Last summer, I got the chance to review the surprisingly good Killing Lincoln, which was based on Bill O'Reilly's first book covering the assassination of an American President. While the Lincoln movie took a much more documentary-like approach to its storytelling (intertwined with dramatic re-creations of the events), 'Killing Kennedy' is a straightforward drama. Put together by a whole different team than those who worked on the Lincoln release, 'Killing Kennedy' isn't quite as good, but it's still a whole lot better than I'd expected it to be.
As dramatic portrayals of John F. Kennedy go, I've always put Bruce Greenwood (in Thirteen Days) at the top of the heap. He didn't look much like Kennedy, but he had the Boston accent and mannerisms of the 35th President down enough that you accepted him in the role. Almost exactly the same thing happens with Rob Lowe in this movie. He's not someone you'd immediately think of as ideal to play Kennedy, but his performance here helps overcome the fact that – even with some impressive makeup – he doesn't look a whole lot like JFK. He's got the various ticks and gestures down, and – perhaps most impressively – Lowe actually sounds like Kennedy in this movie, which goes a long way in allowing the viewer to forget he or she is watching Rob Lowe and instead believe they're actually watching JFK.
Lee Harvey Oswald has always been the trickier performance to pull off, since we still know so little about what he was really like as a person. Up until now, Gary Oldman's portrayal of Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK has always been the gold standard, and while that doesn't change with 'Killing Kennedy', Will Rothhaar's version of Lee Harvey Oswald is quite impressive and interesting to watch unfold. Most of the prior portrayals of Oswald have shown him as unstable and mentally imbalanced. While Rothhaar's Oswald does get there by the end of the movie, his Lee is intelligent and charming – dare I say even charismatic – early on. Of the two leads, Rothhaar proves more fascinating to watch than Lowe, just because we understand Kennedy so well and Oswald so little – allowing Rothhaar to make much more interesting choices with his acting.
'Killing Kennedy' begins with Oswald creating his 'sniper's nest' in the Texas School Book Depository, and then waiting for the Kennedy motorcade to arrive. After firing those fatal shots, the movie jumps back in time four years to tell a parallel story of the two men – with Kennedy announcing his candidacy for the White House as Oswald is heading to Russia to denounce his American citizenship. The proceedings then continue to jump back and forth between the two men until that November day in 1963 where their lives finally cross paths.
While the two male leads are strong in 'Killing Kennedy', I found the two women – Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Trachtenberg as Marina Oswald – to be stuck in more serviceable roles. Marina just comes off as another naïve and battered woman (pretty much the way she's been played in every other movie), while Jackie has more or less three important scenes here: her reaction to finding out JFK is cheating on her (which we never see her confront him about); the loss of her baby; and the reaction to the assassination and the loss of her husband. Then again, there's nothing wrong with the actresses here (who do just fine with the material they've been given) – there's just not enough room to tell their stories as well in a movie that runs just short of 90 minutes.
Those who lean towards conspiracy theories and think the Warren Commission report is a piece of fiction may be disappointed to discover that 'Killing Kennedy' doesn’t present any other possibility than the fact that Oswald acted alone. This results in a movie with not a whole lot new to say about the assassination, but also one that perhaps more than most others accurately depicts what really happened.
Despite telling a story that most of us are either partially or completely familiar with, 'Killing Kennedy' still manages to be entertaining fare. It's not quite as good as the Lincoln movie I reviewed last year, but I found it more enjoyable than Parkland, last year's theatrical release that covered the events immediately after the assassination (another film that avoided any conspiracy theories).
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Killing Kennedy' arrives on Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase that houses the 50GB dual-layer disc, plus an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy of the movie, which can be used for your choice of Flixster, Google Play, or Vudu. The Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for Romeo & Juliet, The Book Thief, and Homeland: The Complete Second Season. The main menu consists of footage from the movie that is divided among boxes that wipe on and off of the screen in various patterns. Menu selections run across the bottom of the screen.
Although I had no luck confirming it anywhere online, 'Killing Kennedy' appears to have been shot digitally, with the exception of some 8mm re-creations of noteworthy Kennedy family footage as well as some archival material (primarily historical news footage). The transfer here, while not stunning, is solid – although keen viewers will note earlier scenes in the movie (those further in the past of the timeline the movie depicts) have a little more color drained out of them than those that appear later in the film. Overall, the colors of 'Killing Kennedy' have a more subdued than robust look to them, with the exception of the recreated 8mm footage, whose colors are oversaturated and blooming, in keeping with the originals upon which they are based.
Detail level is good and consistent throughout, although not particularly stunning. Black levels are less impressive, although – since very few scenes in 'Killing Kennedy' take place at night or in darkened rooms (although there are a few) – there are not too many moments of murkiness. I detected no noticeable issues with banding, aliasing, artifacting, or other issues with the transfer. Overall, viewers are provided with a solid, if unspectacular, image.
The only audio option provided is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that more than serves its purpose, even if there isn't much going on in terms of directionality or immersiveness. The majority of dialogue comes from the front center speaker, while the rears are used primarily to enhance the musical soundtrack, as well as for occasional background noises. No obvious or noticeable glitches or problems exist in the track. Much like the video transfer, the audio is solid and serviceable, but nothing that's going to show off your set-up.
Subtitles are offered in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
'Killing Kennedy' is a straightforward telling of the events leading up to the assassination of JFK, with little, if any, deviation from the official Warren Commission report on the killing. While there's nothing new here that we haven't read already or seen in other movies dealing with the assassination, both Rob Lowe and Will Rothhaar give strong performances that add a touch of humanity to both the fallen President and his unstable assassin. The result is a movie that, while still very much by-the-numbers, turns out to be both a good piece of entertainment and a pretty solid recounting of history. Recommended.