“What you’re looking at in this movie is a collision course of two trains heading toward this fateful destination,” says director Nelson McCormick of his television movie “Killing Kennedy,” which chronicles the inevitably intersecting paths of President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.
“One is this handsome, shining knight in armor, this Kennedy train, and the other train is a little broken. Not all the wheels work right, not all of the engine works right – it’s faulty, and it’s not safe."
Based on author and TV personality Bill O’Reilly’s 2012 bestseller "Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot"and timed to this month’s 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination at the hands of Oswald (the book and film eschew enduring conspiracy theories and posit that Oswald acted alone), it stars Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin as JFK and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
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Though born a year after the assassination, Lowe admits to a long-term fascination with the Kennedy mythos that deeply informed his performance. “I knew a lot about it going in, just because I'd been interested in him my whole life,” says the actor. “It was an extraordinary time. He was an extraordinary man. The circumstances which led to his death are Shakespearian."
“My first reaction when I read it was that it feels like a combination of two films,” says veteran TV helmer McCormick (“The Closer,” “The Good Wife”). “‘Argo,’ because it’s a true story that we know the answer to but still is fascinating to watch, and ‘Taxi Driver,’ because it was this portrait of this person about to do something horrific that humanized them and made you understand them. You don’t necessarily have to sympathize with them, but you understood them.”
Structurally, the film follows its own pair of ever-converging storylines: the well-established crucial moments of Kennedy’s early presidency from 1960 to 1963, including the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, along with emotionally rich moments between the president and his wife; and the rough, rocky path of Oswald, a one-time Communist defector whose passionate anti-government beliefs often derail any chance of a peaceful life with his own Russian-born wife.
“I was deeply struck by the Oswald story,” says McCormick, who was fascinated by the assassin’s thoroughly disenfranchised youth and fractured family ties, a stark contrast to the wealthy, privileged and powerful world of Kennedy and his family. “The more I got to know him, I thought ‘No wonder that this happened to him, given the life he had up until that point. He was constantly trying to prove himself, he was constantly trying to rebel, and he just never found a place where he fit in.”
To counterbalance Oswald’s little-known background, the often-familiar Kennedy saga strives for an up-close freshness. “So many of the scenes were the moments just before something famous has happened, or just after something famous had happened,” says McCormick. “We're taking you behind the scenes in the Kennedy white House in the most personal, intimate moments, where it’s just him and Bobby or him and Jackie or him and his cabinet. It was meant to feel intimate.”
“The thing that I was most struck with as I did the research on him is just being reminded of his wit and how quick he was and his natural charm, and that came in a package with incredible balls and charisma,” adds Lowe. “He's that iconic president that all presidents since aspire to be, and you really see how all presidents who've been great communicators since – Reagan, Clinton, President Obama – you see that heritage when you look at President Kennedy.”
Goodwin chose to build her performance on the First Lady’s most personal perspective on herself. “I realized that I wanted this story I was telling of Jackie to be to be angled in such a way that it was based on everything that she said about herself, and not base her on the way that others described her," explains Goodwin. "And in that way, it took all of the pressure off, really, because it really was about all of these private moments, the things that happened behind closed doors. And no one knows anything about those moments. All we have are the things that Jackie said after the fact.”
Actor Will Rothhaar was a new discovery, delivering a career-changing performance as Oswald. “I wanted to paint a human face on him,” he says. “I hope that the audience sees and at least understands him a little bit more, instead of seeing him as this two-dimensional villain. I would like them to walk away going, 'Okay, I don't want to like him, but I get him now.' I don't condone what he did – obviously he did a monstrous thing , but he wasn't all a monster.”
Lowe says he understands why the triumphs and the tragedies that emblemize the Kennedy era both continue to fascinate and are well worth revisiting. “It's a sense of what was lost on that day,” he says. “Whether it's the [subsequent] loss of his brother, then Watergate, the Vietnam War – everything started with his assassination. And so it's a tremendous loss, not only of a great man, but it led to things in this country where our innocence never, ever, ever recovered. It's one of the great American tragedies that people are always going to be interested in.”
"Killing Kennedy" airs Nov. 10 at 10 p.m. EST on National Geographic Channel