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50th Anniversary: 8 JFK Assassination Films That Revisit History

50th Anniversary: 8 JFK Assassination Films That Revisit History

50 years ago this Friday, an open-top car rounded a corner, a bullet left a gun and history changed. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a landmark event of which it’s hard to overstate the importance—retrospectively we can see just how much U.S. politics and society altered from that point on, making hyperbole about its impact difficult. Perhaps the only event to which it can be likened, for those of us not yet born in 1963, is 9/11, in terms of how shocking, scarring and indelible it felt to witness, and not just that, but how eerie, how uncanny, how chillingly surreal. A little like one of those cartoon moments when the scurrying critter looks down to discover it ran out of cliff a while ago, it felt, according to those who lived through it, like the ground was giving way, and having glimpsed the drop below, suddenly the nation was in freefall, all the old certainties vanishing. And when the inconceivable has happened right before your eyes, who’s to say there aren’t monsters under the bed too?

The long-term ramifications of the assassination couldn’t have been dreamed of that day in Dallas. In the months, years, decades afterwards, conspiracy theories proliferated into a cottage industry of books, articles, memoirs, TV shows and more lately, blogs. And, of course, movies too have tackled the JFK assassination, some head-on, some fancifully, some obliquely and it is perhaps telling that of all of the big-screen ventures, it’s really only this month’s “Parkland” that retains anything like an agnostic stance on whether Oswald was in fact the lone gunman, and that’s only because its focus lies elsewhere (in fact, director Peter Landesman is vehement in his personal conviction about the truth of the lone gunman theory). All the others, whether using the killing as a jump off point for a work of total fiction or knitting as closely as they can to hard facts and documentary evidence, deal to some degree in conspiracy and hidden secrets. Because that distrust of the official, Warren Commission line, about Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, and therefore of the “official line” on almost anything, is one of the most enduring legacies of the assassination. It even causes some commentators to look back on the America of Kennedy’s curtailed presidency as a kind of prelapsarian paradise: more innocent times when citizens, no matter how scared they were of nukes or Russians or the Fidel Castro, believed in the moral good, and the honesty, of their own government. That unquestioning belief was shattered further by Vietnam and Watergate, but the first crack appeared as the last gunshot rang out in Dallas.

And so nearly all the films that the JFK assassination inspired have some element of arcane conspiracy to them. Here are eight different cinematic takes on the subject, ranging from the plausible to the ludicrous but each, in its way, exploiting our ongoing fascination with one of the great debates of 20th century history: who killed Kennedy?

JFK” (1991)
Recent surveys do still indicate that a clear majority of Americans (59-61%, depending on your poll) believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. However that percentage, as well as the percentage who believe, more generally, that there was some sort of cover up of the true facts, has slid considerably from its highest point: most tables plotting the progress of the majority opinion, will show that conspiracy and cover-up belief was at its strongest point in the early-to-mid 1990s, a full 30 years after the event itself. This period, of course, coincides with the release of Oliver Stones lengthy, but undeniably gripping “JFK,” the single most influential media event, it is believed, to have swayed public opinion on the assassination in the 50 years since it occurred.

Stone’s film, based on two main sources, one of which was authored by the film’s crusading hero, Jim Garrison, is, as the director himself has often said, primarily just a terrific story, but Stone’s belief that, whether or not it happened as he lays out here, there was a conspiracy and a subsequent cover-up, is writ large. But if the intervening decades have taken quite a bit of gloss off the rather hagiographic portrayal of Garrison as a proto-Elliot Ness-type (even played by the same actor in Kevin Costner) and have seen many of the film’s more dubious claims refuted, as an entertainment, the film is still a convincing, intricate and rather brilliant piece of work, definitely among Stone’s best. A lot of this is due to the peerless editing, which keeps scenes of infinite talkiness moving along briskly (there’s a long explanatory scene with Donald Sutherland in which he goes on in monologue for nearly 15 minutes that is so skilfully intercut with reconstructions and archive footage that you scarcely notice its length) and the enormous cast which aside from the Oscar-nominated Tommy Lee Jones and the confoundingly eyebrowed Joe Pesci, sees everyone from John Candy to Kevin Bacon, to Vincent D’Onofrio, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Ed Asner crop up, to say nothing of the astonishing portrayal of Oswald himself by Gary Oldman. In fact the film is such a heady, through-the-looking-glass rush that its flaws (the dialogue is super on-the-nose all the way through, especially in Garrison’s personal life; the accents often slip a bit; and having Candy say “Daddy-o” unironically is just plain wrong) are easy to overlook. Subsequent years may have seen many of its central arguments debunked more or less convincingly, but even if you believe it’s all nothing more than smoke and mirrors, three hours of this jittery, compelling storytelling amounts to a whole lot of smoke. And it still seems even now that roughly 60% of American citizens believe there couldn’t possibly be that much of it without some fire.

