For decades now, Stephen King has been getting away with premises that in most other people’s hands would have people rolling their eyes and saying it’s ridiculous. However, he manages to pull it off more often than not. That’s certainly true of the idea behind 11.22.63, where there’s a closet that takes people back to 1960. Why? Well, just because there is, of course.
That’s just one of a series of arbitrary rules around which this JJ Abrams produced eight-part adaptation of King’s novels weaves a story of time-travel, love, espionage and the Kennedy assassination. Jake (James Franco) is a high school teacher who discovers that there is indeed a portal to 1960 in the back of a diner. The owner of the restaurant (Chris Cooper) has been using it to try to prevent JFK’s assassination, something he believes will makes the world a better place.
However, he can’t do it anymore as he has cancer (possibly due to the time-travelling), so he gets Jake to agree to go back. That leaves the teacher with three years to figure out whether there was a conspiracy around the events in Dallas in 1963 and try to prevent it from happening. However, he soon discovers that time doesn’t want to be changed and pushes back against efforts to alter it.
Along the way he recruits a young man called Bill (George McKay) to help him find out more about Lee Harvey Oswald, something that gets more complicated when Bill starts to have feelings for Oswald’s wife, Marina. Jake also finds love in the form of the beautiful Sadie (Sarah Gadon).
Although its mix of sci-fi, historical drama, love story and conspiracy theory could have been a bit of a mess, 11.22.63 does a great job of holding it all together, helped by a strong central performance by James Franco. Initially I did wonder whether his low-key, almost 1950s-Brando approach was going to drag things down and make a potentially interesting premise seem a lot duller than it actually is. However, he quickly draws the viewer in, managing to give things a surprisingly grounded, everyman appeal. He becomes the centre around which pivots an interesting look at the events leading up to the Kennedy assassination
It’s not all perfect though, and it’s an eight-part series that feels like it should have been a six-part series, as in the middle it tends to meander. That’s not too surprising as its entire set-up means we’re waiting to get to November 22nd 1963 and see whether Jake can prevent JFK’s assassination, so there’s always the danger of fatigue setting in during the middle section, and there is a sense of padding here, particularly when it comes to Jake & Sadie’s romance, which sometimes feels unnecessarily padded out and unconnected to most of the other things going on.
However, that’s a relatively minor quibble, and mostly it’s a great watch, particularly when it’s exploring the JFK assassination and the connections between Oswald and others. George McKay is great as Bill, a young man who gets pulled into the events Jake is trying to figure out, but ends up far too close to them. Some may feel the ending is a bit of a cheat, although from the beginning it’s clear that’s pretty much where it’s probably heading. It’s actually quite good and works well, although a few may feel that underneath it’s just a new take on a pretty old cliché. Luckily it covers it up, and it’s here that the romance angle is strongest.
Overall Verdict: It may be a bit overlong, especially if you’re binge-watching, but for the most part, 11.22.63 is a gripping, interesting look at the JFK assassination, woven into an intriguing time-travel tale.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac