Changing The Past: A Review of the Miniseries, 11.22.63
The story centers around modern day English teacher Jake Eppering (James Franco) who is hanging at his local diner in Maine when the owner Al (the sight for sore eyes, Chris Cooper) shares that he's got a secret portal in his closet that sent him back to 1960. Whoa. As Jake is processing this bombshell, (no pun intended), Al reveals he is dying of cancer. He appeals to Jake to go back to 1960, hang out until November 22, 1963, and prevent the Kennedy Assassination. Jake reluctantly agrees, and Al gives him the betting statistics so he can win money to sustain this project. (If only the rest of this series went this fast.)
Jake then steps into the closet and ends up in 1960. He is promptly greeted by “Benny“ from Brendan Fraser's version of "The Mummy", who warns him that he "shouldn't be here". We only see “Benny” in random small sprinkles throughout the series, and only find out at the end that he is traveling back in time to prevent his daughter's death. This character is creepy and underplayed.
Meanwhile, Jake goes to a local bar to place a large bet on a fight that he unsurprisingly wins. The bar owner is angry that he has to pay out quite a large amount, as I mutter to myself that Jake didn’t figure out the 1960 exchange rate before he left. In his defense, he probably wasn’t planning on time traveling anytime soon, but he’s supposed to be living under the radar. Following that advice, he buys a bright yellow car.
As he makes his way to Texas, he stops in Kentucky to successfully prevent his student's family from being murdered. This is, before he manages to tick off the murdering father and the couple that he rents the room from. We start to see Jake's character flaws, and exactly how short-sighted and what a bad liar he is. He also picks up a bartender named Bill, who tags along, presumingly to experience big city adventures. It's hard to believe that Bill would acompany Jake after quickly believing that Jake is from the future, knowing that he just murdered a man, and knowing that Jake sometimes has physical nightmares in his sleep. But, people are different. (shrugs)
Jake and Bill make it to Dallas. They get an apartment in Lee Harvey Oswald's building to keep an eye on him. Of course, when we're talking about the Kennedy Assassination, Oswald is the shooter in the Book Depository. Historically, most of us are convinced that there was another shooter, thanks to the "Magic Bullet Theory" (one to three bullets going in seven different places between two people) proposed in the Warren Commission Report. At least with Oswald, they can find out if he truly was a Patsy, and if so, can find the people responsible.
They bug Oswald's apartment and document his unhappy marriage with his wife Marina, his love of communism, and his short fuse. It’s obvious that Oswald at the very least appears unhinged.
Somewhere in there, Jake meets Sadie, (Sarah Gadon) who becomes his love interest, and gets a job in small town Jodie.
Jake generally gets along at school, but has to dodge a few close calls with his modern identity. He jeopardizes his job at several points with poor decisions, including getting arrested at a brothel while keeping up with Oswald. Of course, he can’t explain to the school why he’s truly there. Sadie's ex-husband (T.R. Knight) also gets thrown into the mix as another complication. This feels like another distraction from the story. Jake has a run-in with him as he and Sadie get blackmailed. Spoiler Alert: it's the ex.
Other than that, things between Sadie and Jake seem to be doing well until Sadie walks into Jake's house in Jodie one evening to discover his surveillance equipment. She confronts him about his lying, which I too am fed up with. Jake's character already has to lie anyway, but at times, lies for no reason. Again; it detracts from the story. He tells Sadie that he is there to save the president. (He also throws away a whole casserole that Sadie made him, which I am still sour about. Don’t take it out on the casserole!)
In the meantime, Bill falls for Oswald's wife, Marina, Jake finally loses his job, and Sadie's ex-husband kidnaps Sadie and threatens to kill her and Jake. Jake kills the ex, they escape, and Sadie lands in the hospital, where Jake finally tells her that he is from the future. We all breathe a sigh of relief.
Other minor, irrelevant stuff happen, and finally it's November 22, 1963. Jake and Sadie chase Oswald to the book depository where he gets a shot off, but it misses the president, just like the first one actually did. Oswald eventually shoots Sadie and she dies. Jake then shoots Oswald as the police enter. They arrest and interrogate Jake as he maintains his story. Somehow, he gets a call from the president and everything is hunky dory.
He is then released and dropped off at the train station to head back to Maine. He comes out of the closet in the diner to find everything destroyed. Jake finds out that Kennedy served another term, and at some point, the governor of Alabama, George Wallace became president. Wallace went on to cause America’s destruction with conflict and bombs.
As Jake goes back in the closet to reset the past, he sees Sadie. She doesn’t know him this time. It's heartbreaking.
Jake comes back into the modern times and finds out that elder Sadie is accepting an award nearby. Jake then asks the unknowing Sadie to dance. (I admit it; I bawled like a baby. I mean, she didn't know him and wouldn't know him again unless he kept going back into the past.) I'm still shaken up. What a cruel world. How dare Stephen dangle a love carrot and then unceremoniously rip it out of our mouths!
And that’s how the series ends.
What I Liked
I was pleasantly surprised at how historically accurate the script was. Truth is stranger than fiction. As it turns out, Oswald did go to and threaten the FBI Office before the assassination, get a job at the book depository, and attempt to kill George Wallace. There were also a couple of parts that showed the inequality of African Americans, with Mimi being refused service at a gas station and a gentleman asking why Jake is not heading towards the 'Whites' bathroom. It's uncomfortable, but most likely intentional, and we need to see those moments to see how far we've come.
Most of the actors played their parts really well and I thought the casting was spot-on. Even the husband of the boarding house couple had an intense and moving monologue about his war experience. I just didn't care for the actress that played Marina. I'm sure it's pretty hard to play a part and have a convincing Russian accent, but I think the accent should have been crisper and more deliberate-sounding. (Full disclosure: At one time, I assisted a play as a Russian dialect coach, so I have an ear for it.) She was almost there.
- It was gratifying to see Kennedy survive.
- I loved how Sadie’s character was intelligent and a bit sassy. Jake needed someone to often him out a bit.
- According to my husband, who read the book, the series was very close to the book. The last few scenes were supposedly exactly what happened in the book.
- The 60's music they chose was pleasant, especially the two Sam Cooke songs. I think Sam Cook is always a good representative of the emotion and chaos in the 1960’s. It worked great with the romantic scenes between Sadie and Jake. Plus, Sam’s music is just dynamite.
What I Didn't Like
I’m conflicted about the character Jake. The casting for him was perfect, as James Franco can play a fairly normal, flawed, charming, yet jerky man. But, at times, I felt at times, his character was a little too flawed, which took away from the story.
I also thought the character of Bill was unnecessary. Bill never really challenged Jake positively as a good friend should. In fact, he thwarted him a couple of times. I think if the mysterious man, played by “Benny” (the very talented Kevin J. O’Connor) should have been used as Jake's sidekick. His story was more compelling than Bill’s and he had insight into the time-traveling process. It was also too many people to keep track of.
I won’t be addressing how a few things in this series don’t make sense. A few things don’t, like time-traveling out of a closet. But, if you watch or read Stephen King, you know what you’re getting into. He stretches details. Your job as the reader or watcher is to look beyond that and discover the story he’s trying to tell.
The series itself ran a couple episodes too long. It got especially slow around the time that Sadie and Jake were shacking up. The romance was nice, and while the actors/characters had great chemistry, it distracted from saving the president. And again, Stephen got us invested in the relationship and then promptly broke our hearts. I won't forget, Stephen.
Overall, I‘d give the series a 3.75/5 star rating. If anyone can give the concept of going back in time and saving President Kennedy, it’s Stephen King. His work challenges what we think we know and it’s always fun to go down his rabbit holes, even if it’s not what we want to see. As Frank Sinatra said, “that’s life”.
I think everyone should watch this show for curiosity’s sake. Afterwards, people should ask themselves why exactly the Kennedy Assassination was important and if there’s any lessons we can take away from it. After all, history tends to repeat itself.
© 2018 Lauren Sutton