Tuesday, April 19, 2016

11.22.63



Creator: Bridget Carpenter
Starring: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Lucy Fry, George MacKay, Daniel Webber, Cherry Jones, Kevin J. O'Connor, Josh Duhamel, Nick Searcy, Jonny Coyne, Tonya Pinkins, Gil Bellows
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There's always been this inherent problem in crafting any piece of entertainment around the altering an important historical event, especially one as controversial and heavily debated as the Kennedy assassination. For valid reasons it's rarely been attempted in either film or television, and the few times it has resulted in the material being handled with kid gloves, as if the creative forces at the helm were too afraid of tackling the event head-on, "changing" real history within a work of complete fiction. If altering too much brings with it accusations of exploitation and sensationalism, then anything short of that would be considered wimping out.
This problem even affected the greatest time travel series, Quantum Leap, when the writers got an unusual case of cold feet when depicting the event in 1992's two-part season opener, "Lee Harvey Oswald."

11.22.63 on Hulu
Since the real conflict about attempting to stop the Kennedy Assassination lies in how far the writers are willing to go, it's only fitting that Hulu's original miniseries, 11.22.63, comes from the mind and pen of Stephen King. The author who's always had a problem with endings. And while he has a notoriously spotty track record with TV adaptations of his own work, it's to his and our benefit that this is a new era where the quality of these miniseries often exceed anything on the big screen, overseen by experienced showrunners that limit the need for King's creative involvement. With producers J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter at the controls, this had as good a shot as any of his material at being a slam dunk adaptation. With the author's ideas usually working best as a jumping off point, it would be fascinating to see where they'd go with this, what they'd change or keep, and how the material could be condensed into 8 hour-long episodes.

With topnotch production design and direction, there's an urgency to the proceedings anchored by a phenomenal lead performance from an actor who initially seems miscast and an even better one from an actress who's career will undoubtedly skyrocket off the back of this. But most unexpectedly, the story transcends the assassination, with the event itself often successfully taking a backseat to the human drama and larger points made about society and the passage of time. It manages to go all in, taking a clear stand on the potential conspiracy and making no bones about the fact that our protagonist is there to physically stop this, regardless of the dangerous obstacles or consequences it would entail.

Jake Epping (James Franco), a recently divorced English teacher from Lisbon, Maine makes a stop into the diner of his good friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to travel back to the 1960's via a portal in the restaurant's storage closet. But this won't be a vacation, as Jake's job is to complete a herculean mission Al couldn't pull off himself: Preventing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Vietnam vet Al's view, that murder set off a chain reaction from which the country never recovered, altering for the worse the course of his life and many others he's known. He's not only prepared a detailed file for Jake with background and instructions on how to accomplish this task, but primed him on how to first determine whether there was a conspiracy.

Jake and Al survey the evidence
After a sudden turn of events leads to Jake reluctantly accept Al's challenge and travel through the portal, his trip to the past becomes more complicated when he becomes attached to the past, forming a relationship with Jodie, Texas school librarian, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). But with the clock rapidly counting down to November 22, 1963 and the past's unseen forces working against him, he must find a way to neutralize Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) and uncover the former Marine sniper's connection to the C.I.A. before The President's motorcade travels through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

Having only read the first few chapters of King's novel before deciding to return to it after viewing the miniseries, there aren't many side-by-side comparisons I'd feel comfortable making. But after similar openings there is supposedly a point where this version deviates heavily, cherry-picking certain key elements to build its own universe that can fill the running time. As he previously proved in his short story, The Langoliers (itself adapted into a 1995 miniseries) the author is, if nothing else, a brilliantly twisted "idea man" when it comes to time travel. If in that tale, traumatized surviving airline passengers wake to discover the vacant past has moved forward without them, King presents an equally compelling notion here of the past "pushing back," stopping Jake from changing it. In a way, that makes perfect sense since the entire notion of altering the past is built on upsetting the universe.

You could imagine that in the hands of lesser directors and screenwriters than Abrams crew, that this idea of the past striking back (let's call it "subtly posing obstacles") could turn into a disaster, with plot contrivances and supernatural interference galore. There's certainly some of that and the Jake character definitely makes the past's job a lot easier with some ridiculous decision-making, but isn't this the hallmark of most time travel entertainment? Still, even if irresponsibility from the traveler is a perquisite for the genre, Jake is very dense.

Jake Epping arrives in the 1960's
How much of the protagonist's carelessness simply services the needs of the story, is the past's doing, or qualifies as just plain sloppy screenwriting is open for interpretation, but Jake isn't exactly careful when he arrives in 1960, a full three years before the assassination. That arrival time and the fact he's allowed to go back through the portal and reset (or erase) what he's done are really the only rules here, since Jake goes about breaking every other one Al warns him about, his actions constantly threatening to create a "butterfly effect" in the future. He doesn't exactly keep a low profile.

Whether he's buying a flashy period car, dropping his iphone and future news clippings about the shooting, giving impromptu tours of Dealey Plaza or placing sports bets large enough to make Biff Tannen blush, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to consider Kennedy was probably fine before Jake arrived. The first few episodes do in fact recall Back to the Future in how we have a crazed Doc Brown-like character in Al roping Jake into this plan and the initial scenes of our wide-eyed protagonist awed by an idealized 1960's that looks and feels authentically warm and inviting. But this is Stephen King. It won't last.

