TV's tale of two wives

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Published: Nov 17 2013, 01:01:am

Sunday, November 17, 2013


    Looking ahead to November 22 — the day that everyone of a certain age can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news — I couldn't help but notice the amount of time television was devoting to programs marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. presidential assassination.

    In the coming days, Reeling Back will recall at least six significant feature films about that day, and the tragedy that left a permanent mark on my generation. Because of my focus on this new website, I wasn't particularly interested in the flood of new TV shows retelling the old story . . .

    . . . with one exception. Killing Kennedy caught my eye.

    No, it wasn't the fact that it was produced by the National Geographic Channel, or that it was based on a 2012 book bearing the name of Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly (the "with Martin Dugard" credit makes me dubious that the blowhard broadcaster contributed anything more than his Big Name to the 336-page tome).

    What gave me pause was the women. As a Once Upon a Time viewer, I recognized Ginnifer Goodwin, cast in the role of Jacqueline Kennedy. As a card-carrying Whedonite, I also recognized Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy's kid sister Dawn), who was playing Marina Oswald.

    OK, you have my attention.

    Last night, we looked at the PVR recording, expecting Snow White and the Secret Service. The reality was considerably less imaginative, a reminder that despite the many superb shows out there, Sturgeon's law
remains in force.

    What Kelly Masterson's teleplay offers us is a tale of two troubled marriages. Glamourous Jackie feels shut out by her woman-magnet husband Jack (Rob Lowe). Stolid Marina feels shut out by her trouble-magnet husband Lee (Will Rothaar).

    The narrative begins in 1959 with Kennedy's declaration that he will run for president and Oswald's defection to the Soviet Union. It then bounces back and forth between the two men until they are buried on the same day in 1963.

     A viewer looking for new revelations about the most investigated murder in American history will be disappointed. Killing Kennedy adheres to the lone-gunman telling of the tale with comic-book certitude. It does, however, suggest that an FBI with a stronger surveillance mandate might have kept better track of risky characters like the politically-confused Oswald.

    Nelson McCormick, a career television director (who dropped by Vancouver to shoot the 2005 made-for-TV movie Global Frequency), brings neither style nor insight to the the project. Though he has a reasonable eye for period detail, his feeling for his characters is indifferent, even distant.

    Which is too bad, because the focus on the women is the single interesting thing about this version of the tale. Goodwin is watchable as the faithful, fragile First Lady, though her Northeastern accent frequently slips into a Southern drawl.

    Trachtenberg, however, steals the show. Proficient in Russian, she shows us a Marina who is both faithful and assertive, abused and a survivor. The filmmakers were so intent on their "historical" recreations that they missed the genuinely compelling narrative that might have been.

    Jackie and Marina. Killing Kennedy leaves them at their respective husband's gravesides; silent, sad (and, if the truth were told, really, really angry). Fade to black and cut to commercial.

    What we're denied is the "what happened next" to these two remarkable persons. What we are not told (though most people know), is that Jackie remarried the wealthy Greek Aristotle Onassis and worked as an editor at Doubleday following his death. She died in 1994 at the age of 64.

    Marina (still alive and 72 years old) rebuilt her life, remarried (in 1965) and raised a total of four children.