Among a fleet of documentaries launched on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy comes “Killing Kennedy,” a dramatic take with Rob Lowe as the president and Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald. Premiering Sunday on National Geographic Channel, it’s based on a book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, one in a told-in-present-tense series that also includes “Killing Lincoln,” already made into a National Geographic TV movie, and “Killing Jesus” — literary docudramas, if you will.
Though the subject is a mountain that no team, setting out on a basic-cable budget, could ever hope to scale, the film (directed by Nelson McCormick, a veteran of many fine TV dramas, and written by Kelly Masterson, who wrote Sidney Lumet’s last film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) is not as bad as it might have been. That is to say, it fails only in the expected ways.
The film cuts back and forth between its main players, their lives conceived as mirror images, parallel lines converging like railroad tracks in single-point perspective. It’s a checklist drama, ticking off the stations of their combined crosses, one by one, with dialogue that almost all goes straight to the point.
Kennedy elected? Check. Oswald defected? Check. Jack frisking with interns? Check. Lee fighting with co-workers? Check. “Camelot” playing on the White House stereo, Oswald posing with guns, “I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack,” “I’m just a patsy” — it’s all here, all the way to their very different funerals.
Lowe has been a regularly surprising actor, to some of us for whom “St. Elmo’s Fire” is a living memory: solid in “The West Wing,” hilarious and memorable in “Behind the Candelabra,” weirdly lovable in “Parks and Recreation” as the pathologically positive Chris Traeger. (Or, rather, Chris Traeger!)
Yet, and despite a vague resemblance, Kennedy escapes him — making Lowe just the latest in a long line of actors similarly denied. Perhaps in the future, when even the best 20th century records will seem as low-definition as cave paintings look to our early 21st century eyes, no one will be able to tell the difference between the real thing and the imitation. But for now the Kennedy charisma remains inimitable and non-transferable.
Likewise, Ginnifer Goodwin, as good as she has been in “Big Love” and “Once Upon a Time,” seems merely dressed up as the First Lady. It does not help that — notwithstanding some passages crafted from Jacqueline Kennedy’s own words — Masterson has given her little of interest to say or do.
The film plays most effectively — which is not quite to say that it plays effectively — as a story of two couples, Lee and Marina (a Russian-speaking Michelle Trachtenberg), drifting part, and Jack and Jackie, coming together. As the less well-documented, less fabulous pair, there is more room to move with the Oswalds, for the writer and the actors to make them their own. (Trachtenberg has the least-thankless job here; most viewers will have no conception of Marina to measure her against.)
For if Kennedy has been made more human by the posthumous detailing of his flaws, Oswald — for all the many things we know about him — remains a vessel into which conflicting and outlandish notions continue to be poured. He is, oddly, the better subject for a drama, the active party in this date with destiny. Kennedy, who had come to Dallas to do a little party housekeeping, was just going about his business.
“So now he is a legend, when he would have preferred to be a man,” Jackie says here of her late husband, quoting the original. (Oswald, in this telling, would have preferred things the other way around.) And yet, for all its imagined private talks and attempted intimacies, “Killing Kennedy” promotes the legend, after all — even as it makes these events and their players seem smaller than life.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)