JFK anniversary on TV: An onslaught of stale shows, and a nation stuck in a freeze frame


From “JFK: American Experience,” a photo of Caroline Kennedy's fifth birthday, in the White House nursery. Pictured (from left) Caroline, John Jr., President Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy. (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Hank Stuever
TV critic November 7, 2013

Even as I try to make sense of the hours and hours of TV programming that will air this month about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, still more shows relentlessly arrive.

There are documentaries, reenactments, investigations, period dramas — more than you could ever watch and more than you’d possibly want to. My days just get Zaprudier and Zaprudier. Yet the more I watch, the less I am enlightened or entertained. (And only occasionally am I moved. The blue sky of the day is always somehow eternally heartbreaking.)

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

Before I review a few of the more notable offerings in this heap, it seems like the real review should be a review of us, as modern Americans. What’s wrong with this picture? (Why is the vertical hold still so tetchy?) Why do we subject ourselves to the ritual wallow in Kennedy grief? Why are we still pursuing mysteries that cannot possibly be solved? When we tune into it, what are we tuning out?

It’s worth noting that the median age in the United States is about 37, which means a great majority of us don’t remember where we were when we heard the news on Nov. 22, 1963, because we weren’t around at all. This in no way means we are ignorant or dismissive of what happened, nor does it disqualify us from our status as grown-ups.

But, had things gone differently in Dallas, President Kennedy would have journeyed on to Austin that afternoon, where (I have learned from National Geographic Channel’s rather good “JFK: The Final Hours,” airing Friday night) he was going to deliver a speech that included the following lines:

“This country is moving and it must not stop. For this is a time for courage and a time for challenge. Neither conformity nor complacency will do.”

Moving and it must not stop.

This month’s excess of JFK-related programming and infotainment — hardly any of it thematically or artistically challenging or anything like courageous; nearly all of it conforming; nearly all of it complacently unoriginal, overly dutiful and rote — clearly demonstrates how this particular event, preserved in permanent hindsight, keeps us inert.

As Nov. 22 approaches once more, this multimedia onslaught is a lesson in how not to move on. Allowing for history, reverence and popular interest, there is still much-too-much on TV in 2013 about the Kennedy assassination; “overkill” seems to be the right word, including the literal sense: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard amplified rifle shots in the last week. JFK dies horribly, over and over and over.

Three styles of same story

Since everyone seems to be in the business of knowing what Kennedy thought, I wonder why none of the documentaries asks one of its public intellectuals the following question: What would Kennedy say about our fascination with his presidency, and especially the grisly details of his tragic death, five decades on?

He could no doubt accept the ego boost with the usual pretense of self-effacement, but wouldn’t Kennedy also find it somewhat sad that we still direct so much psychic energy toward Dealey Plaza?

Put another way, what person’s death in 1913 would have merited this much airtime in 1963?

This criticism is neither anti-history nor anti-Kennedy. I’m as easily drawn into the story of Camelot as any media consumer. What surprises and disappoints me is how predictable the 50th-anniversary programming is, sorting itself into three general categories:

First (and most wanly) there is drama and reenactment, including National Geographic Channel’s much-touted “Killing Kennedy” (airing Sunday night), based on Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book and starring Rob Lowe as the president.

Next there is the category of portraiture and historical analysis, especially as seen in PBS’s dense but dutiful two-night documentary “American Experience: JFK” (airing Monday and Tuesday).

And in the third category, tarted up with the latest “CSI”-style effects and forensic-ballistic obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a broad and depressing array of attempts to reopen the investigation. These shows most closely approximate the paranoia one can still encounter when chatting with conspiracy theorists who loiter near the actual grassy knoll outside the Texas School Book Depository building that is now a museum. Here, it’s all Oswald, all the time, except when it’s Jack Ruby, or bullet trajectories. PBS’s “Nova,” for example, gets a bit “MythBusters” with ballistics tests in the New Mexico desert (“Cold Case JFK,” airing Wednesday night).

History Channel’s “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide” (airing Nov. 22) is the flashiest of these — a graphics-heavy clearinghouse of theories and potential conspirators (the Mafia, the communists, the CIA), justifying itself with a survey conducted by the network that found 71 percent of Americans in 2013 reject the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald acted alone. (In 1964, History reports, only 31 percent rejected it.)

“The Definitive Guide” basks in a perpetual distrust. In that 71 percent of doubters it sees a story that never ends and TV specials that never do, either. It picks at the scab simply to ensure that it never heals. From experts to eyewitnesses to historians to conspiracy theorists, everyone has an investment in keeping the puzzle unsolved.

Even the man-on-the-street interviews in “The Definitive Guide” reflect a skeptical, know-it-all quality, a weirder version of “The Tonight Show’s” “Jaywalking” bit, in which everyday (unidentified) Americans insist, with no specific knowledge whatsoever, that something’s not right.

I kept waiting for the person who would think about it, shrug, and then say to the camera that it was a long time ago and we should get on with it.

Bystanders, then and now

Instead of moving on, “Killing Kennedy” is an exercise in standing so stiffly that you’ll wonder if it was produced by Madame Tussauds.

Although one’s focus is drawn to the makeup, hair and teeth that transform Rob Lowe into Jack Kennedy (a feat no less and no more impressive than his turn as a garish plastic surgeon in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra”), there’s not much to do once the camera rolls.