Boasting some of the more impressive photography, costuming and production for Hulu, it's clear they spared no expense and every bit of it is on the screen. With these kind of projects being shortchanged so many times throughout the author's career, it's nice to see one finally treated with the pedigree it deserves. One of the most impressive moments of the series comes when Jake's walking the hallway as school banners subtly change to indicate a jump forward in time.

Jake and Bill wiretap Lee Harvey Oswald
Preventing this culture-shifting event and managing the investigation accompanying it is really hard work. So much so that at one point Jake basically throws his hands up in the air and gives up, turning his attention to preventing another traumatic event that hits closer to his home. That is until he's forced out of necessity to bring along an assistant of sorts and go back to Dallas to finish what he intended to start. That assistant is high-strung bartender Bill Turcotte (George MacKay) and while that character's role is supposedly expanded from the book, he does accomplish something important creatively.

Without a sidekick, it's likely viewers would be forced to watch Jake plan all this alone, talking to himself as we're punished by long, drawn-out voiceovers reciting endless passages of King's book. At least here he has someone to bounce off of and share the screen with and their interactions provide some of the series' biggest laughs, whether intentional or not. Jake just leaving him above Oswald's apartment to record everything he does for months at a time while he goes to work as schoolteacher is a particular highlight. While it's easy to quibble with where they eventually take the Bill character and his overall purpose, the series wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without him or McKay's loony performance.

The big question of whether James Franco can do anything or just simply chooses to do everything he can should occupy the thoughts of most watching. Could they have picked a more jarringly modern-looking actor to play a character transported to the 1960's? Maybe that was exactly the point, but before long, Franco proves he's capable of this too, throwing himself into everything the role requires. And it gets surprisingly ugly at times since Jake rarely thinks of anyone beyond himself, frequently losing sight of why he's there. It's fun watching Franco continue to grow into the part with each passing episode, and as more is asked of him, he turns in this great old school leading man performance that's bursting with humor and humanity.

Sarah Gadon as Sadie Dunhill
It's easy to see why Franco's character is so distracted since Sarah Gadon is nothing short of a revelation as  small town librarian and accidental witness to history, Sadie. As a living, breathing artifact from a different time, it's perfect casting, but the actress goes beyond nailing easily noticeable 60's details such as accent and manner to adding little details that make her feel like much more than a love interest or plot device. An argument can be made the entire story revolves around her, and while Franco's terrific, it's at least conceivable another actor could have played Jake, albeit differently. Gadon is irreplaceable, and without her, so much of what occurs in the last few episodes wouldn't carry nearly the same resonance.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, right down to Daniel Webber's psychotically unhinged portrayal of Oswald, which straddles an uncomfortable line of moral ambiguity we haven't previously seen in cinematic depictions of the assassin. He seemingly alternates from sad to scary at an instant. In a memorable supporting turn an alcoholic wife beater, Josh Duhamel finds a part he seems born to play, channeling that aura of jock cockiness into a raging 60's bully with greased hair and rolled-up sleeves.

T.R. Knight follows suit as Sadie's husband, delivering a creepy, threatening performance that's not only a far cry from Grey's Anatomy, but feels most at home in the Stephen King universe. And while their characters undeservedly get the short end of the stick in the closing episodes, Nick Searcy and Tonya Pinkins respectively shine in their scenes as the Jodie High School principal and administrator. Despite top billing, a haggard-looking Chris Cooper has similarly brief screen time as Al, present mainly to deliver time travel exposition that informs the rest of the series.

Oswald (Daniel Webber) poses for an infamous photo
As the hours, minutes and seconds close in it only makes sense that the past would push back harder than ever, throwing obstacle it can in Jake's path. The physical manifestation of this resistance comes in the "Yellow Card Man" (Kevin J. O' Connor) who pops up now and again throughout the series to warn our protagonist about the futility of attempting to change the past. Supposedly, the book goes into further detail about him, but despite my worries that this would indicate the supernatural side of King's brain taking over the screenplay, that doesn't happen. It's handled pretty well. After numerous disasters and miscalculations by the bumbling Jake, it's not a spoiler to reveal Oswald does eventually sit at his perch on the sixth floor of southeast corner window of the Book Depository with boxes stacked, armed with his Carcano carbine rifle

Whether he it's Oswald who delivers the fatal shot, whether the fatal shot is even fired, how many shooters there are, and the potential ramifications for history should this event not occur, are all questions the writers had to ask themselves since viewers will undoubtedly be asking them too, before demanding answers. It's a tough spot to be in and one made even tougher by the fact that they're adapting an author who often struggles with satisfying conclusions and had the original ending of this novel thrown out and revised by his own son. Readers will feel strongly attached to how the miniseries should end.

And as far as King endings go, this one's far from a disaster. The screenplay overemphasizes the potential consequences of an alternate outcome that probably played better in book form, but it's still immensely satisfying, at least committing to an finale that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the history-defining event. The result ranks somewhere between the middle to top tier of King adaptations, certainly leaving in the dust some of the more problematic offerings that have sullied the author's cinematic reputation in years past. There are points that feel rushed and you can almost tell without having read the novel what was shortchanged, but it's kind of amazing just how immersive 11.22.63 still manages to be in light off its inevitable limitations. It's one of the rare King adaptations that doesn't feel entirely compromised, creating an experience you could hardly consider a waste of time.