I actually talked to Stephen King on the phone once from his home in Maine. This was when Stanley Kubrick was making a movie out of his book, The Shining. I was trying to put together a feature magazine article on that picture. But I could not secure an interview with Jack Nicholson until it was too late for the magazine’s publication date. I decided not to go through with the project. When I actually saw the film, I was not terribly agonized over my failed attempt. From what I have read, King did not like the movie either. So much so that he made his own TV version of that book.
King is now part of the production team that has made another TV movie from a more recent book of his. Except it’s actually a mini-series. Quite a long one. It plays over eight installments. And since the first installment is two hours long, it clocks in at nine hours. From what I have been able to garner, producer-director J. J. Abrams was the man in Hollywood who decided to take King’s book under his wing. But, as is the usual case with the big names in Movieland, Abrams then turned over the project to what is called a line producer, or developer. In this case her name was Bridget Carpenter. Carpenter has written over ten plays, and worked on several TV series, most notably, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights.
At almost 900 pages, King’s book was quite long. Apparently, once you attain King’s stature in the publishing business, no one dares edit your work. It was that original length which necessitated the nine-hour mini-series format. Because of that length, this series was clearly a team effort. It had five directors and four writers working on it. Carpenter, by far, wrote the most installments. She either wrote or co-wrote five of them. No director helmed more than two installments.
In virtually every other instance of my (long) reviewing career, I have always read the source material for any adaptation. Offhand, I really can think of perhaps only one or two exception to that practice. But, for two reasons, I just could not bring myself to read King’s book. First, I don’t care for novels about the Kennedy assassination. Because the original inquiry, the Warren Report, already fictionalized what really happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Secondly, why would any intelligent, interested person read a book that, in its central tenets, was more or less a restatement of that original fiction? Which King’s book is. In other words, why pile one fiction on top of another? Especially concerning such a crucial event in American history. So in this one case, I declined to read the book on which this mini-series is based. I hope the reader understands that decision.
After more than one preview, King’s novel was published in November of 2011. In what I have been able to dig up about its genesis, one of his main influences in the writing and research for the book was the Dallas museum about the JFK case, The Sixth Floor. He specifically consulted with the late Gary Mack, who passed away in 2015. We all know that, for about the last 20 years of his life, under the influence of Dave Perry, Gary Mack had done a backflip on the case. He migrated over to the Warren Commission camp. (Click here for info on Perry). Whether King entered the creation of his book with an open mind on the JFK case, and was then influenced by Gary Mack, or whether he was in the Krazy Kid Oswald camp all along, that is an issue I have not been able to definitively discern.
King decided to make his book a science fiction thriller. The gimmick behind it all is a good old sci-fi staple: time travel. Jake Epping (played by James Franco) is a high school English teacher who also teaches adult education GED preparatory classes. At the beginning of the series two things happen, back to back, which set the plot in motion.
In the opening scene, in his GED class, Jake is listening to his adult students orally present papers about the most important day in their lives. The first person we see is an elderly student named Harry Dunning. He is standing in front of the class presenting his (rather shocking) paper. Harry is telling the story of the night his father Frank came home drunk and killed his mother, sister and brother with a long-handled hammer. (Which, I think Mr. King, is plenty life-changing.) Jake is very impressed with this presentation and gives Harry an A+.
Right after this we see Jake in a diner. The owner Al Templeton (played by Chris Cooper), emerges from the back coughing and wheezing; he then collapses on the floor. Jake takes him home to recover. The next day, Al tells him to walk into a closet behind the front of the diner. This ends up being the time tunnel portal. Ever so briefly, Jake gets transported back to October of 1960. He then returns. Al tells him he is too old and sick to use the time tunnel for what he wants to utilize it for: To stop the assassination of President Kennedy. Jake replies, you cannot change the past. Al tells Jake to go back again. This time, he gives him a knife and tells him to carve something into a nearby tree. Jake does so, he returns, and they go outside. They see that the initials of JFK are still there.