Flashpoint” (1984)
So while it may technically be a bit of a spoiler to include this film on this list, well, it’s been around since 1984, so we’re going to let that slide. In fact, “Flashpoint” was the first theatrical presentation from a certain Home Box Office production company, and if it never transcends a certain TV movie aesthetic, it’s surprising how much subtler and better it is than the average small-screen 80s thriller it might on the surface resemble. Taking a very askance view at a JFK assassination conspiracy (the name is never spoken, and it’s 40 minutes into the film before we even see a newspaper headline that refers to the event) the film stars Kris Kristofferson (frequently stripped to the waist which is SERIOUSLY ok with us) and Treat Williams as border control cop partners, who discover an old jeep buried in the desert for years that contains a skeleton, a rifle and $800,000.

It’s a testament to some intelligent writing and acting (Kristofferson is particularly good, however clothed he is) that what actually hooks us in more than the thrillerish aspects of “whose money was it?” and “why are all these suits from Washington (including Kurtwood Smith) suddenly swarming?” are the characterizations, and especially the affectionate relationship between the central pair. Kristofferson plays the older, more cynical, hard-drinking one, but yet he has great respect for his partner’s sincerity and good heartedness, and with a subtext about the end of an era (signaled by the installation of computer sensors that threaten their jobs and play an integral plot role later on) there’s an unexpected depth to some of the exchanges about duty and individualism and morality (though rarely in the context of catching immigrants, it should be said). In fact, the film spends a good portion of its running time following the two of them trying to work out is it’s morally ok for them to keep the money, which is pretty unique in itself. It’s a shame that certain elements do creak, though, especially the obligatory Tangerine Dream beats, Rip Torn’s unconvincingly grayed hair (indeed Rip Torn’s whole role is far too much of a narrative contrivance) and the occasional hokey slo-mo or “who are you?” screamed to the heavens, but with this the first feature from director William Tannen, we can perhaps overlook some of that. More to its detriment are some third-act issues and confusions when everything has to be resolved a little too hastily to really hold water, but nonetheless with its strong performances and restrained storytelling, the film provides an unusual and compelling portrait of the end of more innocent times in this small, scrubby patch of frontier America.

Executive Action” (1973)
It’s hard to believe that a film that was so controversial it was pulled from theaters, had no televised trailers, and was not seen on TV for a decade afterward, could be so dull, and yet here we have exhibit A: “Executive Action.” No doubt because since then we’ve had Oliver Stone’s far superior “JFK,” which also posits an alternate theory to the lone gunman official line, this dry, didactic film, which mainly features men watching televisions playing archive footage of JFK, or walking from room to room delivering dialogue that feels directly lifted from a dossier compiled by a highly uncreative clerk, is basically a slog. The great shame is that it does have an interesting premise: to tell the story of the alleged conspiracy (albeit one the filmmakers need us to know they are not saying did happen, just that it “could have”) but from the point of view of the conspirators. And yes, it does feature a plot that is heavily influenced by some of the theories that sprang up in the intervening decade: there are three shooters, triangulated; Oswald is a stooge; and Kennedy was assassinated by a cadre of sinister business and governmental interests that make common cause when his popularity and left-wing policies start to encroach too much on their right wing (and sometimes even eugenicist) worldviews. So there is some promise to the concept, especially as the film, despite its low budget, secured the stalwart talents of Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan (in his last screen role, sadly).

