By Shawn StJean
National Geographic Channel’s production of Killing Kennedy, which aired on Veteran’s Day last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the presidential assassination on November 22, has appeared on Blu-Ray and DVD video.
The television film, based on media pundit Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, seems intended as a vindication of the Warren Commission Report‘s conclusion of a lone assassin, portrayed here essentially as an attention-seeking psychotic. I first digested and annotated the 900-page Commission tome (hardly the production of amateurs some have claimed it to be) twenty years ago, alongside conspiracist Jim Marrs’ counter-narrative Crossfire and Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of The Assassins. Today, I remain skeptical of all three, as well as the dozens of other books I’ve read on the Kennedy assassinations, and more recently the growing stockpile of 9/11 material. The truth certainly is worth finding out, now as then, but it’s doubtful that any one source has custody of it. For those who won’t spare the effort for reading O’Reilly’s mere 300 pages, this movie, despite a few strengths, can hardly claim to be more than an outline of one version.
Rather than focus on the hundreds of details the all-too-brief film omits that would problematize its thesis (the many witnesses in Dealey Plaza who saw something other than Oswald firing from an open window, for example,) I’d like to treat the production on its own terms. If one has to say, “Well, read O’Reilly’s book and such-and-such will become clear,” then the film hasn’t done its job.
If this text has one overriding virtue (beyond good sets and costumes,) it lies in a curious literary device of echoing: the two married couples, John and Jackie, juxtaposed by intercutting with Lee and Marina Oswald: the pair of women simultaneously pregnant, the symbolic usage of wedding rings, John’s sexual infidelities counterpointed by Lee’s obsessed flirtations with Marxism, the contrasting burials of the president and his alleged killer on the same day. Director Nelson McCormick and his editors deserve praise for salvaging a motif that makes us wonder what role chance and circumstance play in our lives. As Oswald tells Marina, Kennedy’s father “bought him the election,” and Jack himself admits that his deceased elder brother was meant to be president, not him. Might Oswald have been a better man in a different time, or place?
Rob Lowe does a sufficiently layered job as the president, though his casting only served to remind me that this is all made-for-TV-scale stuff: and thus, perfectly suited for a streamlined and oversimplistic treatment. The Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile crises are almost criminally truncated, for example. Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s roles are reduced nearly to cameos. The word “Vietnam” is nowhere to be heard. In an age in which Peter Jackson can command a budget of a half-billion dollars for a an eight-hour adaptation of a children’s book, I have to wonder where our cultural values are. One of the most significant crimes of the twentieth century warrants a financial backing to dramatize it that would fail to pay the craft-services bill for The Hobbit. It’s a wonder that, as a producer, the uber-wealthy O’Reilly didn’t see fit to make up some of the deficit out of his own coffers.
But more to the point: What if one were, after fifty years, a complete neophyte to assassination studies, and this film were one’s first exposure? Does the film succeed in offering a convincing argument that Oswald acted alone?
No, not even close. I’m afraid, while not a botched job by any means, the case remains wide open. Neither physical nor psychological gaps are adequately covered in this tiny scope. Ironically, because the story has been so trimmed and simplified by the ninety-minute format and reduced cast, the glaring, internal inconsistencies become even more apparent:
-If Oswald couldn’t competently target the stationary General Walker from a few dozen yards with his Mannlicher-Carcano 4x scoped rifle, how could he later so ultra-expertly cycle three rounds and hit the president at least twice, a moving target, from a range of several hundred yards?
-How could Oswald possibly have killed both Kennedy and Tippit within an hour of each other, as well as stopping by his rooming house on a zig-zag course for his pistol, all while maintaining a nonchalant posture, beginning in the book depository break room where a cop spots him, to the three-miles distant Oak-Cliff neighborhood and his encounter with the ill-fated Officer? Also, Oswald shoots Tippit four times with his revolver, then somehow it’s empty as he tries to shoot at converging police in the Texas theater? No wonder conspiracy theorists have made so much of the firearms in the case: nothing makes sense. Further:
-Was a crack-shot, cold-blooded killer also such a panicking fool that he left a trail of brass and clothing on his way to failing to pay his way in to the Texas theater?
-All along, Oswald’s twisted psyche seemed to demand he seek credit for his succession of “patriotic” actions, fantasizing about the press debriefing him each time. Why then would he vehemently deny killing Kennedy? Why yell out his famous epitaph, “I’m just a patsy,” to the press immediately prior to his execution by Ruby? Just a change of heart? He surely wasn’t trying to spare Marina.
-After being barred in Mexico City from traveling to Cuba—a clear rejection by the Castro regime–what could at that point motivate Oswald to neutralize the threat he perceived Kennedy posed to Cuba? Wasn’t Cuba just another of his abandoned crusades? Of course, the biggest question—Why?–is begged here, and never adequately addressed. Even lunatics have their reasons. Will Rothhaar as Oswald simply isn’t given the script to enact them.
-And is it even possible for any actor to creditably portray gangster, pimp, and police-snitch Jack Ruby as so grief-stricken on Jackie Kennedy’s behalf that he would murder Oswald in cold blood, in front of the world? Watching it, this seemed every bit as unbelievable to me as “sniper” Oswald standing exposed and straight up in the open window of the sixth floor of the book depository in full view of hundreds of people and the secret service, and sighting in at the approaching president as the motorcade came straight down Elm Street at his twelve o’clock, yet unaccountably failing to shoot. Ruby clearly had other motivations, no matter who tells the story.
I believe it was important to commemorate the passing of five decades in some dramatic fashion, so that a new generation of Americans might understand something of the greater context, the direction our nation has taken since the days of the Cold War: our economic decline since Camelot, our tentative and continually adversarial relations with the Eastern hemisphere, from Vietnam to Russia to China, the slow rise of bloated yet invisible government and the CIA-state that Kennedy deplored. National Geographic Channel’s contribution, if not O’Reilly’s book, have not, however, attempted to address questions of Why and How, but have stuck more to the journalist’s sleepy creed of Who? What? Where? When? I fear these crucial events will soon seem about as relevant to today as World War I seemed to my generation: a very sad fact of the history of American literacy, and man’s tragically short memory.