At this point the film, through Al, sets some terms and conditions of King’s version of the fourth dimension. Whenever one gets sent back in time, he will always arrive in October of 1960. Second, no matter how long one spends back there, upon returning, only two minutes will have elapsed. If one changes something, but then goes back again, everything resets to the way it was before. Finally, the past is obdurate: it resists changes. Some of these changes end up in what King calls tributaries, sort of like alternate universes.
|Actor James Franco, Stephen King, and J.J. Abrams|
For this viewer, these three scenes did not make for an auspicious beginning. First, I had a hard time believing Harry would make a speech like that in front of a class. I was involved in the education system as a student, teacher and adult education instructor for over thirty years. I never heard any student reveal anything that traumatic or horrible. And no teaching colleague ever told me about something comparable occurring in his or her class.
Secondly, although theories of time travel have progressed by leaps and bounds since H. G. Wells’ classic book The Time Machine, King makes no explanation at all about the science aspect of his fiction. At least Wells, working with much less information, tried a bit. In this case, it’s a time portal in a restaurant---and that is it. Then there’s those terms and conditions! They all seemed designed to make it easy for the author to construct his story the way he wished. The protagonist would not age, changes would not be permanent, and the scope of time dealt with was narrow.
So, at the very beginning, with the shocking story told in class, and all these rules --with no real explanation--this viewer understood that the story we were about to see would rely a lot on plottiness. Let us make a distinction: There is a difference between a well-constructed story and plottiness. For instance, the Robert Towne/Roman Polanski film Chinatown has a wonderfully structured story that is so cohesive and subtly carpentered that one is never aware of the engine of the plot turning over. That is, the plot machinations are so dramatically ingrained with the film’s other elements that the audience is not fully aware of being carried along by the current of the story until the end. That is good story structure. And that is why the screenplay of Chinatown is actually taught in screen writing classes at universities.
I don’t think King, Abrams and Carpenter will be paid that educational compliment. Because here, the characters, the plot device, even the dialogue, are at the mercy of a heavy-handed plot. Almost nothing seems natural. It all seems set up: reminiscent of the standardized TV series writing of the fifties and sixties, where high points in the plot were timed for commercial breaks (which actually happens here). For instance, when Harry told his story in front of the class, I immediately said to myself: This is so bizarre, so much of a reach, I think its going to be used as part of the plot. Which it was. And there is another plot strand—to be discussed later-- that is almost as violent and bizarre as that one.
But the main plot line concerns the assassination of President Kennedy. To get that going, when he returns to the diner, Al tells Jake about his obsession with the JFK case. He then convinces him to go back in time to try and stop the murder. Al says that the bullet that was fired at General Edwin Walker in April of 1963 was the same bullet that was fired at JFK in Dealey Plaza. (Which it was not. See Reclaiming Parkland, by James DiEugenio, pgs. 79-80) Al tells Jake to go back in the portal and see if Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot at Walker in Dallas. If that happened, then Oswald probably killed Kennedy. But if it didn’t, then someone else likely killed him. Al then tells Jake he would do so himself, but he is afflicted with cancer. He then packs a briefcase for Jake, including his JFK collection of newspapers and essays, plus a false identity package. He adds a small notebook with summaries of sporting events for him to bet on if he needs money e.g. boxing matches. And with that, Al is now off on a three-year voyage backward in time. One that will actually take two minutes.
Back in 1960, Jake buys a car. Which leaves him a bit low on funds. So, utilizing the previously planted bookie device, Jake asks the car dealer where the nearest betting parlor is. Jake makes a bet on a championship fight, actually picking the round the knock out will occur. The bookie suspects something fishy and sends a goon to get his money back. But Jake anticipates this, gets the jump on his assailant, and escapes from his rented room. He then drives to Dallas, rents a room at a bed and breakfast, and begins studying the JFK case through Al’s files.
Informed by Al,--who appears in flashback throughout--Jake follows George DeMohrenschildt around. First to a Kennedy speaking engagement, then to a high-class restaurant. At the restaurant, Jake secures a table next to George, who is sitting with two other well-dressed gentlemen. The film uses every cheap trick under the sun to prevent Jake from clearly hearing the discussion: a blender goes off next to him, the table on the other side is quite loud, a waiter spills a tray of drinks. But he does hear George mention Oswald’s name. On his return to his rooming house, the building is on fire. Since his belongings were left in the room he goes inside to try and recover what was left of them.
