After National Geographic Channel held a preview screening of JFK: The Final Hours in Fort Worth, it presented a Q&A with some key figures from the documentary. Nothing unusual about that — except that two people on the panel were so affected by what they had just seen, they had trouble talking at first.
“It was very traumatic for everybody in the world,” said Cornelia “Corky” Friedman, who was married to Fort Worth Mayor Bayard Friedman when Kennedy was killed. “You could go around the world and everybody could tell you where they were the day Kennedy was shot and what they were doing. [This] really brought it back.”
Friedman had been at Kennedy’s final breakfast, which took place at what was then the Hotel Texas — now the Fort Worth Hilton, where the screening of The Final Hours took place. She is one of many Fort Worth residents who were there during Kennedy’s November 1963 visit to Fort Worth, his last stop before Dallas on Nov. 22 — and who producers of The Final Hours tracked down to appear in the documentary.
Perhaps even more affected after the screening was Buell Frazier, a former co-worker of Lee Harvey Oswald who drove Oswald to work at the Texas School Book Depository. Frazier also appears in the film, re-creating the drive to work, during which Oswald told him that the long package he was carrying contained curtain rods.
“It was a very tragic day,” Frazier said, speaking haltingly. “I personally believe that America lost a very special person in John Kennedy. Some people may disagree with me, but I think it was when America began to become a violent place.”
For those of us who are too young to remember Kennedy’s assassination, the reminiscences in The Final Hours help illustrate the full impact on those who do remember — including Fort Worth actor Bill Paxton, who narrates the film (Paxton was 8 years old and in the crowd outside the Hotel Texas when Kennedy spoke there). The documentary traces the last 24 hours of Kennedy’s life, a whirlwind trip through Texas that took Kennedy through Houston and San Antonio before he came to Fort Worth and Dallas.
Other Fort Worth people featured in the film include a group of women who went to Carter-Riverside High School and attended Kennedy’s parking-lot speech; and Gary Bakewell, a member of the Texas Boys Choir who sang at the president’s breakfast. Fort Worth native Julian Read, who was Texas Gov. John Connally’s press secretary at the time, wrote the companion book, JFK: The Final Hours.
Much of the film’s emotional impact comes not from well-known history but from the little things that people remember (Friedman recalls being so excited that Kennedy complimented her earrings that she nearly fainted), and from those moments when the participants remember where they were and what they were doing. It has a few unnecessarily glitzy touches — any time we see a 1963 shot of one of the modern-day participants, there’s a flash distinguishing her or him from the rest of the crowd — but overall does an effective job of showing the personal side of JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy, the hospitality of many Texans and the way that a joyous day turned horrifying in a matter of seconds.
National Geographic Channel screened The Final Hours as part of a press tour that brought out-of-town journalists to DFW and took them to several Kennedy-related stops (the journalists even had a poached-egg breakfast at the Hilton Fort Worth that was similar to Kennedy’s last meal). The trip included stops at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art for a tour of the “Hotel Texas” exhibit, visits to Dealey Plaza and to Oswald’s boardinghouse, and a reception at the Sixth Floor Museum, in the building that formerly housed the Texas School Book Depository.
The tour also included a screening of Killing Kennedy at Dallas’ Texas Theatre, the Oak Cliff movie palace where Oswald was arrested. Based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s book, Killing Kennedy — airing 7 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic — follows two threads, one looking at Kennedy’s time as president and the other at the events that led Oswald to assassinate the president (although as Frazier points out, Oswald never had a trial and hence wasn’t convicted).
Director Nelson McCormick, a veteran of dozens of TV-series episodes, describes the movie as the story of two trains on a collision course.
“We were hoping for this sort of natural suspense that we built up, since we know the conclusion, what’s going to happen to these lives,” McCormick said during a post-screening Q&A. “It’s kind of like, ‘We know the collision’s about to happen. Let’s take the trains back a few miles and watch them get close to each other.’”
The train analogy fits Killing Kennedy, which moves at locomotive speed as it sums up four years in roughly two hours. But the speed essentially puts the Kennedy story on fast-forward — Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, philandering — while making the Oswald story much more compelling (McCormick says that one of his influences was Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic about an alienated cabbie who becomes driven to kill).
A big reason the Oswald story works so well is Will Rothhaar, who plays Oswald. The least-well-known of the movie’s four principal actors, he’s the least weighed down by his own familiarity, and he gives an empathetic but intense portrayal of the increasingly obsessive Oswald. He’s given a big assist by Michelle Trachtenberg ( Gossip Girl, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who gives a revelatory performance as Marina, Oswald’s Russian bride, who accompanies him back to the States and worries about her husband’s strange behavior.
As JFK, Rob Lowe gets the Boston accent and the cadences down, although the rail-thin actor seems too slight to play the president — and although he takes the role past mere impersonation, he never makes you forget that he’s Rob Lowe under all the hair and makeup (which has the unsettling effect of making him look like Kennedy and Rob Lowe all at once). Lowe does his best with what might be the film’s most underwritten role, but Ginnifer Goodwin ( Once Upon a Time, Big Love) struggles with Jaqueline Kennedy, never quite capturing her breathy speaking style or her wispy elegance, although Goodwin makes up for it in the strength of her scenes after JFK is shot.
As we’ve already seen, this month is crowded with TV specials commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination — so many specials that the competing networks risk viewer burnout. Killing Kennedy and The Final Hours are a couple that stand out, and are less likely to get lost among the mass of programs. Both tell the story from relatively fresh angles, and Killing Kennedy’s association with a bestselling book is likely to make it the bigger hit. But The Final Hours has the edge in quality, and in bringing back just how much that tragic day shook up people who can tell you where they were when they heard the news.