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.
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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.

But after two terms of Reagan and the subsequent election of his vice president, George H.W., the assassination returned to film with a vengeance. In JFK, Oliver Stone revisited the same ideas put forth nearly 20 years earlier in Executive Action, but he brought to it a sense of urgency stemming from the fact that the Kennedy generation was entering middle age, and time was running out to solve the mystery. A similar purpose seemingly motivated Ruby, released the following year, although that film, which hemmed too closely to the gangster film genre repopularized by the recent Goodfellas, was more quickly forgotten.

A year later, In the Line of Fire attempted to “solve” the assassination mystery in a new way by providing emotional closure to the Kennedy generation in a satisfying commercial film. The film told the story of Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who worked for Kennedy’s detail and is haunted by his failure to protect the president. When he foils the attempt of a clever new assassin with aims to take out the current president, his success is meant to absolve him—and the generation he represents. Clint Eastwood proved an inspired choice for the role of Horrigan, since he came onto the scene in 1964 playing a character who epitomized the darkness and disillusionment that followed Kennedy’s assassination, the amoral Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of Westerns.

America went 20 more years without another serious JFK assassination movie. The ascension of Bill Clinton, who loved Kennedy and the movies equally, may have seemed like a resurrection of the JFK spirit at first, although political realities quickly quashed those fantasies. Any hope of continuing the quest for answers in the assassination may have finally been stamped out on September 11, 2001, when a new national trauma seized the collective consciousness.  In the years since, Kennedy has appeared on film several times as a shining example of bygone leadership (Thirteen Days, The Butler), but only in this year’s Parkland did a new generation weigh in on the assassination.

It barely feels like a JFK assassination movie at all. Instead, Parkland is a film for the 9/11 generation, as it depicts the confusion and despair that defined the days after the assassination with an emotionality much more common to films of the last 12 years. Unlike Zapruder, director Peter Landesman uses shaky, handheld cinematography. No single protagonist exists. The film offers a mosaic of characters and stories, but a single theme emerges from each subplot: Nothing will ever be the same—or as good—again.

Parkland made little at the box office, and critics seemed divided on the film. Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post gave the film credit for “re-creat[ing] the grief surrounding the crime and the confusion of Oswald’s capture and subsequent murder,” while Stephen Holden at the New York Times was “left wondering why it was made.” These varied reactions show that people remain divided on whether to continue trying to puzzle out the Kennedy assassination, or if we are ready to tell a new story.

Maybe it all comes back to the Zapruder film, which may be the most scrutinized film ever created and has inspired a range of of interpretations. The Warren Commission relied heavily on it for its controversial report that argued in favor of the “lone gunman theory.” Oliver Stone used footage of it to argue for the existence of a second shooter on the grassy knoll.

Had Zapruder followed his ears (he initially said that the shots came from behind him) and aimed his camera towards the grassy knoll, he potentially could have altered the course of history. Or maybe his camera could have drifted up towards the book depository and cleared everything up, or at least provided enough evidence for us not to wonder. But like a sports cameraman, he kept his eye on the action, and here we stand, 50 years later, attempting to fill in the background scenery. It hasn’t worked. Despite decades of trying, we remain stuck re-experiencing that moment over and over again, continuously searching—both onscreen and off—for a conclusion to the film.

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

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