Following its well-made, highly rated "Killing Lincoln" movie last spring, National Geographic Channel joins the cable race to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the air with "Killing Kennedy" (8 tonight).
Like "Killing Lincoln," this movie is based on a book by Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard. It's one in a sea of programs airing this month in advance of the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's murder in Dallas on Nov. 22. And with roughly a $6 million price tag, it is undoubtedly the costliest.
Written by Kelly Masterson ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") and directed by Nelson McCormick ("Touch," "Over There"), "Killing Kennedy" rattles through a list of moments-- JFK cheats on Jackie, check! Jackie loses a baby, check! JFK takes on the Cuban Missile Crisis, check! JFK schedules a fateful trip to Dallas, check! -- that doesn't build or define the characters.
But the film does give equal weight to President Kennedy (Rob Lowe, "Parks and Recreation") and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar, "Last Resort").
Oswald is shown trying to renounce his American citizenship with a move to the Soviet Union, marrying a Russian bride (Michelle Trachtenberg, "Gossip Girl") and plotting against other political enemies before the assassination.
But if this added portrait helps differentiate "Killing Kennedy," it remains a sketchy unfocused view of Oswald that doesn't do much to address his motivation or animus toward the United States government, although it does show his deluded mental state as he imagines himself as a more important figure --interviewed by reporters! -- than anyone else considered him prior to the assassination.
Somewhat preposterously, the film tries to create a false equivalency between the two men: When Kennedy suffers embarrassment with the Bay of Pigs invasion, Oswald gets beat up in a Russian factory.
As Kennedy, Mr. Lowe has the requisite roaming eye but the film lathers on JFK's infidelities a bit thick: At one point Jackie (Ginnifer Goodwin, "Once Upon a Time") finds a bikini top floating in the White House pool.
Similarly, a Secret Service agent who's planning the motorcade route through Dallas observes, "This town makes me nervous. You know, Dallas is the murder capital of the country."
As Jackie, Ms. Goodwin does a better job approximating Jackie's accent and breathy voice than Katie Holmes managed in the last major Kennedy biopic, ReelzChannel's "The Kennedys" in 2011.
"Killing Kennedy" deserves some credit for attempting to retell the JFK assassination in a slightly different way but it doesn't go far enough in getting at the underpinnings of Oswald's character and motivation. It's largely just the same-old, same-old JFK story.
More JFK nostalgia
Kennedy programs are airing on a multitude of networks this month, perhaps with Nickelodeon and Disney Channel as the only exceptions.
Here is a selection:
"American Experience: JFK" (9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS): Part two of this documentary examines President Kennedy's response to the Cuban Missile Crisis and "the unfulfilled promise of a life cut short."
"NOVA: Cold Case JFK" (9 p.m. Wednesday, PBS): What science revealed about the assassination and the investigations into the shooting.
"Secrets of the Dead: JFK: One PM Central Standard Time" (10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS): The story of the reporting from Dallas and the CBS newsroom in New York on the day Kennedy died.
"Kennedy's Suicide Bomber" (8 p.m. Nov. 17, Smithsonian Channel): The largely untold story of Richard Pavlick, who attempted to kill President-elect Kennedy in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 11, 1960.
"The Day Kennedy Died" (9 p.m. Nov. 17, Smithsonian Channel): Kevin Spacey narrates this minute-by-minute account of the assassination.
"Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy" (9 p.m. Nov. 17, TLC): Viola Davis, Zooey Deschanel, Anne Hathaway, Allison Janney, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum and Betty White are among the celebrities who lend their voices to read condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy.
"Frontline: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?" (10 p.m. Nov. 19, PBS): A look at Kennedy's assassin.
"JFK: The Lost Tapes" (7 p.m. Nov. 21, Discovery Channel): Newly released audio recordings from the Dallas Police Force are paired with radio recordings from reporters.
"JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide" (8 p.m. Nov. 22, History): A special that includes polling that finds 74 percent of Americans believe Oswald was the fall guy for a larger conspiracy.
"Tom Brokaw Special: Where Were You?" (9 p.m. Nov. 22, NBC): This two-hour documentary combines archival footage with first-person accounts of the assassination.
"Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live" (10 p.m. Nov. 22, History): An account of the last two days of Oswald's life.