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TV movie takes conspiracy-free approach to events leading up to Kennedy assassination

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Half a century after the tragic events that occurred in Dallas that fateful day, you might think all there is to say about the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy has been said.

One glimpse at this month's TV listings would tell you that -- at least, in the eyes of the people who produce TV programs -- you couldn't be more wrong.

Despite its being the most analyzed, investigated, debated, doubted and debunked crime in history, the killing of JFK on Nov. 22, 1963, continues to be a topic of endless fascination and/or frustration for a large segment of America's -- and the world's -- population.

It's no surprise, then, that the 50th anniversary of the assassination has spawned a wave of television documentaries, special reports and dramatizations focused on various aspects of the JFK presidency and the shocking end to his life.

Among the highest profile of these programs is Killing Kennedy, a new movie based on the like-titled volume by Fox News commentator and prolific book-writer Bill O'Reilly. The film represents a rare foray into the scripted realm by the usually documentary-focused National Geographic Channel.

Despite O'Reilly's hard-earned reputation as a far-right-leaning political pitbull, and the fact Kennedy was a liberal-minded Democrat, the movie turns out to be a rather straightforward examination of the lives of JFK and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in the three-plus years leading up to the shooting in Dealey Plaza.

Rob Lowe portrays JFK, with Ginnifer Goodwin at his side as Jacqueline Kennedy; Will Rothhaar plays Oswald, and Michelle Trachtenberg co-stars as his Russian-born wife, Marina.

Lowe, for his part, is following in the footsteps of dozens of actors who've taken on the role of the iconic and eternally mourned president. Rothhaar, on the other hand, is tasked with probably the most in-depth and nuanced portrait of Oswald that has ever been presented in scripted form.

"The Kennedys are sort of our royals," Lowe said last summer during NatGeo's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. "And if you believe that concept, then it's like playing a character from Shakespeare. Actors play Hamlet all the time -- there could be 17 actors, you know, on 17 stages on any given day playing that character. And a lot of people will play JFK in the future, (because) it's just one of our great American icons.

"But in terms of how you look at it, you just try to figure what can you individually bring, and for me, it was very much about capturing him as a man. We all know the iconography of Kennedy: I was really interested in the details of what he was like as a father, as a brother, as a son, as a husband, as a flawed, complicated and heroic guy, and where those small details live."

Killing Kennedy opens on Nov. 22, 1963, and follows Oswald as he leaves a house in suburban Dallas, blanket-wrapped rifle in hand (he tells the co-worker who's giving him a ride that the bundle is "curtain rods"), and heads downtown to work at the Dallas School Book Depository.

Once there, he proceeds to the infamous sixth-floor window, builds a small sheltering wall out of textbook boxes, waits for the presidential motorcade to pass below and pulls the trigger. And at that moment, the drama flashes back to Moscow, four years earlier, as 20-year-old ex-marine Oswald ventures into the U.S. embassy, declares himself a Marxist and announces that he's renouncing his American citizenship.

The action shifts to U.S. soil, a short time later, as Kennedy is preparing to announce his candidacy for the presidency. And from there, Killing Kennedy takes a dual-chronology approach as it recounts the very different stories of two men whose paths would intersect in Dallas.

There's a lot of personal detail about each offered up in Killing Kennedy, but the larger world events of the era -- the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights movement -- are given only fleeting attention.

Somewhat surprisingly, it's Oswald's political activity, rather than Kennedy's, that receives the most intense narrative focus; his disillusionment with America's capitalist system and resulting sympathy for Communist/Marxist causes, including the Cuban revolution, are presented as the motives for his lone-gunman attack on the presidential motorcade.

There are no labyrinthian political rationales or multi-layered conspiracy theories offered here. Killing Kennedy presents everyone involved as straightforward and relatively single-minded. If there's a major failing in this dramatization, it's the failure to consider the bigger issues that may have played a part in events surrounding the JFK assassination. Despite that, however, it's a reasonably compelling re-examination of perhaps the most oft-told tale in contemporary history.

If you believe there's more to the JFK assassination than a simple, conspiracy-free explanation, you might find Killing Kennedy a bit lightweight. But if that's the case, fear not -- there's no shortage of other programs this month that delve deeper into more complex and confounding theories of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963, and why. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 G1

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