TV on Blu-ray Review: Killing Kennedy (2013)

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A succinct greatest hits album like compilation of the biggest moments from JFK’s presidency, this made for National Geographic Channel cable movie is based on the eponymous best-selling nonfiction work by Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly and author Martin Dugard.

Using an interesting crisscross timeline device, Killing Kennedy compares and contrasts the final years of the life of both John F. Kennedy (Rob Lowe) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar), the man who would bring it to an untimely end on November 22, 1963.

But even though it opens with that fateful event, it leaves the conspiracy theories and post-assassination investigative aftermath to others, quickly cutting back four years earlier in time when Oswald traveled to an American embassy in Moscow to renounce his citizenship and defect to the Soviet Union as a Marxist.

An outsider wherever he goes, Oswald is accused of being an American spy in the Minsk radio factory where he works and a Soviet Spy back in the states after the former U.S. Marine gave in and returned home to Dallas, tired of both the cold weather and chilly reception from his Russian coworkers.

However his dedication to the communist cause and Cuba in particular grew stronger than ever as depicted in the film from director Nelson McCormick, which chronicles Oswald’s increasing dissatisfaction with society and alienation from family and friends, including his long-suffering Russian wife Marina (beautifully played by scene-stealer Michelle Trachtenberg).

While Oswald’s storyline is filled with details audiences may not have been as familiar with including a few facts involving how he was caught by police that caught me completely by surprise, needless to say everything in the Kennedy storyline was predictable, given the number of times that JFK’s presidency has been captured on film.

And by now following the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination, JFK has become one of the most documented American presidents in the history of the medium. While his movie star good looks and untimely end are certainly part of his mystique, he was also our first “onscreen president."

From the announcement of his candidacy to when he handily beat Nixon in the televised debates, talked directly to Americans during the U-2 scare and after the assassination when Americans sat glued to their TV sets to watch their beloved leader be laid to rest in a funeral procession worthy of a king, JFK’s most important landmarks were all captured in front of a camera.

Thus while as viewers our over-familiarity with everything from the Bay of Pigs storyline to his final day in Dallas (as evidenced, for example in the much more thorough Thirteen Days and JFK respectively) isn’t the fault of screenwriter Kelly Masterson or anyone involved since they’re working from facts, it’s still hard to do JFK justice in Killing Kennedy’s 87 minute running time.And given the time constraints, this cable movie speeds through the important events like a mix tape on fast forward.

While you only wish that instead of a few new revelatory morsels in this film or that miniseries (from The Kennedys to Parkland etc.), some of these filmmakers would’ve worked together to have crafted one true epic JFK picture instead of multiple mediocre ones, Killing Kennedy’s strength lies in emphasizing what we do not know, as depicted in the plotline of his killer Lee Harvey Oswald.

And even though it’s downright disturbing to follow the events through his eyes, another thing occurred to me while watching this production which is that the Jack Ruby angle has always been one of the most unexplored and overlooked aspects of the case.

Of course Ruby’s involvement has raised all sorts of questions about the likelihood of two “lone gunmen” or if anyone else had put him up to it. And while perhaps the answer is waiting in yet another TV movie or film, Killing Kennedy did score a few extra points for ingenuity by centering a few scenes on and from the point-of-view of Ruby in order to give us a different vantage point in addition to the ones we've always seen time and time again.

Needless to say, there’s no replacing the source material of the book or some of the far more superior biopics that have been made about the Kennedy presidency. Yet while this polished Ridley Scott production may speed by a bit too quickly at times to leave enough of an impact, it’s still above average made-for-basic-cable filmmaking that’s been beautifully transferred to this Fox Blu-ray release, complete with making of featurettes and an Ultraviolet digital copy.

While it definitely made me eager to explore the book to see what other details were unearthed in the authors’ research (despite my distaste for O’Reilly), the film’s homage to Kennedy’s love of the musical Camelot did get me thinking.Perhaps next time, instead of another straightforward docudrama, someone should update and retell Camelot with JFK and Jackie standing in for King Arthur and Lady Guinevere.

And given actress Ginnifer Goodwin’s excellent command as both Jackie in Kennedy and Snow White in Once Upon a Time, Guinevere seems like a natural progression for the talented star, not to mention one less role for the production’s talent agent to cast. Now that’s a Kennedy movie I’d definitely like to see!

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