One of the tent-pole events during the somewhat ghoulish television blitz of President Kennedy specials capitalizing on the 50th anniversary of his assassination was, of course, the dramatic adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy, which premiered on the NatGeo network Sunday night. Considering the source material, it’s not hard to imagine the simplistic quality of the movie’s content.
Being a student of the Kennedy presidency, I’ve seen a lot of versions of the story and this was easily the worst — or perhaps tied for the worst alongside Joel Surnow’s despicable mini-series The Kennedys. (The best of batch, for reference sake, is Thirteen Days, with the great Bruce Greenwood as the president and Steven Culp as the most compelling on-screen Bobby Kennedy to date. Not only is it a great Kennedy movie, but it’s one of my all-time favorite films.)
Killing Kennedy, on the other hand, was a great big nothing.
No insights. No interesting details we didn’t already know about. No heart. It was as if O’Reilly and the producers went out on the street and asked passers-by for broadstroke off-the-top-of-their-heads bits of what they recall from the Kennedy years, then compiled the responses into script form and commanded a bunch of workable actors in 1963 regalia to recite the lines with regional accents. The result? A Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week version of the Kennedy assassination.
Put another way, if you only knew the Kennedy presidency based on O’Reilly’s movie, you’d be aware of these five things:
1. The Bay of Pigs – Kennedy didn’t authorize air support then took the blame.
2. The Cuban Missile Crisis – Kennedy brokered a deal to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. “Krusch-chov” agrees! Win!
3. Kennedy was given cortisone and testosterone injections. At the same time, square in the ass with the First Lady standing right there. (I haven’t read any accounts indicating he was being administered testosterone in addition to his massive cocktail of other meds.)
4. Kennedy went swimming in the White House pool with various giggly mistresses. The First Lady knew.
5. Kennedy was shot by Oswald. The end.
Wow. When I started that list, I actually thought it’d be longer. But that’s the Kennedy legacy as seen through the eyes of Bill O’Reilly.
Appearance-wise, Rob Lowe certainly looked the part. For the first time, perhaps ever, they got the Kennedy coif just about right. But Lowe had two choices, performance-wise: play it seriously, or play it campy, not unlike his Drew Peterson and Beyond the Candelabra roles. The latter would’ve been, of course, awful and totally irreverent considering how it all ends. So Lowe appeared to take the serious approach, but in doing so he basically rotated through three facial expressions: 1) Sad, concerned puppy Kennedy, 2) Doofus womanizer Kennedy, and 3) Horse-toothed, jovial Kennedy.
Then, interspersed with Kennedy’s story, there was the Oswald half of the movie, which was even more ridiculous than the Kennedy half, if that’s even possible.
Where to begin? It’s common knowledge, and especially so after Oliver Stone’s JFK, that Oswald was raised in New Orleans and Dallas. But if you were to ask my wife what was the one thing I exclaimed most often in reaction to the movie, she would absolutely tell you: “Why does Oswald sound like Max Casella from Doogie Howser MD?”
For example, when Oswald renounces his U.S. citizenship and defects to the Soviet Union, actor Will Rothhaar slips into Jersey Shore goombah mode, “Yo, I gonna defect to Russia ’cause I’m a commie n’ I hate dat captal’ism shit. BOOM! Fuggetaboutit! Hey Doog!” (Not too far off the actual dialogue.) I assume the weirdly northeastern accent was a symptom of how the movie portrayed Oswald as a total badass, rather than the disturbed, enigmatic kid he actually was.
Speaking of the Soviet defection scenes, the U.S. embassy official character, presumably Richard Snyder, reacted to Oswald’s request by countering (paraphrased), “Are you sure? It’s cold here!” Yes, they actually discussed how cold it is in Moscow. Then, when Oswald decides (??) to return to the U.S., he returns to the embassy and tells the same official (again, paraphrased), “Yeah, it’s too cold. I wanna go back. Baddabing!” The embassy official replies something like, “Har-har! I told you so!” Yes, really. The scene would’ve totally worked as a comedy if there had been a laugh-track. It’s seriously a bit of a shame because the Soviet sequence could’ve been compelling given how it was unheard of at the time for a former Marine to defect to the Soviet Union and then return, no-questions-asked, to the U.S. — unless, of course, he was a spy. Not a word about this twist in O’Reilly’s story.
And that’s who it all comes down to: Bill O’Reilly, best known for delivering the simpleton, every-man version of national events. So NatGeo, adapting his book, gave us the simpleton, every-man telling of the Kennedy story. The movie should’ve been called Killing Kennedy In A Nutshell. It was as dry and watered-down as Stone’s JFK was hyper-detailed and controversial. You could call this the anti-JFK production. But by stripping out everything below the headlines, and by delivering a bare-bones Cliff Notes story, the producers really only succeeded in showing us yet another boardwalk caricature version of a complicated man and his watershed presidency: a big-headed, little-bodied sketch of Kennedy hastily drawn in magic markers by a college student on Summer break — with all of Kennedy’s fun-time “likes” scribbled in the margins.
So, as Oswald might’ve said, fuggetaboutit.