Film's Failed Quest to Understand JFK's Death

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.

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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