Jake decides to leave Dallas. He gets lost on the way out of town. He realizes he is close to Kentucky. Which, of course, is where Harry Dunning grew up. Jake decides to visit the town in order to prevent the triple murder. He rents a room and befriends a bartender named Bill Turcotte (George MacKay). Frank Dunning then walks in and he and Jake begin to talk and become acquaintances. After an altercation with Frank at his butcher shop, Jake buys a gun and is casing the Dunning house on Halloween night, which is the night that his student Harry said the killings occurred. He is accosted in the bushes by the bartender Bill. (Why Bill would find Jake suspicious enough to follow him around town for two days is not explained.) The two have a rather unusual conversation: Bill tells Jake that Frank was married to his sister and killed her. Jake tells Bill that he is from the future. Jake pulls a gun on Bill to subdue him, and then runs into the house where Frank is in the process of beating and killing his family. Jake intervenes and kills Frank. He then leaves town. Bill joins him (it's not clear, but it appears he was hiding in his car). Jake now tells him the story of why he is there. Bill decides to join him on his trip back to Dallas. Bill agrees to help Jake in his mission. Jake informs Bill of his strategy: if Oswald shot at Walker, then he probably shot at JFK. So if he can find out about the former, he can feel justified in killing Oswald.
Jake gets a teaching job in the fictional town of Jodie, Texas. He is hired by Principal Deke Simmons (played by Nick Searcy). To celebrate, Bill and Jake go out to a strip club. At this point came one of the most surprising scenes in the series. Not for what happened; but because of what did not happen. For the club they go to is owned by Jack Ruby. The two have decided on a cover story of being brothers. They introduce themselves to Ruby as such. There is a very brief discussion of John Kennedy. I mean very brief. The entire scene lasts for one minute and twenty seconds. But the shocking part is this: We never see Ruby again! The film-makers may justify this because, as we will see, in King’s version, Ruby does not kill Oswald.
We have come to 1962. Tipped off by Al, Jake is at Love Field when Lee Oswald arrives in town from his overseas stay in the USSR. The first appearance of Oswald (played by Daniel Webber) in the film is notable. First, he seems to be speaking with a mild Russian accent. Second, he asks his mother Marguerite (played by Cherry Jones) why there is no cadre of press awaiting him. This tells us that the film will use the Warren Commission version of Oswald as the basis for their character portrayal. Oswald is a publicity hound who thinks he is a great man going unrecognized. Which is pretty much what Warren Commission lawyer Wesley Liebeler decided upon when he could not think of any other reason why Oswald shot Kennedy. In fact, as we will see, in its attempts at caricaturing Oswald, the series goes even beyond the Warren Report. Which is a bit stunning since there has been a quantum leap since 1964 in our knowledge and understanding of Oswald.
Jake and Bill then find the apartment Lee and Marina are staying at. They rent the downstairs unit and hire a surveillance technician to sell them equipment so they can hear the couple speaking upstairs. They discover a lot of Russian being spoken by the Oswalds. Jake surmounts the translation obstacle by obtaining a Russian-English dictionary from his school. (I’m not kidding, though I wish I were.)
The caricature of Oswald is furthered as we see him attending a rally for rightwing activist General Edwin Walker. Oswald is there with George DeMohrenschildt. Afterward, outside the building, Oswald starts screaming at Walker. He then attempts a violent confrontation with him. Security guards restrain him. But he still tries to physically attack Walker. The scene ends with Oswald throwing a rock at Walker and threatening to kill him. The outdated portrait of Oswald as an unstable sociopath is now cinched.
In the next scene, Oswald has the rifle the Warren Commission alleges he used to kill Kennedy. We watch him assemble and dissemble it. He then goes outside with Marina and DeMohrenschildt. The infamous backyard photograph is now snapped. Except for one rhetorical question by Bill, the script makes no attempt to explain why Oswald’s anger at a neo-fascist like Walker would spill over into the murder of the most liberal president since Franklin Roosevelt.
The attempt on Walker’s life now approaches. Bill and Jake begin to case out the Walker home. But again, the heavy breathing of the screenwriters manipulates the story—this time in two ways. First, Jake’s romance with Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian (played by Sarah Gadon) intervenes. Sadie’s husband chooses the day of the Walker shooting to kidnap his wife who is in the process of divorcing him. So before saving Sadie, Jake calls Bill and tells him he alone has to find out if it was Oswald at Walker’s.