But the plodding pacing and leaden direction actually manage to make this most dastardly of intrigues feel boring, reducing the complex machinations of these high-powered individuals to a series of exposition-heavy talks delivered by some old codgers who don’t seem to have any real connection to the outside world, let alone personalities. Aside from those parts, we get documentary footage and then some segments relating to Oswald and Jack Ruby which, in their poor acting and awkward staging, feel more like a TV documentary’s “dramatic reconstruction” of events than actual cinematic storytelling. In the context of Watergate, which was happening at the time, perhaps the firestorm around the film’s release can be better understood, as it certainly does aim to further erode public faith in the “official” government-sanctioned version of events. However its self-seriousness and bone-dry tone of voice (containing none of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s usual brio) somehow work to make it all less convincing, and a postscript reference to the 18 “material witnesses” who died in the years following the killing, feels all the more exploitative for having no actual connection to the thrust of the film that has just numbed our asses for 90 interminable minutes.

Oswald’s Ghost” (2007)
The second of two directors named Stone to tackle this subject matter, documentarian Robert Stone’s 2007 film is a compelling, intricately researched and well-mounted addition to the canon, that may not add a great deal of new evidence, but nor does it really aim to. Instead it presents the story of the stories: it tracks the conflicting narratives that emerged in the aftermath of the assassination, via crisply restored archive footage, choice audio selections and talking head interviews with many of the theories’ own authors. It is perhaps a little heavily weighted in favor of Norman Mailer, especially as it gives him the last word and therefore the seeming summation of the film’s position (Oswald acted alone), when in fact overall it has presented a much more balanced view than that suggests, and at the midpoint seems to be arguing just as persuasively in the other direction. But while it’s a shame that Stone couldn’t seem to find a way to end it on a more equivocal note, there is still plenty to be impressed by here, not least just how well, and fluidly, the director knits together the various documentary elements at his disposal to create an overarching narrative which really is about the nature of conspiracy theories. The desire to identify a conspiracy, he suggests, is a natural offshoot of wanting to believe that there is order, no matter how evil and secret and corrupt, rather than chaos. As one commentator memorably puts it, people want to understand “how someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald could have killed someone as consequential as John F Kennedy.”

Along the way, Stone talks to many of the journalists and authors who were among the first to cry “conspiracy,” rather humorously sideswipes Jim Garrison (the various accounts of the numerology by which he gets from some random numbers found in Oswald’s notebook to Jack Ruby’s phone number are pretty hilarious), and even finds time to include footage of Oliver Stone on the set of “JFK,” (of which film, of course, Jim Garrison was the hero.) Most interestingly, he sets up a strong, layered context against which the various strands of conspiracy thought (CIA? Mafia? The Russians? LBJ?) unfold, and, in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, relates the assassinations of Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—not so much in terms of the whos or the hows, but in terms of their cumulative effect on the nation as a staggered but crushing fall from grace. Coupled with escalation in Vietnam (which one talking head posits was the result of LBJ’s personal conviction that Kennedy had been killed in reprisal for the assassination of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem just weeks prior), the assassinations and their aftermath, Stone argues, irrevocably changed the nature of the relationship between the government and the people, and therefore fundamentally altered the nation’s sense of itself.

The Parallax View” (1974)
The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy (“Klute” and “All The President’s Men” being the other two) may be the least of the three, but that’s a pretty high bar. And while its relationship to the Kennedy assassination is tacit, it’s nonetheless unmistakably inspired not just by the events on Dealey Plaza, but by the climate of suspicion that sprang up afterwards, with regards to the shady agendas and high-level secrets that many believed were keeping the truth concealed. The association is planted early, with the assassination of a Kennedy-esque senator and the immediate death of his alleged killer, one who we know did not act alone. A monolithic, faceless “Commission” declares the killing the work of one deranged gunman, and that seems to be that until people who were witnesses to the shooting start dying off an an actuarially improbable rate. Warren Beatty’s hangdoggish but handsome reporter picks up the trail and finds it leads to a corporation called Parallax, which he infiltrates under an assumed name at which point the film’s thinly-stretched real-life parallels finally reach their elastic limit.

