JFK 50 years later
By LORI RACKL TV Critic November 8, 2013 4:22PM
This Nov. 22, 1963, file photo shows President John F. Kennedy riding in motorcade with first lady Jacqueline Kenndy before he was shot in Dallas, Texas. | AP file
Updated: December 11, 2013 6:21AM
President John F. Kennedy and television will be forever intertwined.
Kennedy was the first president to fully appreciate the power of the medium and use it to great advantage.
His assassination drew people to TV in unprecedented numbers. It’s where the country turned both to get the shocking news and to collectively grieve.
Television helped make Kennedy, and he helped make television.
Leading up to the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, it’s fitting that the small screen responds with a parade of programming dedicated to the slain leader.
The quantity of Kennedy-related shows over the next two weeks is a bit overwhelming. We’ve cut through the clutter and narrowed it down to some of the best, depending on your interests.
For conspiracy theorists
“JFK: The Smoking Gun,” 4 p.m. Sunday on Reelz Channel
This show, which premiered Nov. 3, doesn’t involve a grassy knoll or an umbrella man. It argues instead that the conspiracy wasn’t to kill the president but to cover up who accidentally fired the fatal shot: a Secret Service agent riding in the car behind Kennedy’s limo. It’s based on a book by retired Australian police detective Colin McLaren, who basically builds on a theory introduced years earlier by the late ballistics expert Howard Donahue. The program makes a surprisingly convincing case despite being bogged down by cheesy re-enactments.
For the Hollywood treatment
“Killing Kennedy.” 7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel
Following in the footsteps of the ratings hit “Killing Lincoln” comes this adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling book on Kennedy. Boasting the slickest looks and the most star power of the JFK-related programs, the film stars Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin as the Camelot couple. Far more compelling is the parallel, lesser-known story of Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar) and his Russian bride, Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg). No one will mistake this docudrama for high art, but it’s a refreshing change of pace from the standard voice-over documentary fare.
For the real deal
“American Experience: JFK,” 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on WTTW-Ch. 11
The warts-and-all approach of this comprehensive profile of John Fitzgerald Kennedy stands out in a sea of laudatory specials. The four-hour program is divided into two parts. The first chronicles his rise to power, Kennedy’s transformation from a sickly boy born into one of the richest families in America to his history-making election in 1960 as the youngest president voted into office. Part two follows Kennedy into the White House, through his assassination and into his legacy, with experts offering frank assessments of his successes and failures.
“JFK: One PM Central Standard Time,” 10 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW-Ch. 11
One of the most enduring images surrounding Kennedy’s assassination is that of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite as he took off his glasses, let down his guard and told a nation its president was dead. “On that day, he was our dad,” NBC’s Brian Williams says in this ode to the legendary journalist, who, like Kennedy, was 46 at the time. Narrated by George Clooney, the program focuses on how Cronkite and reporters at the chaotic scene — including a young Dan Rather — covered the breaking story, while taking a few swipes at modern media.
For a minute-by-minute account
“The Day Kennedy Died,” 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, on Smithsonian Channel
Narrated by Kevin Spacey, this program recounts the details of Nov. 22, 1963, through the memories of people who played a part in the historic event. It includes rarely seen film and photographs shot that day, as well as firsthand accounts from a doctor who tried to save the president, a man falsely accused of JFK’s murder, and the woman who sheltered Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas the night before.
For first lady fans
“Letters to Jackie,” 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17, on TLC
Viola Davis, Betty White, Octavia Spencer and Channing Tatum are a few of the celebrities whose voices can be heard reading some of the letters that flooded Jacqueline Kennedy’s mailbox in the wake of her husband’s death. The first lady received an estimated 800,000 missives from mourning Americans. The show, in its slowest moments, feels like it’s reading every one of them. It’s the kind of program you can have on in the background while doing chores and adjust your level of attention accordingly.