But that convenient piece of carpentry is not enough. While at Walker’s house, Bill watches some people come out of the nearby church. He thinks one is his long lost sister! So he runs over to confront her and, of course, it is not her. (This was really weak, since Bill told Jake that his sister had been killed by Frank Dunning.) But the shot goes off while he is preoccupied. So Bill cannot tell for sure if the sniper who shot at Walker was Oswald. So now the option of just killing Oswald is conveniently gone. And while going through this crisis with his girlfriend, Jake also tells her about his secret mission to stop the JFK assassination.
This takes us to October of 1963. Oswald is applying for his position at the Texas School Book Depository. Which will put him on the Kennedy motorcade route on November 22nd. Ruth Paine, with whom Marina Oswald was staying in October and November of 1963, arranged that job for Oswald. The script cuts out Ruth Paine’s role in this. And Ruth Paine is portrayed—ever so briefly—as the kindly Quaker lady from the Warren Report. When I saw how this was ignored, I then thought back and realized that, in the nine-hour series, there is no portrayal of Oswald in Mexico City, or Oswald in New Orleans that summer. This could have easily been accomplished if the two subplots about the murderous husbands in Kentucky and Dallas had been dropped. After all, those two long segments have little or nothing to do with the JFK case. But New Orleans in the summer of 1963 has a lot to do with the Kennedy case. As does Oswald’s alleged journey to Mexico City in the fall of 1963, right before he returned to Dallas. But evidently King, Abrams and Carpenter didn’t think so.
|Although 11/22/63 is a fictional account of the JFK assassination, one of the film's moreinaccurate, and downright bizarre, scenes is a poorly executed reenactment of the assassination itself as seen above.|
There was something else just as odd in the script. Even though it is October of 1963, George DeMohrenschildt is still on the scene in Dallas. This is really kind of inexplicable. I know King wrote a novel. But it is based upon history. George left Dallas in April of 1963 for Haiti. So the events depicted here with DeMohrenschildt simply could not have happened—they are an impossibility.
In what to me was a rather wild twist—wild even for this plot—Bill falls in love with Marina Oswald. Which causes a lot of friction between Bill and Jake. In fact, they come to blows, and Bill pulls a gun on Jake. Jake then plots to get rid of Bill. He tells Bill that Marina is in Parkland Hospital delivering her child. This is a pretext to have Bill committed to the mental ward since Jake thinks he is a liability to his mission. How Jake could arrange this is glossed over. Because the two are not blood relatives, and just a modicum of standard questions by the administrators—like asking for ID-- would have brought that out. But the story is now headed for its climax and the trifecta of King/Abrams/Carpenter wanted to add a dash of romance to the ending. So they dumped Bill. Jake will now team up with Sadie on his mission to stop Oswald.
But again, there is still more to the story. Jake makes another sure bet with a bookie. Again, with uncommon accuracy about how long a prizefight will last. But this time the bookie and his goons track him down and give him a serious beating. So much so that he sustains a concussion and loses his memory. The film now shows us Sadie wheeling him around in a wheelchair. And in standard movie cliché, Jake asks himself things like, “Who is LBJ?” and “When is my birthday?" Therefore, this twist allows him to lose track of Oswald as Oswald goes to the FBI office to leave a note for FBI agent Jim Hosty (who figures in the story for two brief windows.)
Finally, after about a half hour of this, there are headlines in the papers of Kennedy’s upcoming visit to Dallas. The film now shows us Jake and Sadie talking about the newspaper notice. After a pep talk by Sadie, Jake then flushes his memory pills down the sink. We then cut to Oswald sitting on a park bench looking at the JFK newspaper notice. He then discards the paper and starts whistling the tune “Soldier Boy.” (Subtlety is not one of this script’s strengths.)
Now that he is recovered from memory loss, Jake and Sadie first go to Oswald’s apartment, and Jake is going to kill him with a knife. But Oswald comes out of the back room with his newborn child in his arms. They then go to Ruth Paine’s to try and find the rifle that was allegedly used in the assassination. But it is not there.