In fact, the paranoia premise, pursued to the degree it is here, simply undercuts the film’s plotting—it’s never explained who the Parallax Corporation are, what (if anything ) is their political agenda, and how they could possibly be so all powerful as to constantly be one step ahead of the game, even in situations where there’s seemingly no way they could have found out what they know. And the absence of politics altogether makes a glaring omission from the film—all we know about the bad guys is that they are Bad and Do Bad Things for incomprehensible reasons. One can’t help but think that as a reporter, Beatty’s journalist would want to find out not just who killed the Senator but why, but instead the Parallax Corporation serves as the film’s biggest Maguffin, and ensures that what starts off as a taut, promising and jittery investigative thriller, gets caught up in an overly twisty who-is-fooling-who box of tricks in its third act, which is also where the pace starts to lag. The final minutes do provide a strong dismount however, as we realize that what we’ve been watching is not so much just a fiction loosely inspired by JFK’s assassination, but actually a subtly wrong-footing meditation on how it might feel to find yourself the “patsy” that Oswald always claimed to be (retrospectively, you can see how Beatty’s character is unwittingly playing into their hands a lot of the time). But when the ultimate architects of this elaborate plot are faceless, motiveless entities, hidden behind the smokescreen of a shady fictional Corporation, it’s difficult to really see how, if at all, the film repays the interest it borrows from the real-life assassination.

Winter Kills” (1979)
Well, who’da thought a JFK-inspired conspiracy thriller could be so… zany? That “Winter Kills,” with the awesome cast of Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Toshiro Mifune, Eli Wallach, Dorothy Malone and a mute cameo from Elizabeth Taylor, is meant as roughly analogous to the Kennedy murder is undeniable, right down to naming similarities: President Kegan, scion of the fabulously wealthy and powerful Kegan family, is assassinated by a man who is himself then assassinated by nightclub owner Joe Diamond, before being declared the sole madman behind the President’s death by an independent committee. But from that recognizable framework, the film veers off, lurching in such odd directions, and from comedy to paranoid thriller to adventure story to we know not what, that really it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but has a weird culty charm nonetheless.

In fact the film is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Condon, also the author of “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” so no stranger to black-comedy-edged satires about government or organized crime then. But whether neophyte director William Richert just isn’t up to the task or whether the production’s manifold woes (already shut down three times for running over budget, shooting went on hiatus for two years after one of the marijuana-dealing producers was killed by the mafia and the other arrested and later sentenced to 40 years for drug smuggling) simply made the whole package too difficult to hold together, the film is an tonally unwieldy and often bewildering hotchpotch, though its way OTT performances (MVPs: Huston and Perkins) keep it all inexplicably entertaining. Bridges doesn’t fare so well having the majority of the screen time and therefore the majority of the film’s enormous leaps in character logic to negotiate; at times, as the spotlight-shy brother of the deceased President now on the trail of the real killer, he’s dogged and tough, at others he’s uncomprehending and frightened, when elsewhere he’s lovelorn and conflicted. Characters pop up and then reappear just when you’d forgotten they’d ever been there at all; people you didn’t think were important come back from the dead with no explanation; others die after such a long trail of double or treble crossing that we’re really not sure if we’re supposed to be happy or sad about it. Why is Toshiro Mifune here? What’s the deal with the mother’s dog? Why is that orgasm so loud? It all makes so little sense we kinda want to watch it again immediately. At heart it’s got the same corporate/surveillance/power elite paranoia that many of the other films on this list do, but “Winter Kills” whether deliberately making this point or not, leaves you smirking at the outlandish silliness of it all. Which makes it perhaps the most outrageous and yet ultimately conservative film on the list.

Interview With The Assassin” (2002)
Director Neil Burger’s had a strangely spotty subsequent career (though “Limitless” being a surprise hit snagged him next year’s YA hopeful “Divergent”), but his first feature is a well-imagined and clever use of limited resources that works brilliantly until an unfortunately dramatically overstretched final quarter. A mockumentary shot on ugly but appropriate video, it follows an ordinary, down-on-his-luck cameraman Ron (Dylan Haggerty), whose dying neighbor (Raymond J. Barry) confesses to him on camera that he was the second gunman that day in November. In fact, he was the one who, from the grassy knoll, fired the shot that actually killed Kennedy. Veteran Barry (best known recently as Arlo Givens in “Justified”) delivers such a note-perfect characterization of the would-be killer, Walter Ohlinger, as an irascible, antagonistic asshole that it really convinces us that were such a man to exist, he’d probably be exactly like this: a bitter, broken but megalomaniacal sociopath. And couching the film in the flat banality of cheap suburban houses and roadside diners also lends a kind of brilliant counterpoint, as Walter expounds on his own pathetic motives for agreeing to do something as extraordinary kill a president in the most un-extraordinary of surroundings.

