11.22.63 (Blu-ray Review)19 Aug, 2016 By: John Latchem
$29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Stars James Franco, Sarah Gadon, Cherry Jones, Lucy Fry, George MacKay, Daniel Webber, T. R. Knight, Jonny Coyne, Tonya Pinkins, Leon Rippy, Nick Searcy, Kevin J. O'Connor, Josh Duhamel, Chris Cooper.
What is it about the concept of time travel that makes authors ponder the possibility of saving John F. Kennedy?
Gene Roddenberry wanted to make it the plot of one of the early “Star Trek” movies. The 1980s “Twilight Zone” featured an episode, “Profile in Silver,” in which a professor from the future actually saves JFK, but then rushes to undo his deeds when he realizes it will lead to an apocalypse. Even "Quantum Leap" finally got around to exploring the idea, after the misinformation from Oliver Stone’s JFK was too much to ignore.
Why doesn’t potentially preventing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln get as much play?
Granted, JFK’s death was recent enough to have likely had some personal impact on the creators of these works, making this particular world history “what if” scenario a bit more relevant to them than some other historical swerves that might make for more interesting speculation.
Even just looking at the subject of presidential assassinations, Lincoln’s guidance of the United States through the recovery of the Civil War would have left a profoundly different nation in its wake, especially in the arena of race relations and civil rights. Furthermore, how would the survival of William McKinley, and thus the lack of a Teddy Roosevelt presidency, have altered the already turbulent course of the 20th century?
But alas, genre writers and filmmakers are not necessarily historians, and there aren’t too many variables at play when dealing with potential outcomes of the Cold War.
At least 11.22.63 doesn’t leave much room for its time travelers to decide where to go.
The eight-part Hulu miniseries (with a double-length first episode) is based on Stephen King’s 2011 novel 11/22/63, taking its title from the day JFK was shot. Similarly to “Profile in Silver,” the book features a teacher going back in time and attempting the thwart the assassination, only to discover JFK’s survival could trigger a nuclear holocaust. The similarities in concept are enough to raise the eyebrow of anyone familiar with the earlier work, though the plot mechanics are vastly different, with the King story more focused on character and setting (King allegedly first had the idea in 1971, predating the “Twilight Zone” piece by 15 years).
Like the book, the show centers on a teacher named Jake (James Franco), who learns that a portal to the past has opened in the closet of his favorite diner, and then is tasked with saving JFK by the diner’s dying owner, Al (Chris Cooper).
Al explains the rules. The portal always sends the traveler to 1960 (hence the limitations on what can be changed), and a portal on the other side will send him back to 2016, two minutes after he left, no matter how much time he spent in the past. And while it’s possible to change the past, going back in time through the portal resets the timeline. Plus, the timeline itself will fight to prevent any attempts to change it.
Al believes saving JFK will yield a utopia, but he has cancer and won’t survive another attempt. He gives Jake a detailed dossier of the Kennedy assassination, including all relevant conspiracy theories, and boils the mission down to Jake: Confirm Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone, and if so, kill him before he can kill Kennedy.
Certainly the premise opens the door, so to speak, to a Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow scenario, in which someone trying to change the past can just keep going back and forth until they get it right. But the time and travel involved quickly precludes such plot repetition.
Jake reluctantly embarks on the mission and settles into life in the early 1960s, at which point the show almost becomes a quaint period piece about a small-town teacher falling in love. But Jake losing himself in the 1960s is just one obstacle to his mission.
The story is fraught with the typical logical paradoxes that plague time travel plots, which means how effective it is depends on how well it uses the plot device as a philosophical exercise to deepen character and drama. What works best about 11.22.63 is the fact that it can take its time to really explore the life of a man from the future living in the past, aside from a few jokes and references that are all many movies would have time for. Jake makes a quick buck betting on sporting events he already knows the outcome of, and uses movie plots to cover up holes in his own backstory when others start peering too deeply.
The show is less effective in trying to play off the metaphysics of its portal, as if it’s just a natural occurrence. Why, for instance, can’t anyone just stumble into it in the timelines where it’s not protected by the diner? And if the past will fight attempts to change it, why does it allow the portal to exist to begin with? Many of these mysteries are no doubt given some degree of explanation in the book, while the miniseries glosses over much of it for the sake of keeping the core story driving forward.
The re-creations of the 1960s are exquisite, and the show does a good job setting its different timelines apart from each other. Another nice touch is the degree to which the show incorporates the actual Dealey Plaza in Dallas, which adds authenticity to the proceedings and makes the re-creation of the assassination attempt more effective.
Acting-wise, Franco can’t always shake his trademark aloofness, which can be distracting, but it also serves the character in a way, given that Jake is supposed to be a man who shouldn’t quite fit in.
The story is enthralling for its historical explorations, though it would be easy for viewers to quibble about some of the choices Jake makes in using the time travel as a tool. It would be fun to see how a character well versed in the glossary of time travel fiction might fare in a similar situation.
The Blu-ray includes a 15-minute making-of featurette that is most interesting for its discussion of some of the references to other Stephen King works built into the show.