Jake and Sadie now end up in Dealey Plaza in the very wee hours of the morning of the 22nd. Then the script adds in, actually caps, a Twilight Zone motif that has been used throughout. A man who King calls the "yellow card man” (he has such a card in his hat) now appears in Jake’s car, replacing Sadie. This figure has been seen several times throughout the film. He usually says, “You’re not supposed to be here.” This time, he tells a story about having to watch his baby daughter die, drowning in a stream. This fantastic touch was to me, both pretentious and bombastic: An attempt to add depth and meaning to a script that has neither.
The script now gets even wilder. We see Oswald—with his long package--walking right next to Wesley Frazier as they cross the street and enter the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald then goes right up to the sixth floor! He is, of course, whistling "Soldier Boy." He then walks to the window, starts setting up the boxes for the so-called “sniper’s nest. And then, incredibly, he just sits there, waiting for the motorcade to pass. This is as impossible as having George DeMohrenschildt in Dallas in October. I mean do the writers really expect the audience to be so stupid as to think Oswald would sit at a window with a rifle for three and a half hours waiting to kill Kennedy? With witnesses both inside and outside to see him? This is just plain silliness.
We now see Jake and Sadie on a high-speed chase to get near Dealey Plaza. (Even though they were supposed to be there already. But like I said, anything goes with this script.) When they do get near, guess who they see? Jake sees Frank Dunning, and Sadie sees her ex-husband. Both of whom have been killed by Jake. What this means is anyone’s guess. And at this point, who cares?
When they get to the Depository building, it's locked. (Which is another reversal of reality, as it was not.) So Jake breaks in at gunpoint and the couple flies up the stairs. As they do, Oswald is muttering, “They will know your name.” After they get to the sixth floor, Oswald fires one shot. Jake starts screaming “Lee, stop!” Oswald now turns and fires on the couple. As he does, the door they came in through somehow slides back shut, so they are caught inside. Oswald then says, “I came here to do something important!” A combination physical fight and shoot out follow. Lee kills Sadie and Jake kills Lee. Of course, the police do not arrive until after Sadie dies.
The best I can say for this ending is that, thankfully, the film was finally over. As the reader can see, the story does not respect itself.
The rest of the Dealey Plaza story is just as dumb. Jake is accused of trying to kill Kennedy. He is booked and fingerprinted. Captain Will Fritz and FBI agent Jim Hosty question him. Fritz accuses Jake of actually being Oswald’s alias, Alek Hidell. Fritz then leaves and Hosty and Jake play a game of blind man’s bluff, trying to see who has more information on whom. (How Hosty got so much information about Jake in about five minutes is another puzzler.) But then a call comes in from President Kennedy. He and Jackie thank Jake for saving their lives. Jake is now freed.
Jake now returns to Lisbon, Maine. He goes to Al’s diner, but it's gone. But just standing there, near the portal, now transports him to what King calls a “time tributary,” or in plainer parlance, an alternative universe. A world that looks desolate and abandoned. He meets up with Harry Dunning who is being attacked by a pack of thugs. Jake helps run them off. Harry takes him back to his home, which is inside what looks like a deserted factory.
There he tells him that he knows that Jake saved his family from his father. Jake asks him about history. Harry tells him that Kennedy was re-elected and then George Wallace won in 1968, since RFK did not run. He then tells Jake that Kennedy set up camps throughout the country. His mother had to go to one. (Why and how this happened is not explained.)
Jake now tries to “reset” the past. He goes back to the time portal and is transported again. This time he goes to Lisbon. And—in this script surprises never cease-- he sees Sadie in the back seat of a car. She looks just exactly like she did before she died. He runs after her and she does not recognize him. He then goes to Al’s diner. It is empty, but he walks though it even though Al is not there. At his teaching job, he runs into Harry Dunning. That night, he goes online and searches for Sadie. She is being honored for her years of service as a librarian down in Jodie, Texas. He goes down to see her at her banquet. She looks about 65 years old. They share a dance even though she doesn’t know who he is.
The best I can say for this ending is that, thankfully, the film was finally over. As the reader can see, the story does not respect itself. Science fiction follows certain rules that are internally consistent. This script did not want to do that. So it now interjects elements of fantasy. Which makes it even more meretricious and pretentious.
