LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A 24-year-old loner, frustrated by society at every turn, pulls out a gun and begins to shoot.
The scenario appears ripped from today’s headlines, but this was half a century ago, and it was Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Now approaching the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder, the television film “Killing Kennedy,” which premieres on Sunday on National Geographic Channel, scrutinizes the often-ignored personal troubles of Oswald in a bid to humanize one of the nation’s most reviled figures.
“All he has ever been seen as is a villain,” said Will Rothhaar, who portrays Oswald in the film based on the 2012 book of the same name by Fox News Channel personality Bill O’Reilly and author Martin Dugard.
“I don’t think he was a monster; he did a monstrous thing, but it had to start somewhere,” Rothhaar added.
“Killing Kennedy” is the latest addition to the Kennedy film genre, which includes Oliver Stone’s 1991 three-hour epic “JFK” and this year’s “Parkland,” a retelling of the chaos immediately after the assassination.
The film follows Oswald and Kennedy, played by Rob Lowe, in parallel narratives in the three years leading up to Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in central Dallas.
Kennedy’s youth, good looks and sophisticated wife, Jackie, are credited with giving the nation a shot of optimism and glamour.
His assassination at age 46 catapulted the United States into mourning, and his life still resonates in countless TV programs, films and special magazine editions.
“This is a Shakespearean story that could, should and will be told countless times, and each time someone is going to bring something different to it,” Lowe said.
Rothhaar, best known for his roles on TV drama series “Last Resort” and various roles on the “CSI” franchise, believes that Oswald’s difficult upbringing without a father and with a mother who did not want him added a violent but sympathetic dimension to Oswald that has been rarely discussed.
“I think he had a lot of love at the core of him, (but) because he never grew up in the situation where it was freely expressed, he didn’t know how to express it,” Rothhaar said.
“Killing Kennedy,” which eschews the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, shows Oswald’s violent temper, whether striking his wife, Marina, or fighting with Cuban emigres over his support for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The film portrays Oswald as defiant, lured by the ideal of social equality to the Soviet Union where he can start anew as a young man and shed the stigma of a social outcast.
But much like his past life, he finds himself lonely and doubly an outsider in the Soviet Union, with only a loose command of Russian and bullied by a factory coworker.
Director Nelson McCormick found rejection ran deep throughout Oswald’s life. He was treated as a juvenile delinquent growing up and was later refused by the Cuban government when he tried to join its military.
“By the time he was getting to be a teenager, the message he was getting from the world is ‘You’re not wanted, you’re not loved and you’re kind of crazy,’ McCormick said. “I think he had a me-against-the-world perspective from a very early age.”
Oswald grows tired of what he considers dull Soviet life and returns with his Russian wife and their child to America, settling in Dallas.
It is while working on Dealey Plaza at the Texas School Book Depository, where colleagues have described Oswald as quiet and polite, that he finally gets his chance to play a role in American society - by killing Kennedy.
Oswald never stood trial. He was shot and killed two days later by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while in police custody.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney