A man hiding in a warehouse looks down on a parade route. He lifts a rifle, fires and kills the president.
Those three shots from Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun are the heart of National Geographic’s new made-for-TV movie, “Killing Kennedy.” The movie traces the collision course between an assassin and a president, a story we have continued to tell ourselves over and over again since Nov. 22, 1963 — 50 years ago next month.
Watch the full story on “Nightline” tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET
It is a landmark anniversary for those who are telling the story now, including outspoken conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, who wrote the bestselling book “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot,” on which the National Geographic movie is based.
“I remember sitting there in … theology class at Chaminade High School out on Long Island and having the loud speaker crackle and having the principal go “‘the president has been shot in Dallas,’” O’Reilly said. “My head snapped back.”
Actor Rob Lowe tackled the role of President John F. Kennedy for the movie.
“If Shakespeare were alive today, he would have written about the Kennedy family, and JFK would have been a titular character and actors would play him as a rite of passage,” Lowe said.
But “Killing Kennedy” is not the first movie to address the president’s assassination this year. “Parkland,” starring Zac Efron, focused on the Dallas hospital where staff tried but failed to save the president’s life. Not to mention the shelves upon shelves of some 40,000 books on just the assassination. Memorabilia have even popped up on QVC to mark the half-century anniversary of the president’s death.
Or is it more of a half-century obsession?
“The glamour of the Kennedy presidency is still intact because when he was killed his image was frozen in time, this good looking, robust man with a beautiful wife and a lovely family,” O’Reilly said. “When you have a tragedy like that and a blunt force on a country the image that stays is the image that people will always remember. And that’s what it is.”
So in playing Kennedy on screen, the actor would have the daunting task of having to try to live up to an immensely lauded image and a voice that has been so burned into public memory.
“When you are playing someone who is so alive in the public’s imagination … you have to look like them. You have to have the voice, you have to have the mannerisms and that in and of itself is its own challenge,” Lowe said.
And while Daniel Day-Lewis took home the Oscar for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Giamatti snagged an Emmy for playing John Adams in the TV miniseries, neither had to contend with film or audio tapes of their characters. Unlike Kennedy, no one knows what Lincoln or Adams sounded like.
Lowe said he tried to “fill in” Kennedy’s character, rather than do an exact imitation of him.
“Imitation is one thing, but an actor’s job isn’t to imitate. An actor’s job is to inhabit, to make the character recognizable as a human being,” he said. “The voice that gets stuck in your head is the famous voice of ‘ask not’…that’s his presentational voice. … I spent more time listening to his dictation, his private dictation.”
“Killing Kennedy” strives to be an authentic record of what happened during his 1,000 days in office, from the agony of the Bay of Pigs debacle to Jackie Kennedy’s pink suit picked out especially for the day in Dallas.
All images are from a legacy that began to be formed, in particular by Jackie, almost immediately after the president’s death.
“We know for a fact that his legacy is very carefully maintained and managed, and I don’t think that is a bad thing at all,” Lowe said. “That is what we would want for anybody in our family. … We would want them to be remembered in the best possible light.”
Despite the hundreds of thousands of books about the assassination in the past 50 years, new nuggets of information continue to emerge, such as the recently released audio tapes from an interview Jackie Kennedy did with historian Arthur Schulessinger four months after the assassination.
It was not just what the Kennedy family wanted us to believe had been lost, but apparently, what many alive at the time wanted to believe.
“Kennedy was the ultimate figure on which we projected all of our hopes and aspirations, and that’s how he designed it,” Lowe said. “He was a politician and a smart one. Great one. It wasn’t by accident.”