So obviously, from the outset, the film’s premise is based on undermining the idea of Oswald as the lone gunman, but Burger also pulls back from that agenda, preserving the ambiguity of Ohlinger’s possible truthfulness or possible self-aggrandizing mendacity right to the end. And that’s to the film’s benefit, as it becomes as much a character study of a potentially deranged man as it does a political thriller. In fact, politics are notably absent, with Ohlinger himself having no particular political motivation for the killing, and with him describing his own position on the food chain as being such that he only knew his direct contact, and not who actually arranged the hit, or why. All of this feels uncannily, cleverly plausible, but then the film swerves into melodrama as both Ohlinger and the cameraman/interviewer’s paranoia starts to take over and eventually Ohlinger goes to extreme lengths to convince Ron that he’s telling the truth, even culminating in a suspension-of-disbelief-shattering sequence featuring the current President, which sells out the “documentary” feel because it’s clearly an actor and the circumstances of the scene totally unbelievable. It’s a great pity, because honestly, Barry is so good, he almost had us going for a moment there. Still, a worthy addition to the JFK conspiracy canon unusual for giving us a kind of pawn’s-eye view of the assassination, that does prompt us to remember that whether it was Oswald or some other guy, it wasn’t a chimera, it was some person, some individual with a history and a character and a reason, (however nuts) who shot the fatal bullet that day.

“Parkland” (2013)
The idea of a Paul Greengrass-esque documentary-style film following the men and women (mostly men) on the ground on and around the day of JFK’s assassination is an immediately appealing one, especially timed for release on the 50th anniversary, so it’s not surprising that Peter Landesman‘s debut feature “Parkland” attracted Tom Hanks as a producer, and picked up a prestigious competition slot at the Venice Film Festival (you can read our full review here). It is more surprising that the film, which got a limited U.S. release in October and is now out on DVD, turned out so incredibly thin, mostly wasting a talented cast, and more often than not inspiring unintentional laughter. Focusing, never in any particular depth, on the medical staff (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Marcia Gay Harden), the secret service and FBI (Billy Bob Thornton, Ron Livingston, David Harbour), and the ordinary folk (Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, who filmed the president’s death, James Badge Dale and Jacki Weaver as the family of Lee Harvey Oswald) who lived through that fateful day in Dallas, Landesman’s going for a docu-drama feel, and does at least pull out a few interesting details for the JFK fanatic. But the film feels like a TV movie, with questionable production values and some poorly judged acting (Weaver chews through scenery till there’s little left, and Efron never convinces as a medical man), and the writing and filmmaking are decidedly B-grade. Occasionally, it brushes against a more interesting movie: James Badge Dale is by far the best thing in the film, and there’s real meat to his character’s storyline. But anyone looking for a definitive take on November 22nd, 1963 is likely to be left wanting, and anyone hoping to see more light shed on any of the conspiracy theories should definitely go elsewhere. Not only does it place such speculation beyond its purview, in fact the director’s avowed intention was to demonstrate to the audience “That the simple truth is more powerful than the more sparkly graphic conspiracy theory.”

The subject has been tackled time and again on television—”Killing Kennedy,” “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald” (1977) and “Ruby and Oswald” being just a few of the TV movies dealing with it, while miniseries “The Kennedys” concluded with the immediate aftermath of the JFK and RFK assassinations. More tangentially, but maybe more interestingly too, Kennedy’s killing provided the basis for two time-travel episodes on long-running TV shows: “The Twilight Zone“‘s “Profile in Silver” and the “Lee Harvey Oswald” episode of this writer’s beloved “Quantum Leap“—both of which provide compelling, sci-fi-ish alternate history takes on this most historic event.

Back in movieland, there’s a Larry Buchanan 1964 film “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald,” which we were unable to track down in time, and at the more experimental end, Andy Warhol‘s “Since” (complete with banana gun and couch motorcade) and video art piece “The Eternal Frame” both try to contend with the artificiality of the media representations of the assassination. And of course, it has formed a subplot in a few Hollywood films set during that period or after, notably the underseen “Love Field” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert, as backstory for Clint Eastwood‘s character in Secret Service thriller “In the Line of Fire,” and more recently as one of the many momentous events that occurs during the tenure of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” 

Did any of these, or any other films, influence your opinion on the events of that fateful day? Do you believe, like Kevin Costner in “JFK” that a huge conspiracy was at work, or like Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham” that “Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone”? Chime in below and let us know. — with Oli Lyttelton

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