A JFK for (all) the ages

CORBIS Just minutes after this photo of the presidential motorcade was taken, JFK was mortally wounded in Dallas' Dealey Plaza.
CORBIS Just minutes after this photo of the presidential motorcade was taken, JFK was mortally wounded in Dallas' Dealey Plaza.
Posted: November 07, 2013

DO YOU remember where you were when you found out that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas?

Whether your answer is "history class" - your parents (or grandparents) hadn't even met in 1963! - or a specific, personal memory, there's probably no escaping the single-bullet theory, "Camelot" and the grassy knoll this month.

As the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination approaches on Nov. 22, the medium he was the first president to truly embrace - and that has a lot more time, and channels, to fill than it did then - is rolling out dozens of hours of Kennedy-related programming across broadcast and cable.

You can't, and shouldn't, watch it all. Trust me on this.

But whether you're a passionate fan of All Things Kennedy, a conspiracy buff or someone wondering, 50 years later, what all the fuss continues to be about, there's probably a special or two worth considering on this far-from-comprehensive list:

If you watch only one: Make it "JFK," the two-night biography from PBS' "American Experience" that's about Kennedy's life, not just his death, and does a remarkable job of placing his unfinished presidency in context.

"It's not simply an issue of each generation coming to terms with this iconic figure," historian Tim Naftali told reporters at a PBS news conference this summer. "It's also that the data, just the stuff of history, is so much broader on Kennedy than it was five years ago."

Kennedy, for instance, "taped 260 hours of his conversations, and until a year and a half ago, they weren't all available," he said.

"American Experience," 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, WHYY12.

* If you really, really love Rob Lowe: The docudrama "Killing Kennedy," based on the bestselling book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, marks Lowe's induction into the Kennedy hair club of actors who've portrayed JFK, from Cliff Robertson and William Devane in the '60s and '70s to James Marsden in this year's "Lee Daniels' The Butler." It's hardly groundbreaking, but if you are documentary-challenged, or don't know much about Lee Harvey Oswald (Will Rothhaar) and his Russia-born wife, Marina (Michelle Trachtenberg), you might learn something. Also: Lowe's Kennedy hair is truly amazing.

"Killing Kennedy," 8 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel.

If you're a news junkie: I'm not sure why this falls under the province of PBS' "Secrets of the Dead," but "JFK: One PM Central Standard Time" is the documentary for anyone whose memories of the Kennedy assassination are inextricably linked to the late CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. Narrated by old-school TV news-geek George Clooney, it's a moment-by-moment account of what was going on in Dallas and behind the scenes at CBS before Cronkite's announcement that Kennedy was dead.

"Secrets of the Dead: JFK: One PM Central Standard Time," 10 p.m. Nov. 13, WHYY12.

If you'd like to retrace the president's final itinerary: There's more than one show doing this, but only National Geographic's "JFK: The Final Hours" has narrator Bill Paxton ("Big Love") who, as an 8-year-old perched on his father's shoulders, was a face in the crowd at one of Kennedy's final appearances on the morning of Nov. 22.

"JFK: The Final Hours," 8 p.m. Friday, National Geographic Channel.

If you're sure Oswald couldn't have acted alone: You don't need to be a "CSI" fan to know that the assassination investigation wasn't handled by the book, even by 1963 standards. PBS' "Nova" puts some of the resulting conspiracy theories to the scientific test in "Cold Case JFK," which uses firearms experts and a forensic neuropathologist, among others, to re-examine the evidence.

"Nova: Cold Case JFK," 9 p.m. Nov. 13, WHYY12.

If you'd like to hear a second-shooter theory no one else seems to be pushing: Reelz Channel is rerunning its Sunday special, an Australian-Canadian production that argues that a Secret Service agent, now deceased, was responding to the shots fired by Oswald when he inadvertently fired the shot that actually killed Kennedy.

"JFK: The Smoking Gun," 8 p.m. Friday, Reelz.

If you really can't get enough of conspiracy theories: The History Channel, in its somewhat misleadingly titled "JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide," reports not so much on what actually happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, as on what Americans believe happened. Culling the results of an exhaustive opinion survey, it finds that a small percentage of us believe, for instance, that Kennedy was killed to prevent him from telling the nation about the aliens autopsied at Roswell. No matter what you believe, you're bound to come away feeling superior to someone.

"JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide," 8 p.m. Nov. 22, History Channel.

If you've always wondered what it was like to be in the Secret Service that day: Clint Hill, the agent who was assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy and who climbed onto the back of the president's car after the shooting began, turns up in a number of documentaries, but gives one of his most complete accounts of those last hours in Texas in the Smithsonian Channel's "The Day Kennedy Died."

"The Day Kennedy Died," 9 p.m. Nov. 17, Smithsonian Channel.

If you want to know more about the man in the white Stetson: Co-produced by Kate Griendling, the granddaughter of Jim Leavelle, the Dallas police detective who was handcuffed to Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, "Capturing Oswald" looks at the Kennedy investigation from the perspective of the local police. This one's probably only for completists, making it a natural for the Military Channel.

"Capturing Oswald," 10 p.m. Tuesday, Military Channel.

If you're looking for a powerful emotional experience: Nowhere is the actual impact of the assassination on ordinary people better conveyed than in Academy Award-winning documentarian Bill Couturie's film, "Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy," which is making its TV debut on TLC. Among the actors reading from some of the hundreds of thousands of letters written to the first lady in the days and weeks after the assassination are Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum and Betty White. Some writers were more eloquent than others, but together they provide perspective on Kennedy's stance on such issues as civil rights while reminding us of the sorrow felt even by people who didn't necessarily agree with the man's politics.

"Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy," 9 p.m. Nov. 17, TLC.


Phone: 215-854-5950

" @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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