I have concentrated here mostly on the actual story. Because both King and the scenarists will defend their work on the basis that it is a historical novel. In this reviewer’s opinion, for reasons stated above, it fails even as a superficial entertainment.
The rather large cast is uneven. The two best performances are by Annette O’Toole as one of Jake’s landladies, and Cherry Jones as Marguerite Oswald. O’Toole began her career as a kind of glamorous sexpot. She is 64 years old now, so those days are gone. She nicely underplays this crusty, odd, rightwing fundamentalist. It’s a sharply etched minimalist type of performance. Jones uses the opposite technique. She envelops her characters with every fiber of her being: voice, imagination, emotion, and body control. But none of that is Cherry Jones. She uses what she has to create someone else. She makes Marguerite Oswald--who has been caricatured for decades--into a real, living person.
The rest of the cast ranges from OK, to adequate, to inadequate. Which simply isn’t good enough for this long of a film. Jonny Coyne as George DeMohrenschildt is miscast from the start. He doesn’t resemble the upper class Russian émigré either facially or in physique. And his acting does not conjure any of the old world charm that made him so attractive to such a wide variety of upper class figures. Chris Cooper as the crusty old diner owner Al Templeton is adequate. If you can imagine what say Walter Huston could have done with the part, Cooper gives you about 80% of that. In a hopeless part, Daniel Webber is lost as Oswald. As Jake’s sidekick Bill Turcotte, George Mackay is simple and nervy, and not much else. Sarah Gadon as Sadie Dunhill is attractive enough and sweet. James Franco as Jake is pretty much James Franco. It was clear to this viewer that he never found a model for his character. And none of the directors could help him. So in addition to a cheap, nonsensical story, you have a main character who is pretty much a zero.
Let me close with why the film cannot be taken seriously--even as a fictional comment on important historical events. In speaking of his novel, Stephen King has said that from his research the probability that Oswald killed Kennedy is at about 98-99%. He has actually called Oswald a dangerous little fame-junkie who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Those two comments really make you wonder about the “research” King did. Concerning the former, every lawyer who has taken a look at the JFK case in an official capacity since the issuance of the Warren Report in 1964, has disagreed with its conclusions. The last one being Jeremy Gunn of the Assassination Records Review Board. Who looked at the most declassified documents. In light of that, King’s comment is so eccentric as to be bizarre. Secondly, if Oswald was a fame junkie, why did he never take credit for killing Kennedy? In fact, he did the opposite. He called himself a patsy. Then he was gunned down while in the arms of the Dallas police. But since the film arranges things so as we do not see that, and Jack Ruby is in the film for about 70 seconds, that can be ignored.
King more or less spilled the beans when he stated what books were most important to him in his research phase. He named Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, Legend by Edward Epstein, Oswald’s Tale by Norman Mailer, and Mrs. Paine’s Garage by Thomas Mallon. He actually said that Mallon offered a brilliant portrait of the “conspiracy theorists.” And he termed those who disbelieve the Warren Report as those needing to find order in what was a random event.
Well, if the final film leaves out Jack Ruby’s murdering Oswald as he comes in the basement door of the Dallas city hall; if you leave out Oswald’s call to former military intelligence officer John Hurt the night before; if one does not tell the viewer that the rifle the Warren Report says killed Kennedy is not the same rifle that Oswald allegedly ordered; if one does not mention 544 Camp Street in New Orleans and Guy Banister, David Ferrie and Clay Shaw; if one does not mention Oswald with Shaw and Ferrie in the Clinton-Jackson area in the summer of 1963; if one does not show all the problems with Oswald allegedly being in Mexico City, while he is supposed to be at Sylvia Odio’s door in Dallas with two Cubans—well yeah Stephen, then you can tell us all about randomness and Occam’s Razor and, oh my aching back. Those events I mentioned are not theories, Mr. King. They are facts.
My advice about this heavily weighted apparatus which produces next to nothing is to avoid it at all costs. All it really produces is more money for King and J. J. Abrams, like they need it. It is nothing more than a stupid, demeaning waste of time. Abrams should stick to Star Wars, and King should stick to teenage female wallflowers with telekinetic powers.