Two men joined by destiny
An in-depth dramatisation about the build-up to JFK’s assassination airs on National Geographic tomorrow
IT’S 1959. Two men face major turning points in their lives: one is in Washington, DC, preparing to announce his presidential candidacy, the other is at the US Embassy in Moscow, renouncing his American citizenship. Two seemingly unrelated occurrences, starting both on a cataclysmic track that would alter the course of history.
National Geographic Channel’s Killing Kennedy, produced by Scott Free Productions and based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, chronicles the build-up to one of the US’s most shocking events: the assassination of President John F Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Starring Rob Lowe ( John F Kennedy) and Will Rothhaar (Lee Harvey Oswald), with Michelle Trachtenberg ( Marina Oswald) and Ginnifer Goodwin ( Jacqueline Kennedy), the film charts the highs and lows of two men and two relationships that would eventually intersect with two shocking deaths that stunned the nation.
The historical details of the event are well known to millions. Now, Killing Kennedy will take audiences deeper inside the story than ever before by examining the events that led both men to Dallas on that fateful day in November 1963, and by offering a rare and human look at the people at the centre of it all.
“JFK was so much more than I think people realise,” says Lowe.
“My goal was to play a husband, a father, a brother, a man with a big job who loved and was funny, and smart, and charming, and flawed, and inspired.”
Added Goodwin: “The intimacy and revealing nature of this film, and the captivating narrative, really inspired me.”
Oswald remains one of American history’s most infamous figures, but one few know much about. Killing Kennedy will reveal Oswald as more than just a twodimensional villain, but as a troubled man who wanted nothing more than for someone to take notice of him – a wish he saw granted for less than 48 hours before meeting his own spectacular and untimely demise.
“The Oswald story is something no one has really told before,” says Rothhaar. “I think there are a lot of things about Lee (Oswald) that people are going to be surprised by, or even relate to, in this movie.”
“Many people aren’t even aware Lee had a wife,” says Trachtenberg, who speaks almost entirely in Russian in the film. “The film’s illumination of Marina and their marriage helps reveal Lee as more than just a monster.”
Killing Kennedy pits Kennedy and Oswald as the polar opposites they were, charting their respective paths towards their infamous mutual date with destiny.
While the aristocratic Kennedy ascends to the ultimate seat of power, Oswald seeks his own place in the world by looking to make a name for himself as a former US marine defecting to Russia.
His delusions of grandeur are soon replaced by the harsh and cold realities of factory work in the remote and unforgiving Minsk winter, and he returns to the US with his new Russian wife, Marina.
Settling in Texas, the Oswalds start a family and Oswald finds a communist cause much closer to home in the geopolitically charged hotbed that is Cuba at the dawn of the 1960s.
Here’s what Rothhaar had to say about being the assassin.
Every American, it seems, knows the name Lee Harvey Oswald but very few know much about him as a man. What was it like to play a character like this?
From the very first conversations I had with our director, Nelson McCormick, we talked about portraying the human side of someone who has for all these years been seen only as a two-dimensional villain. We wanted to find where he is human and let people see that. For all these years, people have seen him as a monster. To me, he is not a monster. He is a man who did a monstrous thing. And there’s a big difference.
Talk about some of the research you did for this role.
I did a ton of research. I read the book Marina and Lee. The author, Priscilla McMillan, spent 10 years with Marina and also used to work for JFK.
For me, the research is almost the most fun. I found radio interviews Lee did where there are these three 10-minute-long segments in which you hear him talk and talk, which really helped me learn what he sounded like.
What did you learn about Oswald that surprised you?
I had no idea about his upbringing. He grew up very neglected. His father died two months before he was born, and his mother was very unstable. She put his older brothers in an orphanage when Lee was born and sent them to boarding school. Then, when he was three, she dropped him in an orphanage and then took him to New York. It was as if he never belonged anywhere, and he never had anyone recognise him, or sit him down and ask him about his day. This makes perfect sense in the story we are telling, because he is motivated by the fact that he wanted to be seen, he wanted to be recognised for something. I am not going to say you will feel compassion for him, but you might look at him and say, yeah, I’ve been there.
What was it like to shoot the assassination scene?
The scene was shot from my viewpoint, through the rifle scope. And the camera is on me following the car as it comes down the road. It was intense. We were shooting in a building that really looked like the school book depository (Oswald shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of this Dallas building). When I was lining up the shot, and finally bring the rifle around, it’s like, take a breath and you know that is the moment. It was intense.
In telling this story using a parallel structure, what kinds of comparisons were you able to draw between these two men?
One thing I found really interesting is that almost from the beginning, it is obvious that Lee wants fame. And, at least in the early days, JFK really didn’t. He grew to accept it. But the first time we see him in the movie, he is about to announce he is running for president and he is talking about how it was not supposed to be him taking that stage, it was supposed to be his brother Joe.
Meanwhile, the whole time, Lee is saying, “It’s always been me.” That is what he truly believes.
Did doing this movie change your mind about the assassination and all the related conspiracy theories?
I was raised on this subject when I was younger. Both my parents were big advocates of JFK, so I knew about it at a very early age. There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there. I have my own opinion and I always will. And this didn’t change that. But this is the story we are telling. It is the facts, and that is what is really interesting about it.
Killing Kennedy airs tomorrow at 9.55pm on National Geographic Channel.
COMPLEX: The movie reveals different dimensions of Oswald.