- 11.22.63. Available Monday, February 15, on Hulu.
11/22/63, Stephen King's novel, in which a time traveler stalks Lee Harvey Oswald through history in an attempt to prevent the Kennedy assassination, is a wonderful and maddening read. It is King's storytelling at its bravura best, a detective tale in which the hero must not only penetrate a complex mystery but do so while tip-toeing through the paradoxes of time travel.
But it is also the most dramatic exposure of his inchoate politics and infantile Baby Boomer obsessions. The belief that Kennedy's assassination precluded an early end to the Vietnam war, the idée fixe of his time-traveling vigilante, is Camelot mythology at its silliest: Kennedy was a Cold War liberal who pledged at his inaugural to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Less than three weeks before his own assassination, Kennedy fulfilled his promise by okaying a military coup that ended in the death of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who in Kennedy's eyes was not prosecuting the war with sufficient vigor.
And while King's characters follow Oswald all around Texas, even bugging his apartment, to see if he was the (perhaps unwitting) tool of a right-wing conspiracy to kill Kennedy, they make no attempt to track him during the most mysterious part of his peripatetic movements in the weeks before the assassination, a trip to Mexico City in which he visited both the Soviet and Cuban embassies. In King's view, a CIA role in Kennedy's assassination was plausible; that the KGB or Cuban DGI did so, unthinkable.
All of this and much more is present in Hulu's eight-episode adaptation of King's novel, which for reasons well above the need-to-know of mere TV critics has been slightly retitled to 11.22.63. Like the book, 11.22.63 is extraordinary entertainment if you're able to shrug off the political idiocies that broadly shape it and simply immerse yourself in the story.
James Franco (Milk) plays Jake Epping, a Maine high-school teacher who's summoned to a meeting by his best friend Al Templeton (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County), who owns a diner with the cheapest burgers in town. Turns out the bargain prices are possible because Al has been buying his meat in 1960, to which he can pop in anytime simply by stepping into the time-portal in the back room.
Now Al wants help on a more complex mission: thwarting the Kennedy assassination. A Vietnam vet still bitter about the deaths of so many buddies there, he's convinced the war will be averted if Kennedy survives. The problem is that the time-portal only opens to a single date in October 1960, at a time when Oswald was living in Russia. Tracking him down will take at least two years, and Al, stricken with terminal cancer, doesn't have that long.
But, he warns Jake, the job won't be easy, even though they know everywhere Oswald will be, and when, after he returns from the Soviet Union. "The past doesn't want to be changed," Al cautions. "There are times when you feel it push back. … If you do something that really fucks with the past, the past fucks with you." Jake sets forth anyway, but Al's warning turns out to be a prophecy of Biblical proportions.
Screenwriter Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) has mostly followed King's book, with one significant exception: She elevated a minor character, a young bartender named Bill Turcotte, into Jake's sidekick. It was an inspired decision. King's books rely heavily on interior monologues, which give his characters extraordinary dimension but makes them difficult to translate to the screen. Putting Bill (British televison actor George MacKay, who brings a boyish charm to his role) into the action turns the monologues into dialogues and action.
And plenty of action there is, ranging from thrilling to creepy. Bill and Jake not only must fight off the increasingly violent resistance of the past to being remade but deal with the consequences of personal entanglements in a world that isn't theirs. Their scheme to finance their quest by betting on sporting events to which they already know the outcome turns them into prey for angry gamblers, and their romantic ensnarements—particularly George's crush on Oswald's pretty wife Marina (Lucy Fry, Vampire Academy)—threaten to rewrite history in unintended and potentially disastrous ways. "I'm like an imposter in my own life," complains Jake.
Yet it's the softer side of 11.22.63 that makes it so compelling. Whether Jake is being sucker-punched by time (when a forgotten cell phone tumbles out of his pocket) or counterpunching it (he worms his way out of a lie about serving in the Korean War by identifying his unit, the 4077th MASH), the practical potholes of time travel are lively entertainment.
And there's an awesome you-are-there quality to scenes in which familiar characters of the assassination narrative pop up like signposts in a voyage through a history so familiar it feels personal even to those of us who were nowhere near Dallas in 1963: George DeMohrenschildt, the mysterious maybe-CIA-man who was Oswald's only friend; Oswald's dotty mother Marguerite; bemused Abraham Zapruder, shooting what will be the most famous home movie of all time; and Dealey Plaza's cryptic Umbrella Man, whose parasol was either a signal to a hidden gunman or an attempt to heckle Kennedy about his father's long-ago support for Neville Chamberlain.
Most of all, there's the road-not-taken poignance that underlies 11.22.63. Whether you buy the Camelot version of history or not, 11.22.63 channels our collective longing for a moment when everything could have been changed for the better, a sense that so much wrong and hurt could be erased if we could just alter the flow of time for a split second. The saddest, sweetest expression of it is a moment when Jake, pursuing what he knows is a doomed romance with a dreamy blonde librarian played by Canadian actress Sarah Gadon, softly sings a tune that, he assures her, he just made up:
We danced through the night
And we held each other tight
And before too long I fell in love with her
Now I'll never dance with another…