The flood of upcoming TV specials commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination threatens to be a little redundant: Conspiracy theories aside, we probably know about as much as we'll ever get to know about that awful November day.
That's not to say that remembering the tragedy isn't important. It's just to point out that the most interesting of the JFK-themed programs scheduled to air in the run-up to the Nov. 22 anniversary will be the ones that take a fresh approach.
JFK: The Final Hours, which premieres Nov. 8 on the National Geographic Channel, is one of those. The documentary focuses solely on the 24 hours preceding the moment the shots were fired at Dealey Plaza. In that span, the president and first lady visited San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth before touching down at Love Field in Dallas.
Alternating with fascinating behind-the-scenes footage, historians and biographers give context to the speeches and early re-election campaign glad-handing. But the most gripping testimony comes from everyday folks who were accidental witnesses to history.
There's a member of the Texas Boys Choir, who as a nine-year-old sang for the First Couple at a breakfast that morning; women who were teenagers when they lined the Dallas motorcade route and strained to make eye contact with their idol; and Mexican immigrants who attended a fundraiser where the Kennedys made a surprise visit on the eve of the tragedy, with Jackie giving an impromptu speech in Spanish.
The firsthand connection of the film's narrator, actor Bill Paxton, adds poignancy. A photo shows Paxton, age 8, perched atop his father's shoulders as Kennedy makes a speech outside a Ft. Worth hotel the morning of Nov. 22.
As the hours peel away and Dealey Plaza approaches, the sense of dread builds. The two-hour special beautifully summons an innocence that America has never recaptured, and a sadness that lingers half a century on.
>>More on JFK and the anniversary, including a remembrance by CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, and a slideshow of Kennedy family life starting in the late 1950s.
NatGeo Channel's other, glitzier JFK entry, Killing Kennedy, isn't quite as successful. Premiering Sunday, Nov. 10, it's based on the bestseller by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugan. This isn't a documentary, but a feature film - and an impressive-looking one at that. Despite Rob Lowe's star power in the role of JFK, it feels rushed, cramming too much into its 90 minutes, without adding much that we haven't seen before. Here's a preview:
Other Kennedy programs to watch for:
- JFK (PBS, Nov. 11-12, 9 p.m.): An exhaustive, compelling four-hour American Experience biography featuring Kennedy family members, administration members and historians.
- JFK: The Smoking Gun (Reelz, Nov. 12, 10 p.m.): A conspiracy theory doc posits that a second gunshot - accidentally fired by a secret service officer - killed the President.
- JFK: One PM Central Standard Time (PBS, Nov. 13, 10 p.m.): A minute-by-minute account of what happened in the CBS newsroom from the moment of the first shots to Walter Cronkite's famous report of the President's death.
- The Sixties: The Assassination of JFK (CNN, Nov. 14, 9 p.m.): From Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions, the two-hour doc also serves as the cable net's kickoff for a 10-episode series on the 1960s that will run through the end of 2014.
- Letters To Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy (TLC, Nov. 17, 8 p.m.): Actors and actresses read letters of condolence sent to the First Lady in the weeks and months after the assassination.
- JFK: The Lost Tapes (Discovery, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.): New interviews and recently unearthed news footage shed new light on the assassination.
- Tom Brokaw Special: Where Were You? (NBC, Nov. 22, 9 p.m.): The former NBC News anchor talks to people about their memories of that day and examines its impact.
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