Half a century after the slaying of President John F. Kennedy, it's still hard to believe that the era of Camelot was brought down by one lone nut. But you'll find no conspiracy theories — not even a hint — in the ambitious National Geographic Channel film Killing Kennedy. Based on the best-selling book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, it lays blame for the assassination of JFK (played by Rob Lowe) squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar), a disgruntled ex-Marine with a psychopathic need to be noticed.
"So often with epic tragedies we want to believe there are larger forces at work — something grand and powerful and secretive — because the alternative is almost more frightening to accept," says Lowe, a lifelong JFK enthusiast. "Polls have shown that the majority of Americans do not believe Oswald acted alone, but that's not the story we're telling here."
Killing Kennedy tracks the lives of both victim and gunman, following JFK from his rise to the presidency through the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis and on to Dallas in November 1963 for that doomed journey with wife Jackie (Ginnifer Goodwin). As all of this unfolds, we see Oswald renouncing his U.S. citizenship and defecting to Russia, where he meets future wife Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg). He later settles in the Dallas area, where, before murdering JFK, he makes an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate U.S. Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker.
"In terms of scope, cost and risk, this is the biggest project Nat Geo has ever attempted," says the channel's president, Howard T. Owens, who also served as one of the film's executive producers. Last February, Owens had a ratings smash with Killing Lincoln, which blended docudrama and talking-head historians. For this film, he says, "we didn't want to go that route. To feel the full impact of this saga, we needed those intimate, behind-closed-doors moments."
Many of those are depicted in Killing Kennedy: JFK's medical issues, the couple's grief over the death of 2-day-old son Patrick and Jackie's refusal to leave Jack to seek safe shelter outside Washington, D.C., as the Russians threatened to nuke the U.S. The script does not shy away from JFK's notorious womanizing — Bobby Kennedy (Jack Noseworthy) blasts his brother for bedding mob mistress Judith Exner — nor does it deny that Jackie was on to him.
"I always had the impression Jackie was incredibly evolved and modern-day strong, but that's mostly based on her courage and stoicism after the assassination," Goodwin says. "The truth is, she knew about her husband's infidelity and found a way to live her life around it. They had a very real and powerful love for each other. She couldn't live without him, to the point where she was willing to put up with his philandering."
Lowe admits he "lost a lot of sleep" over the role. "You can't play JFK as an icon, and you can't play the tragedy," the actor says. "Instead, I threw myself into the details — the cologne he wore, the music he listened to, how he related to his children. JFK was no saint. He was a man of human courage and human frailties."
Similarly, Rothhaar didn't see Oswald as a monster. "He was a man who did a monstrous thing," the actor says. "It was important to get past his identity as one of the major villains in history and find ways both the audience and I could relate to him. I'm not expecting anyone to have compassion for the guy, but there are certainly moments in his life that make you go, 'I've been there. I know what that feels like.'"
The filming of the assassination itself was "devastating," Lowe says. "One day, on our lunch break, I saw a bunch of Teamsters bringing out the open-topped limousine for the ride through Dealey Plaza, and I just started to weep." This was so much more than the crime of the 20th century, Lowe notes. "JFK was a vessel for hope and inspiration. We will never know how different our nation — and our world — would be today, had he not been taken from us."
Killing Kennedy premieres Sunday, Nov. 10 at 8/7c on National Geographic Channel.