Film's Failed Quest to Understand JFK's Death

Directors keep trying to show all the things the famous Zapruder footage missed, but they only end up revealing truths about their times.
JFKIn the Line of Fire, and Parkland

It’s easy to forget now, but the assassination of John F. Kennedy happened not in front of the eyes of the world but rather in front of only a few hundred onlookers in Dallas. For everyone else, it was just a media event—a profound and awful one, but a media event nonetheless.

Americans may have experienced the trauma of his death en masse through the new and exciting medium of television, but in the years since, the movies that have held a claim on it. Part of that is because the shooting made for exactly the kind of standalone event movies, not TV, exist to document. But also, the deep pain and unanswered questions that remain around Kennedy’s death demand the scope and size that only the movies, which people experience collectively in the dark, can provide.

Of course, the first filmmaker to give the Kennedy assassination the cinematic treatment was an amateur, a Dallas businessman named Abraham Zapruder, who did not know that he was making a film at all. He probably thought that the footage he shot on November 22, 1963 would disappear into his closet, only to emerge when he wanted to show his children and grandchildren how close he once stood to greatness. But despite his non-professional status, Zapruder deserves credit for his filmmaking acumen. In one unbroken shot, he captured the entire Kennedy experience: the president’s ability to connect with the public, his moment in the sun, his hidden vulnerability, and then his final, inarguable mortality.

His camera work was impeccable. As Kennedy’s motorcade rounded the corner onto Elm Street, Zapruder caught Kennedy breaking the fourth wall and looking directly to camera, before glancing away to make eye contact and connect with another constituent. Then: a prescient moment when the the car was blocked by a sign, and Kennedy disappeared for a moment. He emerged a moment later, and when the bullets started whizzing through the air, it seems like Zapruder’s camera should revert to the type of shaky, handheld work that now defines our era of docudramas like United 93 and Captain Phillips. But Zapruder’s hand remained steady, as if he instinctively understood the historical importance of the footage he was shooting. His remarkably level shot tracked with Kennedy as the second, fatal bullet blew his head back, as Jackie jumped onto the back of the car, and as the motorcade moved agonizingly slowly down the road.

The Zapruder footage is the seminal film in the still-relevant JFK assassination movie genre, but that doesn’t imply any level of objectivity. Regardless of conscious intent, the person who holds the camera makes choices: who to film and who to leave off-screen. So in this film, we don’t see the secret service agents who are too slow to react to the second bullet. We don’t see the reaction of the young people scattered on the grass around Elm Street. And we certainly don’t see anything suspicious happening on the grassy knoll. As the first filmmaker to document the JFK assassination, Zapruder’s narrow focus creates a vacuum of information that we have spent years trying to fill.

Many filmmakers have tried to put their own mark on the Kennedy assassination, and each film reveals the scar tissue particular to its generation. In 1964, just one year after the assassination, B-movie director Larry Buchanan made The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, which responded to the lingering questions over the assassination by giving Oswald the fair (albeit fictional) trial he never had. Buchanan’s film, however, is less of an immersive cinematic experience than a staged reading of eyewitness accounts. It offers no emotional impact and does not delve into the real mysteries of the assassination, but, of course, that’s where America was at the time; when the film was released in April of 1964, the Warren Commission had not yet even released its contentious findings.

Nine years later, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was the first to implicate the government in JFK’s assassination with Executive Action. Many films of the post-Watergate era reflected that generation’s deep disillusionment with government; some, like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, even hinged on government conspiracies. Executive Action fits neatly along side these, presenting all the pieces of what has now become the most widely accepted version of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, involving powerful defense interests, ex-CIA operatives still smarting from the Bay of Pigs, and government insiders. Trumbo never aimed for verisimilitude—all the characters are all ostensibly fictional—but the extent to which the theory laid out in Executive Action remains popular today shows how little our collective experience of these events have changed. The theory has not yet been improved upon, nor has it been conclusively disproved. According to a recent USA today poll, 61 percent of American still believe in the conspiracy.

In 1984, there was the little-seen Flashpoint, notable only for how little impact it made on the zeitgeist. It is easy to see why: The film, which starred Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams as Texas border agents who stumbled upon the body of a man who turns out to be the real assassin, depicts the nefarious U.S. government as having orchestrated the murder and the cover-up. Had this been the early ‘70s, Flashpoint would have been right on time, but this was Morning in America, and the public was mostly uninterested. Given how watchable the film remains even today, it seems reasonable to chalk up the film’s failure (it grossed a measly $4 million domestically) to the politics of the era.

Presented by

Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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