The dialogue is painfully clumsy, and the pacing is pure Wikipedia; Ginnifer Goodwin, as Jacqueline, doesn’t get to do much besides wear the pink suit, cast a few wistful glances toward the middle distance and whisper her lines. For all the effort that goes into “Killing Kennedy,” it’s a remarkable statement on how little there is to say or do about a moment and an event that is supposed to split the American century into two distinct halves.

One highlight is Will Rothhaar’s measuredly manic portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald. It would, I guess, make sense that all good lines and important scenes in “Killing Kennedy” would go to the character doing the killing.

“Killing Kennedy” may well curb your appetite for what else is airing, but there are a few highlights to recommend, mostly because they try something new. My favorite documentary is also from National Geographic — the aforementioned “JFK: The Final Hours,” in which the actor Bill Paxton tenderly narrates Kennedy’s ill-fated tour of Texas.

The official schedule for this trip still sets off a stress alert, even by today’s hyperactive standards: First San Antonio, then Houston, then a night in Fort Worth. The next morning, before a packed Chamber of Commerce breakfast, the president steps outside to address the crowd, including an 8-year-old Paxton, hoisted atop his father’s shoulders and captured in one of the pictures.

What I like about “The Final Hours” is that it’s mainly about people then and now. It superimposes photos that are 50 years old atop the scenes of those streets today. It hunts down the bystanders immortalized in reaction shots. It makes everything seem somehow real again. It takes all that is already known and reshapes it to a contemporary purpose.

So, too, with TLC’s “Letters to Jackie” (airing Nov. 17), based on the book of the same name, which delves into some of the 800,000 pieces of condolence mail addressed to the first lady in the days following the assassination.

Although “Letters” spreads on the hazy, dreamy, morose stuff a little too thick (and employs a bevy of celebrities to give voice to the letters), it admirably puts a premium on the stories and emotions of the everyday Americans who poured their hearts out on stationery and on typewriters. It’s a welcome relief from the blood, gore, politics and conspiracy theories.

I searched nearly in vain for a TV special that would tell me a story of emotional depth in the wake of Kennedy’s death that I had not heard before — and at the last minute I found it in CBS Sports Network’s “Marching On: 1963 Army-Navy Remembered” (airing Nov. 14).

Although it’s mostly about a postponed football game, “Marching On” (narrated by “The Good Wife’s” Josh Charles) is about pop-cultural aftermath, essentially asking: At what point do you keep playing? At what point does life go on?

Fifty years ago, the Army-Navy football game, played in Philadelphia, was football’s annual highlight; always played on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, attracting a stadium crowd of 100,000 — including President Kennedy at one point.

People commonly locate a turning point in the nation’s grief with the arrival of the Beatles in America in February 1964. But it might have been on that football field, on Dec. 7, 1963, when Army and Navy played two weeks late. I wish there were more on television during this anniversary that was about this very thing: Who were we after it happened? What did it feel like?

Family’s perspective

One striking quality of nearly every hour of JFK-related programming is an absence of women. It’s as though the television is telling us that there is only one woman in this narrative who matters, and she’s the one wearing the pink Chanel suit with the matching pillbox hat.

Women historians with expertise in either JFK, the Cold War or the 1960s are apparently few and far between, if you judge from these projects. It’s as though the clock has reset itself to “Mad Men.” (Another intriguing possibility: Women have much better things to do than talk about the magic bullet, Jack Ruby’s mob ties or the mistakes made in the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

One exception to this is PBS’s “American Experience: JFK” (produced and directed by Susan Bellows), in which historian and author Sally Bedell Smith gets lots of time amid her male peers (Robert Dallek, Evan Thomas, Robert Caro and the like) to unpack the essence of the Kennedy presidency.

“JFK” is also the only documentary in the bunch that appears to have gained at least minimal access to members of the Kennedy clan — including Jack’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and his niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Kennedy Townsend also made herself briefly available — via a Skype link on a large projection screen — to reporters and TV critics in August at a PBS panel during the networks’ summer press tours.

She was asked something I’ve always wondered about: When a milestone anniversary rolls around, such as the 50th anniversary of Jack’s assassination, and brings renewed attention and media requests, does the family act as a unit in its responses? Do they make a plan about what to do and how to observe, what interviews to give and which to decline?

Instead of directly answering that question, Kennedy Townsend instead told us about how 35 members of her family made a trip to Ireland this year to commemorate President Kennedy’s emotional visit there in June 1963. “He said that those four days in Ireland were the happiest days of his life,” Kennedy Townsend said.

Then someone asked her and the rest of the panel to what degree the four-hour film intended to examine the president’s reputation as a womanizer and adulterer. The words “Marilyn” and “Monroe” were used.

Uh-oh. From where I sat, looking up at Kennedy Townsend on the big screen, you could sense that the question made her angry. Her face and neck reddened. (“American Experience: JFK” twice mentions that Kennedy had affairs.)

While Kennedy Townsend glared at the camera lens, Smith and others on the panel gave long explanations of how time and distance affect the historical equation when it comes to presidents and what they may or may not have done in their personal lives. As answers to uncomfy questions go, it was like spraying Glade to get rid of a smell.

The awkwardness of it hung there for a moment. Fifty years should be plenty of time to let it all hang out, say whatever we want about Jack Kennedy and how he died, bend and shape the story to whatever artistic or intellectual pursuit we deem relevant. To make movies and TV shows that claim this story for our own, in this century.

Moving and it must not stop.

But once more, we were just a roomful of Americans trapped in an instructive example of how, when it comes to John F. Kennedy, 50 years is not nearly enough. We haven’t moved on. In a lot of ways, we stop cold every time.

READ MORE:

Where to start with all this JFK stuff on TV? Here.

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