JFK 50th: What To Watch & Where To Watch It

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With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy rapidly approaching, a number of UK broadcasters have firmed up their programming plans to mark the event. There is one high profile scripted effort – National Geographic’s Killing Kennedy – but most of the output is factual – with one of the more high profile documentaries, JFK: The Smoking Gun, which posits that Kennedy was in fact murdered by a US Secret Service agent, set to air on Channel 5.

The breadth of the factual output is fairly wide from The Lost Tapes, exploring the untold story of how the government responded to the crisis; to the largely unknown story of just how the Dallas Police Department tracked down and apprehended Oswald so quickly after the assassination; as well as documentaries examining not only Kennedy’s difficult time in office, but the events that shaped him both as a boy and a young man who was the son to the very politically ambitious Joe P. Kennedy, who served as the US Ambassador to the UK during the early days of the second world war.

To help our readers decide what to watch, TVWise presents a run down of which UK broadcasters are airing what and when to mark the anniversary. In the run down, organised by broadcaster and date, we present a description of the various programmes, premiere dates and (where possible) our short review of the programme in question.

Discovery Channel

JFK: The Lost Tapes – Sunday November 17th, 8pm

JFK: The Lost Tapes utilises newly released audio recordings from Air Force One, combined with digitally re-mastered audio from the Dallas Police Force, and the testimonies and radio recordings of on-site reporters, to reveal the riveting, behind-the-scenes story of the Kennedy assassination and how the American government responded on November 22nd 1963.

TVWise’s Take – JFK: The Lost Tapes puts an interesting spin on the story, re-telling the well known story of the assassination through the taped radio broadcasts of the Dallas Police Department, the White House Situation Room, Government Planes and Air Force One. It’s well worth a watch if for no other reason than to hear former US Secret Service Agent Clint Hill recount how he reacted on that day by leaping onto the motorcade and laying across JFK and the first lady as the vehicle moved at speeds approaching 80 mph down the highway, racing to the hospital.

Capturing Oswald – Sunday November 24th, 9pm

Capturing Oswald explores the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from an original angle, through the officers of the Dallas Police Department and the family and friends who knew Lee Harvey Oswald best. Within 90 minutes of the shooting, Dallas police officers arrested President Kennedy’s suspected killer. But many accuse the Dallas Police Department of botching the Kennedy assassination. Within 48 hours, the president, a police officer and the suspect were dead. How did something that began so efficiently end so badly?

TVWise’s Take – Capturing Oswald is in the same vein as more modern factual series such as The First 48. The documentary features interviews with former DPD officers who were there and recounts how the Police assembled their case so quickly, the issues that the Homicide Captain had with the FBI and how the surviving officers believe that but for that federal interference the Captain could have obtained a full confession from Oswald. Capturing Oswald is one of the better documentaries on offer and offers unique insight into the investigation.


JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide – Saturday November 23rd, 9pm

According to a recent poll conducted by History, 71% of Americans do not believe the so called “Lone Gunman Theory” that was endorsed by the Warren Commission in 1964. The two-hour special JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide explores the myriad alternative theories that Americans find more plausible. The documentary includes insights and findings from some of the top JFK assassination experts, including such authors as Gerald Posner (Case Closed), Robert Groden (JFK: Absolute Proof), Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History), Tom Stone (On the Trail of the Assassins), John McAdams (JFK Assassination Logic), David Kaiser (The Road to Dallas) and Dr. Cyril Wecht (Mortal Evidence). These men and others who are interviewed explain why each alternative theory has captured the American imagination and break down which theories are supported or discredited by the facts.

Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours To Live – Sunday November 24th, 9pm

This two-hour special provides a minute-by-minute account of the intense, final two days of Oswald’s life – his attempt to flee, his capture by the police, and the grueling interrogation by the Dallas police detectives prior to being shot by Jack Ruby – a chapter of history that raised more questions than it answered. Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours To Live is the first documentary to film inside the Dallas Municipal Building to tell Oswald’s story, where the old Dallas Police Department was housed, and the only one to accurately portray Oswald’s interrogation inside Captain Will Fritz’s actual office. For those who were with him in the last 48 hours of his life, Oswald was an enigma. The puzzles only became more complicated as the interrogation went on. FBI agents dismissed him as arrogant and argumentative. The numerous Dallas detectives in the interrogation room observed him in complete control. To Captain Will Fritz, the widely respected head of Homicide who spent more time with Oswald after the shooting than anyone else, the suspect was almost too good—too skilled at anticipating questions, too quick to deflect probing inquiries, too calm and fearless in the face of the charges against him. Did Oswald receive special training in how to avert police questioning?  Did he secretly travel to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City just weeks prior to the assassination for an alleged meeting with a KGB colonel?

National Geographic

JFK: Seven Days That Made A President – Monday November 11th, 9pm

JFK: Seven Days That Made A President captures the events that forever altered Kennedy. From a mysterious illness that nearly claimed his life at 16 to his tremendous act of heroism saving the lives of ten fellow soldiers in World War II and his infamous encounter with an unforgettable Hollywood siren. Revealing commentary from Kennedy’s family, aides and close confidants pieces together the formidable character of one of the most enduring and renowned political figures.

Killing Kennedy – Tuesday November 12th, 9pm

The spiritual successor to last year’s Killing LincolnKilling Kennedy is based on book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard and follows both Kennedy and Oswald during the key events leading to that fateful day on November 22nd 1963. Killing Kennedy opens in 1959, at major turning points for both the future president and his assassin. John F. Kennedy is in Washington, D.C., announcing his presidential candidacy, while Lee Harvey Oswald finds himself in the U.S. embassy in Moscow, renouncing his U.S. citizenship. These two events start both men, one a member of one of the United States’ most wealthy and powerful families, the other a disillusioned former Marine and Marxist, on a cataclysmic track that would alter the course of history Throughout we see their highs and lows, culminating in not one but two shocking deaths that stunned the nation. Scott Free Production is producing the drama, which was adapted by Kelly Masterson, and stars Rob Lowe, Ginnifer Goodwin, Will Rothhaar and Michelle Trachtenberg. Nelson McCormick (The West Wing) directed the TV movie, with David Zucker, Mary Lisio, Howard T. Owens, Noel Siegel, Charlie Parsons, Richard E. Wells and Teri Weinberg serving as executive producers.

JFK: The Final Hours – Wednesday November 13th, 9pm

Narrated by Bill Paxton, JFK: The Final Hours offers both in-depth and birds-eye views of the final day of Kennedy’s life through first-hand accounts from people who were among the last to interact with him, oblivious at the time to their truly remarkable brush with history, along with the everyday objects whose connection to the event transformed them into priceless artefacts. The documentary reveals the intimate moments JFK shared with friends and strangers in his final hours. Paxton was among those who encountered Kennedy shortly before his death as a member of the crowd in the parking lot of Fort Worth’s Hotel Texas where Kennedy gave one of his last public speeches just three hours before his death. Footage of the First Couple’s 24 hours in Texas is presented and selectively woven into haunting “then and now” of the same locations today. From a narrative standpoint, first person testimony features a riveting collage of personalities providing “who knew” and “I can’t believe” insights. One notable example is the program’s narrator, Bill Paxton, who, as an 8-year-old watched one of JFK’s last speeches, given by the President only hours before his death. Others interviewed for the documentary include US Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who leaped onto the back of the motorcade seconds after the first shot was fired to shield the President and First Lady; Buell Frazier; Dr. W.E. Welch; Gary Bakewell; Corkie Friedman and Tina Towner.

PBS America

JFK: A New Perspective – Tuesday November 12th, 9pm – Friday November 15th, 9pm

Produced by WGBH for the US PBS network, JFK: A New Perspective is the latest entry in PBS’ American Experience strand exploring the various Presidents of the United States. The four-part documentary, which airs daily from November 12th, promises to offer a new perspective on America’s 35th President. With the benefit of newly opened archives and recently released documents, the docu re-evaluates JFK’s strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office and looks at how he navigated some of the most explosive events of the mid-20th century: the Cuban missile crisis, the escalating conflict in Southeast Asia, and the urgent demands of an increasingly impatient civil rights movement. It also provides new insights into his private life — his relationship with his beautiful, accomplished wife, his obsessive womanizing, his inappropriate friendships, his reliance on his younger brothers, and his deference to the all-powerful father who had helped make him who he was.

TVWise’s Take – JFK: A New Perspective is an interesting one. While most broadcasters are focusing their JFK output on the assassination itself, PBS America has gone in a different direction by largely ignoring the event that defined Kennedy’s legacy and instead focusing on the man himself. This one is a must see. The four hour docu provides fascinating insights into JFK’s background, his illness as a child and teenager and his overwhelming desire to serve in WW2. Later, as expected, JFK: A New Perspective focuses on his time in office and the distrust that eventually cemented between the administration and the CIA following the Bay of Pigs disaster. At its core, JFK: A New Perspective strips away the perceived legacy of Kennedy and asks “but for the assassination how would he be remembered?” Would he still be as well regarded a president? The answer may surprise you.

Cold Case JFK – Friday November 22nd, 7:50pm

A documentary produced for PBS’ Nova strand, Cold Case JFK  uses the scientific developments of the last 50 years to see what can be learned about the shooting in Dallas—and the investigations that followed. The one-hour special follows a unique group of experts trying to unravel the lingering mysteries of the Kennedy assassination. What should have been a homicide investigator’s best-case scenario, a crime that occurred in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses, instead became a forensics nightmare plagued by a mishandled crime scene, a controversial autopsy, and a prime suspect gunned down while in police custody. Combining cutting edge technology and contemporary scientific techniques with archival footage and expert interviews, Cold Case JFK recreates the crime and the Warren Commission’s investigation – examining the shooting, the assassination scene, the medical information and wounds, and the evidence found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. For the first time since the original investigation by the FBI laboratory, forensic scientists trained and experienced in both firearms identification and shooting scene reconstruction review and evaluate the ballistics evidence in the JFK assassination. These experts apply new technology, not available until recently, to this historic crime to see if the evidence fits the Warren Commissions or the subsequent House Select Committee’s conclusions

TVWise’s Take – Cold Case JFK offers a good full forensic evaluation of the evidence and in turn the conclusions of both the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee. The unique weapon Oswald employed will answer questions for those many who question the Warren Commission’s findings. The documentary is well worth a watch for an independent forensic evaluation, without trying to put a new slant on history as others – notably JFK The Smoking Gun – have done.