50 years later, small screen shrinks JFK, warps history

This is how TV is re-making our national past for prime-time, entertainment television. Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy and his co-star Ginnifer Goodwin who plays Jackie Kennedy filming on green screen for the shooting scene in Dallas on the set "Killing Kennedy."

John F. Kennedy was our first TV president. And his death was the catalyst that made TV the principal storyteller of American life.

Given that relationship, you might think television would be the place to go for insights into the life of the president who was assassinated 50 years ago this month in Dallas.

But you would be wrong — so, so wrong.

The crush of Kennedy-themed TV productions that starts tonight and runs through the anniversary date of Nov. 22 is immense. But not only is it a mile wide and mainly an inch deep; most of the programs reduce the Kennedy narrative, one of the richest and most mythic in American history, to fit the tiny niches in our splintered TV landscape now held by the channels on which the shows air.

Forget the big concepts of shared memory, collective unconscious and millions of Americans gathering around the electronic campfire to hear great storytellers recounting one of our tribe's most sacred texts. This is narrowcasting — taking an epic story and shrinking it into bite-size Kennedy versions of "Cold Case Files," "CSI," "Secrets of the Dead" or "Smoking Gun."

And so, we start tonight with "JFK: The Smoking Gun" on the Reelz cable channel.

You remember Reelz. That's the channel that ran "The Kennedys," the 2011 mini-series starring Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes after the History Channel, for which the docudrama was produced, issued a statement saying it was not up to its standards and was ditching it. Several other channels also took a pass before the producers found one, in Reelz, that did not think "The Kennedys" was below its standards.

Reelz is, in fact, rerunning the "The Kennedys" starting at noon today. That's eight episodes of bad rerun TV and worse history, back to back.

"JFK: The Smoking Gun," is even more problematic in its own nonfiction way. Based on a book of the same title by former Australian police detective Colin McLaren, the reality TV presentation claims to "solve the case" of who killed Kennedy.

As the Reelz press materials put it: "By solving the case, McLaren manages to answer what is perhaps the most intriguing question of the last 50 years: Who killed JFK?"

Not really. Not really even close. But what's a little hype when it comes to our shared national past — and our sense of who we are as a nation, right?

A note of warning: Within the first minute of the show, viewers are shown a low-rent recreation of Kennedy being wheeled into Parkland Hospital in Dallas after being shot in the head. While the images pass quickly, viewers are given three looks at the bloody skull of the president as he lies on the gurney and then an operating table — shortly after having his brains blown out. It is an actor's head, of course, not Kennedy's, but it is unnecessary, excessive and sleazy.

There are productions in which that horrible reality needs to be shown — for artistic, journalistic or documentary reasons. This isn't one of them.

A footnote for local viewers: McLaren does reference the work of the late Howard Donahue, a Baltimore gunsmith and ballistics expert who spent much of his adult life studying the forensics of Kennedy's death.

Of course, Reelz will show Oliver Stone's 1991 "JFK" feature film — three times this month, starting at 8 p.m. Nov. 11.

National Geographic, a channel owned by a once highly respected journalistic brand, is betting its Kennedy dollars on "Killing Kennedy," based on the book by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who is also an executive producer of the docudrama starring Rob Lowe as Kennedy.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar) gets nearly equal billing in this story that follows the paths of the president and the man who was charged with killing him as they converge in 1963 in Dallas near the Texas School Book Depository.

"Killing Kennedy" is a prime example of the primary sin of such docudrama: bending, shaping and mutilating history to fit the entertainment dictates of prime-time television.

The willingness of the producers to cook up dialogue, motivation and private moments in the life of Oswald and his wife, Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg), as well as Jack and Jackie Kennedy (Ginnifer Goodwin), is alternately depressing and laugh-inducing.

There is no way, for example, that the authors could have confirmed a conversation in the docudrama between Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the president's brother, about Jack's relationship with Judith Campbell, who was also a mobster's girlfriend. But the invented dialogue adds sex and intrigue to the story line.

And the private moments between Marina and Lee are almost too much to bear. The producers and screenwriter Kelly Masterson have Marina Oswald speaking with a Russian accent last used by Natasha Fatale on the 1960s animated shows "Rocky and his Friends" and "The Bullwinkle Show."

"Promise to me you never shoot no more people," Marina says to Oswald when she gives him his rifle back — the one he would take up to his perch in the School Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963.

Promise to me, Bill O'Reilly, you never make another TV movie with such awful dialogue.

It is seriously depressing to see historical figures and this epic event in the psychic life of our nation flattened into TV melodrama this way.

This is one of the great stories of the American 20th century. For those of us old enough to have lived through it and reflective enough to have continued for 50 years to try and make sense of it, Nov. 22, 1963, is a watershed moment. It's the day the optimism of post-World-War-II America ended and teenagers like me started to distrust the powers that be — and what they had told us was the natural order of things.

As a 13-year-old, I sat in front of the TV transfixed by images unlike anything I had even seen. They mesmerized, confused and profoundly scared me: the hospital in Dallas where the president died; the police station basement where Oswald was shot at point-blank range by a man jumping into his path; the shabby Dallas nightclub the shooter was said to own; the riderless horse and the funeral cortege; the widow in black with her two small children; the sorrowful and dazed looks on the men and women in the funeral procession.

Network news coverage at the time — primitive as it was — captured much of the mythic power of the story as well as its existential undertow. It succeeded because the people in the network newsrooms were too in awe of events to do anything but point cameras at the images and hold microphones up to the sounds and let them speak for themselves. There was almost none of today's incessant chattering analysis.

I was hoping TV would help me sort through some of the dark, anxious space still lodged in my psyche as I sat down to screen these docudramas, made-for-TV movies and documentaries 50 years later.

Silly me. Sad me.