On November 22nd, 1963, massive crowds gathered at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas hoping to see President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade made its way to the Dallas Trade Mart, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. However, President Kennedy would never make his final destination that day. As his open-top limousine turned onto Elm Street, three shots rung out over six seconds that would forever change the course of American history – and bring sadness to the hearts of millions.
JFK: The Final Hours
This year marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death. It’s a day that many people will always remember, recalling exactly where they were during those last few hours President Kennedy was alive. He had decided to visit Texas to strengthen political support, and had asked his wife Jacqueline to join him, since he would often jokingly say he felt the American populace connected more with her than with him. It was a momentous occasion in those days to have the President of the United States visit your city, and everyone wanted to be there to see him. Young and old, Democrat or Republican, white, black or Hispanic – it didn’t matter to the citizens of Dallas, as thousands lined the downtown streets. A fortunate few even managed to shake JFK’s hand or get a warm smile and a friendly quip from the personable political figure.
One little kid in Ft. Worth, Texas listening to JFK give a speech while sitting on his father’s shoulders was then 8 -year-old Bill Paxton (Twister), and it’s Paxton who narrates JFK: The Final Hours, as the documentary somberly traces the last 36 hours of JFK’s life. The NatGeo-produced documentary uses archival footage as well as first-hand accounts from people who were there on that day – although they’re now 50 years older.
The documentary is very much a “love story” focused more on JFK’s admirers than the man himself, and as such, it occasionally suffers from slow pacing. When the women talk about their experience with JFK – most of them were starry-eyed teenagers in 1963 – it’s a lot of “He was so handsome” statements; meanwhile the men, who were mostly children during that time, talk about how incredible a man he was in person. There’s nothing wrong with idol worship, but it does get repetitive about 30 minutes into the movie.
For history buffs and JFK enthusiasts, the film is an interesting look at how much he meant to so many people from different walks of life. One of the most interesting things about the film is writer/director Erik Nelson’s use of photos from the past, juxtaposed with recent photos of various locations, using a slicing technique. It makes the film very appealing, visually. While there is quite a lot of interesting information presented in JFK: The Final Hours, it feels stretched out in order to make it a full two hours – when a 1 hour special airing in front of Killing Kennedy would have been perfect.
In 1959, while John F. Kennedy was announcing his candidacy for the President of the United States, a Marxist-supporter named Lee Harvey Oswald was at the US Embassy in Moscow, Russia renouncing his US citizenship. Those two seemingly unrelated events would eventually lead to converging timelines and forever change the lives of both men – ending up with one of them holding a freshly-fired rifle and the other laying dead in the back of a limousine.
The movie follows the lives of both men, but ultimately, this is a story about Oswald and his problem with both America’s government and how it dealt with political events on the world stage – specifically, President Kennedy’s handling of Castro and Cuba. Oswald considered himself to be a Marxist – which is why he defected to Russia – though he found the climate to be too “cold” and soon defected back to America. He took with him his wife Marina and their daughter June, and apparently, living under Marxist-values isn’t a good environment to raise a family.
Once back in America, Oswald immediately took issue with the disastrous way President Kennedy handled the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because he didn’t have access to President Kennedy, he felt it was necessary to kill General Edwin Walker (an outspoken, anti-Communist) and attempted to murder him for being the leader of a “fascist organization.” When his murder attempt was unsuccessful, Oswald went back to passing out Marxist flyers in New Orleans and even tried in vain to defect to Cuba through the Cuban Embassy in Mexico – as a show of his support for the Cuban government. However, once the announcement was made that President Kennedy would be in Dallas, Oswald made up his mind to assassinate him.
Killing Kennedy is based off the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, with a script written by Kelly Masterson and directed by accomplished TV veteran Nelson McCormick (Terra Nova). The award-winning Masterson does a good job telling a story with very little to go on (especially Oswald’s time in Russia) and while some of the conspiracy theories surrounding JFK are hinted at (most conspicuous being the mob) he doesn’t go far enough down the rabbit trails to make this an Oliver Stone-esque film.
Both Jack Noseworthy and Ginnifer Goodwin give strong supporting performances as Bobby and Jacqueline Kennedy, but it’s Michelle Trachtenberg as Marina Oswald that is the standout among the secondary characters. The fact that Trachtenberg speaks fluent Russian lends credence to her performance.
Rob Lowe gives a excellent performance as JFK (though his accent comes and goes for much of the film), playing the late-President with the same charisma he was known for worldwide. But while Lowe is receiving much of the press and well-deserved accolades for his portrayal of the beloved-President, it’s really Will Rothhaar’s performance as the infamous Oswald that is the shining star of this film.
It would be easy for Rothhaar’s performance to be overshadowed – being in a film about JFK, starring alongside Rob Lowe, while simultaneously having to play possibly one of the most hated men in American history – but the young actor does a wonderful job playing such a complex character. You start to loath Oswald more and more as the film progresses, but the reasons you loath him reach far beyond “because he killed the President”. Killing Kennedy is by no means an Oswald-apologist film, and all of the responsibility for the crime is given directly to the man, but it does gives an interesting perspective at how the one-time Marine came to be a President-killer.
NatGeo really should have made Killing Kennedy a feature-length theatrical release, as the 95-minute run time makes the story feel too compressed. Conspiracy fans will be greatly disappointed by both JFK: The Final Hours and Killing Kennedy, as neither film touches upon any of the many alternate theories surrounding JFK’s assassination. Regardless of this fact (or perhaps because of it), the film is quite interesting, even though the dialog is a bit too “on-the-nose” at times.
The Final Hours airs on NatGeo Nov. 8th at 8PM EST/7PM CST
Killing Kennedy airs on NatGeo Nov. 10th at 8PM EST/7PM CST
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