Review: ‘Killing Kennedy’ takes aim at Lee Harvey Oswald

 It could be argued, and argued well, that we don’t need another movie about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Of course, Hollywood has decided otherwise, so there. In time for the fiftieth anniversary of this dark day in history, we’re awash in new documentaries, specials, and fictionalized accounts. “Killing Kennedy” (premieres Sun. Nov. 8 at 8:00 p.m. on Nat Geo) is adapted from the successful book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, so it was likely unavoidable that we’d get this admirably concise movie. 

Rob Lowe steps into the role of Kennedy, and it’s a thankless task. Kennedy is no longer a man in the collective unconscious but a symbol and a personal touchstone. Lowe does his level best to embody a character to which he can bring none of his own twist or interpretation, and the result is absolutely respectable but constrained. The choppy narrative of the movie, which tosses out staccato story beats to remind us of what we already know, makes both Kennedys read like rough outlines of characters. Given that we all have our own interpretations of JFK and Jacqueline (here played by Ginnifer Goodwin) to flesh out these icons, it’s all we could possibly want, really.

The story ultimately belongs to another couple — Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar) and his wife Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg). Where the movie is most affecting is in the scenes that compare these two very different pairs; one golden, the other tarnished. O’Reilly’s conceit — pairing the stories of the victim and villain — works well, especially for a modern audience decades after the deed was done. They won’t, hopefully, recoil at the idea of the shooter hogging the storyline. Today’s viewers aren’t shy about their fascination with the bad guy, and “Killing Kennedy” has no problem letting Oswald take center stage. Kennedy’s name may be in the title, but the story that hasn’t been told to death is Oswald’s, and this is where we get pulled in.

Rothhaar captures Oswald’s narcissism in all the small moments — that “smug look on his face” that Jack Ruby claimed so incensed him that he shot Oswald is on excellent display here, and while sometimes the dialogue is on the nose (you can almost sense an executive scribbling “be more clear, no subtext!” in certain passages), Rothhaar’s performance is more subtle than you might expect for such a storied antagonist. Oswald is a bad guy, there’s no debating it — but he’s a complex bad guy with motivations that will sound familiar to anyone who’s watched a few hours of the I.D network.

Oswald’s naked egotism is balanced with deeper wounds — feelings of failure and a need to connect — and when the movie uses his imagined, fawning audience as a narrative device, it does more to make the character vividly real than anything else. While Trachtenberg doesn’t get much screen time, she manages to convey the frightened, animal panic of a woman trapped, a nice counterpoint to Goodwin’s poised, if less convincing, performance.

The timeline cheat to make it seem as if Marina and Jacqueline are pregnant at the same time — and the subsequent scene of Jacqueline’s crib left empty while Marina sings to her newborn babe — is a haunting one. It may be sacrilege to say it, but I would have been interested in seeing just the Oswalds or just Jacqueline. We know too much about JFK for anything about him to seem like a revelation, no matter what Lowe does to animate the icon.

Though nothing (with the exception of some background footage) was shot in Dallas, the movie looks remarkably like the real thing without feeling as if it’s been preserved in amber. Of course, with so much ground to cover, there’s not a lot of time to admire the scenery. This movie is nothing if not tight.

The ticking clock of the two murders — JFK’s and Oswald’s — manages to drive the story forward and, yes, bnguild tension even though we know exactly what’s coming. Lavishing attention on Oswald’s journey gives the story the needed momentum — after all, JFK isn’t doing anything beyond the usual glad handing business of politics as usual. Rothhaar captures the wild-eyed intensity of a man on the edge, then the focus of a man with a horrific plan to execute. Despite ourselves, we root for a different outcome, which may be the most interesting accomplishment of all.

Will you be watching “Killing Kennedy” on Sunday?