This semi-faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s doorstop of a novel benefits hugely from excellent casting and its limited miniseries structure, which leaves enough time to flesh out its world and characters while ensuring that we never forget about that grassy knoll countdown.
High-school English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) is having a bit of a life crisis when Al (Chris Cooper), his friend at the local diner, shows him something incredible: a portal back to 1960. The dying Al wants Jake to stop JFK’s assassination, but can he survive for three years in the past, and is Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) actually the man who pulled the trigger?
Despite the violence and bad language, there is something quite old-fashioned about 11.22.63 (which does make all the f-bombs quite shocking). Jake’s a good man who keeps slipping up on his way to his final destination, his good intentions invariably thwarted by his own mistakes or by the past pushing back. Franco settles into the part very nicely, finding the character’s humour, romanticism and increasing desperation.
It helps that he’s backed up by an incredible cast. Cooper’s intensity grounds the premise early on, Webber makes for a complex Oswald, Pride’s George MacKay is excellent as Jake’s right-hand man Bill, Josh Duhamel and TR Knight have fun as era-appropriate monsters, and there’s very good work from veterans like Cherry Jones, Nick Searcy, Tonya Pinkins and Leon Rippy. However, the star of the show is Sarah Gadon (Cosmopolis) as Jake’s love interest Sadie, finding the heart, wit and grit in what could have been a two-dimensional character.
There are lulls, but showrunner Bridget Carpenter finds the grim realities underneath the candy-coated Sixties, as Jake witnesses racism, domestic abuse and government failures. It’s got plenty of King’s big heart, but it doesn’t ignore the darkness, and there’s an emotional impact that we didn’t quite expect, but very much appreciated. It might take a little while to get into it, but you’ll be sad when it’s over.