Pop culture

Letters, lost tapes stand out amid deluge of JFK anniversary specials

Nov. 14, 2013 at 4:37 AM ET

As the nation somberly marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, there is no shortage of material remembering the tragic events of November 1963. There are dozens of television offerings, so many that you could sit down weeks before the actual Nov. 22 anniversary and watch only JFK-related material until the anniversary passes.

Image: "KIlling Kennedy"
Kent Eanes / National Geographic Channel
Rob Lowe, left, as President John F. Kennedy and Ginnifer Goodwin, right, as Jackie Kennedy have a family picnic on the White House lawn during a scene from "Killing Kennedy."

There are specials that focus on Kennedy's life and times, and specials that focus on his assassin. Some walk minute-by-minute through the day's events, while others examine the forensic evidence or various conspiracy theories. Fifty years is a long time to mull over such a nation-changing event, and there seems to be no angle that television producers and filmmakers have yet to pull out and examine.

Many of these offerings come at the events of 1963 in very different ways. Some are scripted, some are documentaries, but all bring a fresh take to an event that still fascinates a half-century after it happened.

IMAGE Letter
Courtesy of TLC
President Kennedy was assassinated on a Friday. By Monday, 45,000 condolence letters had arrived at the White House.

Dear Mrs. Kennedy...
President Kennedy was killed on a Friday. By Monday, the White House had received 45,000 letters of sympathy. In two months, the number had swelled to 800,000. In this pre-Internet decade, regular Americans and citizens of other countries took up pen and ink (and sometimes typewriter) to offer Jacqueline Kennedy and her children sympathy, memories, advice and simply their love. "Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy" exquisitely puts together snippets from those letters, read by famous voices including Betty White, Allison Janney, Viola Davis and John Krasinski. Texans beg not to be blamed. Students recall how their teachers broke down sobbing in class. Peace Corps volunteers write from far-off lands to praise Kennedy as an inspiration. The letters are seamlessly interspersed with video of Kennedy and of America at the time. If there's anyone you know who doesn't understand how deeply the assassination affected regular Americans, show them this. (Nov. 17, 9 p.m., TLC.)

The president speaks for himself
Kennedy's life and death is covered in such minutiae by other programming that it's easy to lose the man himself. "JFK: In His Own Words," is a 1988 Emmy-winning HBO special that lets the late president speak for himself. It's a fascinating hour of archival footage from Kennedy's childhood and his private life, including clips from his wedding reception, catchy campaign jingles ("Kennedy can!") and more. The clips can be humorous and revealing — a pre-law school Kennedy is asked what he wants to do, and says "I'm interested more or less in working some time in my life for the government, but I haven't really decided yet." And in retrospect, they can also be sad. There's video of him clowning around while riding in an open-top car, and there's his musing on how he doesn't think the 1960s will be an easy era. "I think it will be a very dangerous time for us all," he says. He had no idea how true his words would be. (Nov. 22, 9 p.m., HBO.)

IMAGE: Rob Lowe in Killing Kennedy
National Geographic Channel
Rob Lowe as JFK in National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy."

Two couples on a collision course
"Killing Kennedy" is probably the most talked-about of all the Kennedy-related offerings, thanks mostly to heartthrob Rob Lowe playing JFK himself. Based on Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's 2012 book, it's one of the few scripted ventures, and makes for a nice change of pace from the numerous documentaries. Lowe plays Kennedy with a pleasing gravitas, and there's a definite resemblance, even if you never forget he's Rob Lowe. Ginnifer Goodwin has a tougher time with Jackie, never capturing the whispery society speech and bred-in-the-bone decorum. But the actors playing the Oswalds — Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey and Michelle Trachtenberg speaking fluent Russian as Marina — are fascinating, he slipping more and more into insane desperation, and she fighting to keep her family together in a strange land with a very strange man. (Nov. 15 at 8 p.m., 10 p.m., midnight; Nov. 22, 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., National Geographic Channel)

As the news broke
"JFK: The Lost Tapes" offers a you-are-there look at the way news of the assassination broke over Dallas police radios, on government planes including Air Force One, and via radio reports to a stunned populace. "Get these trucks out of the way!" yells a desperate Dallas officer trying to clear the roads so the motorcade can speed to Parkland Hospital. Reporters on the scene transform from touristy onlookers to intense working journalists, delivering the first descriptions of Lee Harvey Oswald, gathering witnesses, and relating the tears shining in Jackie Kennedy's eyes. There's chilling footage of the crowd at the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy was scheduled to speak, still unaware that the gala for which they have gathered will never take place. These are primary sources, reporting the news as it happens, and the words as they tumble out offer a vital look at what happened. (Nov. 21, 7 p.m., Discovery Channel.)

IMAGE: Parkland
Exclusive Media
Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, whose life was forever changed by what he saw through his movie camera, in "Parkland."

The doctors, the filmmaker, the brother
"Parkland," named for the Dallas hospital where President Kennedy and later Lee Harvey Oswald both were taken, opened in theaters on Oct. 4, and is already available on DVD and via Video On Demand. Unlike most Kennedy films or specials, it doesn't follow the Kennedys or even the Oswalds, focusing instead on the peripheral people who suddenly found themselves playing a role in this tragic day. That's an admirable and inventive concept, but you may find yourself wishing the filmmakers had chosen just one person's timeline to follow. Paul Giamatti as clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, who made a fateful decision to bring his camera to the presidential motorcade, would've been the best choice. Giamatti plays out all the emotions the devastated man goes through as he discovers his 26.6 seconds of film has made him part of history. Less interesting are plotlines about the Parkland doctors and Oswald's brother. But "Parkland" is worth seeing for the reminder that the events of Nov. 22, 1963, and the chaos they created reached out like splinters in a cracked glass, touching so many whose stories were never told. (In some theaters, on DVD and Video On Demand.)

Personal experiences remembered
On Nov. 22, 1963, Tom Brokaw was just 23, a young reporter in Omaha, Neb., and the fatal shots fired 500 miles away forced him to mature quickly. "I was operating on two tracks — as a journalist, trying to cover the story, and as a young man just becoming an adult," Brokaw said. "I grew up in a hurry that day, realizing how quickly one violent act can change so much." Now 73, Brokaw spoke to dozens and dozens of people for a new two-hour documentary, "Where Were You: The Day JFK Died." More than 270 quotes and clips from the special are gathered in NBC News.com's online interactive video experience. It's a varied bunch. Singer Judy Collins speaks of her disbelief that one man was responsible; a former KGB agent says Soviet intelligence thought of Oswald as a misfit; J.D. Tippit's widow talks about how her faith got her through her husband's murder. Leading up to the documentary, NBC's other news programs, from "Meet the Press with David Gregory" to TODAY to "NBC Nightly News," will all feature Kennedy-related interviews and elements. (Nov. 22, 9 p.m., NBC.)

Documentary classics
Leave it to Turner Classic Movies to reach back for four 1960s documentaries that capture the feel and the sentiment of the era with an accuracy and innocence no modern film could attain. Four of them are marvelous cinema verite films from the legendary documentarian Robert Drew. "Primary," made in 1960, follows that year's Wisconsin Democratic primary, with Kennedy facing off against Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, displaying clearly that JFK was a new breed of politician. "Adventures on the New Frontier," made in 1961, examines Kennedy's first days in office. "Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment," from 1963, watches Kennedy's showdown with Alabama's segregationist Gov. George Wallace over the integration of the University of Alabama. And "Faces of November" tells the sad tale of that tragic month, focusing on the faces of mourners at Kennedy's state funeral. TCM will also show the Oscar-nominated "Four Days in November" as well as one scripted film, "PT 109," the film about Kennedy's daring World War II experiences that came out just months before he was killed. (Movies begin at 8 p.m. Nov. 21, TCM.)




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