By Matthew Kresal
The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy has become one of those touchstone events of the 20th century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the scars left on the American psychic landscape, the events and what might have been if it hadn't occurred has made a rich seam for alternate history writers. One of them was writer/director Robert Dyke who took on the question in his movie Timequest.
Timequest, which received a film festival screening in 2000 followed by a limited theatrical and home video release in 2002, gets to its alternate history story via that well-worn science fiction element of time travel. On the morning of November 22, 1963, while the presidential party is still at their hotel in Fort Worth before heading to Dallas, a traveller from the future (Ralph Waite) drops into the presidential suite, meeting Jackie Kennedy (Caprice Benedetti) and then the President (Victor Slezak). Managing to convince an initially sceptical Robert Kennedy (Vince Grant), who arrives via Air Force fighter jet from the nation's capital, he delivers a warning of future events before being erased from history, setting in motion a very different future. One that includes RFK becoming President, a joint US-Soviet lunar landing and an eventual lunar colony.
As that brief description might suggest, the film's alternate history is an optimistic one. The joint Moon mission and colony are born out of there being no Vietnam War, with JFK (after an Oval Office confrontation with Barry Corbin as Lyndon Johnson) putting the resources from Vietnam toward space exploration. There's a scene set in 1979, Martin Luther King Jr being RFK's Vice-President. There are several other, sometimes odd, historical ironies that Dyke's timeline tosses out, such as the Warren Commission helping disband the CIA (and weirdly, through recycled stock footage, still having its former director Allen Dulles be a member). Or RFK managing to take down not only the mob but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (a well-cast Larry Drake) by turning his blackmail attempts on him. Indeed, at times the referencing feels perhaps too cute, especially for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the assassination and the conspiracy theories around it, including references to a new version of "the Zapruder movie" with its own significant frame 313. Unlike some assassination-based alternate histories, Timequest does take a conspiratorial view of events in Dallas, featuring three shooters rather than Oswald as a lone wolf, the response to which becomes a source of contention between Jackie and the Kennedy brothers.
Frustratingly, beyond the Kennedys and their time in the White House, Timequest has little to say about the world at large. One exception comes in an early scene involving the Oliver Stone-like filmmaker William Roberts (Bruce Campbell). Standing on an Oval Office set, he takes a collect call from John Lennon, saying "no" to the rights to tell the story of the Beatles' European success and failure to break into the American market. Indeed, the presence of Campbell as a Stone stand-in for two scenes feels out of place in this timeline, given how much JFK's death and the eventual unravelling of Vietnam helped shape the government distrust and conspiracy culture that fuelled Stone's biggest successes. Though it does let Dyke, in a talk show segment, play a "clip" from Roberts latest film RFK that is a spot-on parody of Stone's nineties filmmaking style.
In a way, the influence of Stone's nineties Presidential based films (JFK and Nixon) weigh heavily on Timequest, perhaps too heavily. Dyke employs Stone's non-linear storytelling style, bouncing around the events of not just that day in November 1963 but also in 2001 with artist Raymond Mead (Joseph Murphy) and the Kennedy family's peculiar interest in his life and work, plus everything in-between. Time jumps (and jumps within jumps) are a storytelling method that is hard to pull off, as reviews of Stone's Nixon will attest, and it has to be said that Dyke doesn't show the knack for it here. The first third of the film, in particular, comes across as a barely coherent jumble of scenes at times, with moments playing out two and even three times without any discernible reason for it being so. Though, given the 94 minute running time, one wonders if Timequest would have run too short otherwise. The cynical Stone-esque view of the world bleeds through into a couple of scenes, including an out of place flashback to an encounter between JFK and Marilyn Monroe where she recreates an iconic photo from her nude 1953 Playboy spread, which stands at odds with the optimistic picture the rest of the film tries to paint.
That isn't to say the film is without some pluses, however. The choices in the casting of the Kennedys are solid, with Victor Slezak especially being one of the screen's finer depictions of JFK, and Waite makes a strong impression as the time traveller. Indeed, the cast might be the one thing that makes a scene where the traveller reveals his true motive for coming through time bearable despite being a cringeworthy piece of writing and filmmaking. And for what was a comparatively low-budget film, Timequest looks pretty good. The costuming and sets especially stand out in recreating the sixties, and the Oval Office set is pretty impressive though sparsely furnished. Indeed, minus the editing issues mentioned above and some dated early 2000s CGI shots in a handful of scenes, Timequest is a pretty well made, if not big-budgeted, piece of work.
The result is that the film is an intriguing but frustrating piece of work. Its alternate history varies from the potentially plausible to the wildly over-optimistic, while the film itself tonally ranges from that same sense of optimism to clashing cynicism. Yet despite being jumbled by its non-linear narrative, Timequest's cast and otherwise solid low-budget production make up for it at times. It might not be essential viewing, but it's a nice watch on a rainy afternoon as an example of screen-based alternate history.