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Television Review

‘Killing Kennedy,’ a flimsy historical walkthrough

Rob Lowe as JFK in “Killing Kennedy.”

Kent Eanes/National Geographic Channel

Rob Lowe as JFK in “Killing Kennedy.”

Ask not what “Killing Kennedy” can do for you, because the answer is probably not much.

Like “Killing Lincoln” from earlier this year, this studious but tedious National Geographic Channel film is executive-produced by Ridley Scott and adapted from a Bill O’Reilly-Martin Dugard bestseller of the same name. (It is also but one snowball in the avalanche of JFK-related programming surrounding the 50th anniversary of his assassination. See accompanying list.)

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Also like its predecessor, “Killing Kennedy” toggles between the life of the doomed president (Rob Lowe, his hair perfect, his accent less so) and that of his (presumed) assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Will Rothhaar, who, at times, looks distractingly like the rapper Eminem).

The film, airing Sunday at 8 p.m., introduces us to the players — including Ginnifer Goodwin (“Once Upon a Time”) as Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Trachtenberg (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) as Marina Oswald — and then dutifully trudges through the oft-told history, not so much telling a story but checking off well-known moments like a dramatized to-do list that gets about as in-depth as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Here’s Kennedy grappling with the Cuban Missile Crisis. There’s Oswald posing with the rifle and the newspapers. Look, it’s Ruby (Casey Siemaszko) establishing that he is friendly with the Dallas police and that he loves the Kennedys.

And the details — so, so many details crammed into dialogue in ways that sometimes feel perpendicular. Did you know that Jack Ruby’s dog’s name was Sheba? Well, “Killing Kennedy” does.

Synopsizing so much history into two hours means everyone just gets a few notes to play. The actors are all fine within those limits. Goodwin gets to be supportive, disappointed, and devastated; Trachtenberg frightened and confused; and Lowe handsome and serious. Rothhaar is the liveliest presence on screen — the only one seemingly directed to work a little more broadly — but he also has the most intense emotions to play and benefits in some ways by portraying someone whose personality and image were far less well-known. Accents vary, sometimes within the space of one scene.

Surrounded by real news footage, the small vignettes between the characters as they move from set piece to set piece, and well-known costume to well-known costume, all give the film the feel of still photos come briefly to life.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Kennedy history will likely get a few chuckles from some of the more clumsily direct one-liners. “I want you to be very careful around that Onassis character,” JFK says to Jackie, before her trip to Greece. His “woman problem” is depicted as flirting and skinny-dipping in the White House pool.

There are many options for Kennedy-related programming this month, so if you ask what you can do for “Killing Kennedy”? You can give it a wide berth and get a few intentional laughs by checking out Lowe in either his regular role on “Parks and Recreation” or his turn in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.
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