifer Goodwin (Walk the Line) is good actress in light comedies and standard dramas, but a terrible choice to play Jackie Kennedy, particularly in her inability to emote in a convincing way during the post-assassination sequences. Rob Lowe sports the hair and general likeness of JFK, and underplays the Massachusetts accent respectably, but he's more of a Ken Doll than a living, breathing human being in this sketchy dramatization. Of course, with two public figures as well-known as the Kennedys, it's difficult to match exactly with the people we have in our minds as viewers, which may be why the actors that play the Oswalds seem to fare better.

Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald is effectively creepy and occasionally manic as the Travis Bickle-esque amoral assassin, while Michelle Trachtenberg (Cop Out), a fluent speaker of Russian (from her mother's side), gives the couple all of the conscience that Lee lacks as his wife, Marina. One wonders how much more effective the film might have played were they the sole focal point of the piece, perhaps in a style akin to the Hitchcock film Suspicion, rather than doling out soap opera-worthy moments that explore the Kennedy mythos. Nevertheless, Jack Noseworthy (Surrogates) gives a compelling Robert Kennedy, and nails the emotional scene in which he is told of his brother's death.

The direction from TV vet Nelson McCormick (The Stepfather, Prom Night) is nothing spectacular, working within what is obviously a very limited budget to try to present events that take place on a fairly large scale. The dialogue by Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) is too often wince-inducingly on the nose, and crosses the line often into camp. For one example, shortly before she takes a trip to Greece, JFK tells Jackie, "I want you to be careful around that Onassis character."  Ugh.

There are plenty of moments of forced foreshadowing, meant perhaps to evoke a tearful moment later in the film, with Jackie or JFK telling each other they'd rather die than live without one another. The structure of the narrative tries to draw out some parallels between the lives of Oswald and Kennedy (rise to prominence, their relationships, their disparate funerals), though, really, they're like ships crashing in the night, with nothing to connect them except the incident between killer and victim. Elevating Oswald, who is already shown as suffering from his own delusions of grandeur, as an important figure worthy of constant comparison to Kennedy strikes me as in poor taste.

Stock footage is used throughout in ways that make the film feel rushed and cheap. When cutting to a new locale, instead of a newly-shot view of the outside of the White House, we have a grainy clip from what one presumes is the National Geographic film vault. Real-life news reports filling in the blanks of the country's reaction to the events don't quite jibe well with the dramatized footage, but at least they play a good deal better than the reenacted television footage, with digitized "grain" to make these clips look authentic, though they fall quite short of the mark.

Killing Kennedy isn't without its smaller pleasures (the 1960s wardrobe and hairstyles do feel authentic), but as an encapsulation of the events leading up to, and after, November 22, 1963, it feels like a high school production given some modest star treatment, rather than a made-for-TV event worth seeking out. With so many other, better films that cover the same subject matter, what's the point? Killing Kennedy will kill little more than two hours of your life. 

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo