Fifty years after John F. Kennedy was gunned down in a Dallas motorcade, the impact of his killing and the government’s deeply flawed investigation still reverberates, from paranoid thrillers like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation” all the way up to recent TV hits like “24” and “Homeland.”
The death of the 46-year old leader of the free world and his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald both took place on film, but a majority of Americans still believe that these acts of on-screen violence were not as they appeared. An Associated Press-GfK poll from earlier this year found that nearly 60 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president.
This deeply held belief that perception deviated wildly from reality on November 22, 1963, and that sinister forces were behind the slaughter of an idealistic politician fed into the culture as a whole. From a photographer obsessively enlarging an image that may reveal a murder in “Blow Up” to the way Hyman Roth is gunned down in front of a scrum of reporters in “The Godfather: Part II,” the Kennedy and Oswald murders are continually re-played and re-imagined in film and television.
“The shadow of suspicion became a way of reading our history,” David Thomson, film critic at The New Republic, told TheWrap. “Once the mood set in, it became all too easy for any horrible event to just get fed into the hopper. Virtually nothing can happen and not come under suspicion as being part of a larger conspiracy. It changed the opennes of our minds about events like this.”
It was a psychic scare that has only been matched in the mass-media era by 9/11, and it made the Zapruder film, which captured the presidential motorcade as it made its way through Dealey Plaza and reveals in shocking detail the aftermath of an assassin’s bullets, the most influential home video of all time and as important a work of film as “The Birth of a Nation” or “Citizen Kane.”
“The Zapruder film haunts our consciousness,” Joseph McBride, a film historian and the author of “Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit,” said. “The maze-like element of the assassination can become a wilderness of mirrors. When you begin to understand something, it opens up a whole different way of looking at it. It can become dizzying.”
In the case of the Kennedy killing, this distrust of institutions was compounded by the worsening situation in Vietnam and a wave of political assassinations of leaders such as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. that brought the sixties to a violent close. At the same time, during the latter half of the the decade, journalists like Edward Jay Epstein and authors like Mark Lane began raising questions about the thoroughness of the Warren Commission’s investigation — revealing for instance that its members were prevented from seeing autopsy photos of Kennedy and that the group faced pressure from President Lyndon Johnson to wrap up their report before the 1964 election.
“With the Warren Commission, the first reaction in the mainstream media was we now have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but then I came along and others came along, and said the Warren Commission is a group of very honest, decent and intelligent men, who were never part of a conspiracy, but were working under severe time pressure and might not have done that good a job,” Epstein told TheWrap.
A breach of trust in government and the establishment resounds in the films of directors like Alan J. Pakula, whose 1974 thriller “The Parallax View” kicks off with a Congressional special committee falsely concluding that the assassination of a presidential candidate was the work of a single gunman. It can also be seen in “The Conversation” and “Blow Out,” which like “Blow Up,” both deal with the failure of modern media to accurately capture shadowy plots and schemes unfolding around us.
“It started to break down the level of trust that people had in American institutions,” Robert Stone, a documentary director who explored the assassination of Kennedy in his 2007 film “Oswald’s Ghost,” said. “Kennedy was the good father and [Lyndon Johnson] was the bad father. You went from the idealism of his inaugural address and the nuclear test ban treaty, and after the shooting, we just plummeted into the horrors of Vietnam and the worst atrocities of the Civil Rights era. All of that fed on each other, and it became the perfect metaphor for what had gone wrong with America.”
To be sure, there had been conspiracy thrillers before Kennedy was killed. Indeed “The Manchurian Candidate” with its brainwashed political assassin was released in 1962 and seemed particularly prescient in light of that bloody November day in Dallas. But for the most part, films like Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which dealt with maze-like plots and villains of great influence and shaky morals, were leavened by humor and narrative triumph.
“In those earlier films, the hero usually won, but in later movies, the protagonist essentially shrugs and realizes there’s nothing he can do,” Amy Nicholson, chief film critic for L.A. Weekly, said. “It’s no longer about underdogs who win, it’s about underdogs getting crushed.”
As the 1970s dawned, the resignation of Richard M. Nixon and the revelations by the Church Committee of systemic abuses of power by America’s intelligence-gathering operations exacerbated the feeling of pessimism about the sinister motivations of large bureaucracies — and the lengths they will go to consolidate power. Before the Kennedy assassination, FBI or CIA agents could believably be portrayed as the heroes in a story, afterwards, their appearance in a film or television show instantly put viewers on guard.
“Watergate crystalized everything,” Howard Suber, a film historian and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. “After Watergate, up until the present time, it felt like a new movie would open up every Friday about someone being framed by a mysterious government agency.”
From there the mantle of paranoid thrillers would be taken up by “Marathon Man,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “Absolute Power,” “Syriana” and “Salt.” With time, the origins of the genre would be clouded by other national tragedies. As phrases like “lone gunman” and “grassy knoll” passed on into folklore, it became easier to ascribe the inspiration for these suspense stories to the bombing of the Twin Towers or the rise of the surveillance state.
But Harry Caul, Jack Bauer, and the lonely, out-matched truth-seekers pitted against implacable forces of authority are stand-ins for a generation of Americans who no longer felt the tug of exceptionalism, and instead saw dark forces undermining the republic at every turn.
“We fictionalize real life as a way to ask troubling questions,” Nicholson said.
That’s true. In the case of the killing of President Kennedy, history has been refracted, reconstituted and reinterpreted and destined to repeat itself again and again in film and in television.