Following its well-made, highly rated Killing Lincoln movie last spring, National Geographic Channel joins the cable race to get a program commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the air with Killing Kennedy (8 p.m. Sunday).
Like Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy is based on a book by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard. It’s one in a sea of Kennedy-themed programs airing this month in connection with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
With a roughly $6 million price tag, Killing Kennedy is undoubtedly the costliest project. Written by Kelly Masterson and directed by Nelson McCormick, Killing Kennedy comes off as one of those period pieces rattling through a checklist of historic moments – JFK cheats on Jackie, check! Jackie loses a baby, check! JFK takes on the Cuban missile crisis, check! JFK schedules a fateful trip to Dallas, check! – in a clinical way that doesn’t really build and define the characters, just marches with them through time to their fates.
But the film does offer one angle that viewers haven’t seen as regularly in a dozen other miniseries or TV movies: Killing Kennedy gives equal weight to Kennedy (Rob Lowe) and his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar).
If anything, the film may even spend a little more time with Oswald, who’s shown trying to renounce his American citizenship with a move to the Soviet Union, marrying a Russian bride (Michelle Trachtenberg) and plotting against other political enemies before the assassination of JFK.
But if this added portrait helps differentiate Killing Kennedy, it remains a sketchy unfocused view of Oswald that doesn’t do much to address his motivation or animus toward the United States government, though it does show his deluded mental state as he imagines himself as a more important figure – interviewed by reporters! – than anyone else considered him before the assassination.
Somewhat preposterously, the film tries to create a false equivalency between the two men: When Kennedy suffers embarrassment with the Bay of Pigs invasion, Oswald gets beat up in a Russian factory.
As Jackie, Ginnifer Goodwin does a better job approximating Jackie’s accent and breathy voice than Katie Holmes managed in the last major Kennedy biopic, ReelzChannel’s The Kennedys in 2011.
Killing Kennedy deserves some credit for attempting to retell the JFK assassination in a slightly different way, but it doesn’t go far enough in getting at the underpinnings of Oswald’s character and motivation. It’s largely just the same-old, same-old JFK story.