Friday, November 22, 2013

The Cinematic Legacy Of The Kennedy Assassination

As today is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Film Babble Blog looks back at the cinematic legacy of the history changing event:

I’m 44 years old, so I wasn’t alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But since the events of that tragic day in November of 1963, 50 years ago today, have been so thoroughly covered from every conceivable angle in countless movies, TV shows, and documentaries, not only do I feel like I was alive then; I feel as if I had actually been there smack dab in the middle of Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, on that fateful date with a better view of the historic hit than Abraham Zapruder had.

Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy theory epic, JFK is largely to blame for planting such vivid yet false memories in my psyche, but it was an obscure film that I saw on television when I was a kid that laid the foundation. It was David Miller’s 1973 political thriller EXECUTIVE ACTION, the first film * produced about the assassination.

Told from the point of view of the evil men in power, including Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan as shadowy co-conspirators who plot Kennedy’s killing right down to the last detail, the low budget docudrama postulates many of the same theories, mostly having to do with alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald being a patsy, that Stone would later do up with higher production values in JFK.

EXECUTIVE ACTION largely drew upon the work of New York Legislator Mark Lane, whose 1966 bestselling book “Rush To Judgement” heavily criticized the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Throughout the ‘70s, the consensus that something much more sinister was up than what the public record allowed, was evident all over pop culture.

Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) defined the label “paranoid thriller” (see also Sydney Pollack's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, 1975) by building upon assassination theories with a premise about an evil company (the Parallax Corporation) that's behind pivotal political plots. Warren Beatty plays a reporter that tries to unravel the conspiracy, but ends up being unwittingly trained to be an assassin himself. A scene in which Beatty is brainwashed by a recruiting film, satirized in Ben Stiller's ZOOLANDER, gives a good idea of the movie's sinister tone:

In Woody Allen’s Oscar winning 1977 comedy ANNIE HALL, comedian protagonist Alvy Singer obsesses over the possibility that there was a second assassin to the point that a girl he briefly dates (Carol Kane) states bluntly the he’s “using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid having sex” with her. This surely received a lot of laughter from hip in-the-know audiences at the time, since post Watergate distrust of the government was at an all time high.

That same year, John Landis' KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, the first film to feature the comedy stylings of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) of AIRPLANE! and NAKED GUN fame included a commercial parody for a fictitious Parker Brothers' board game called Scot Free. A four member family is seated around a kitchen table playing the game, made up of a miniature mock-up of Dealey Plaza, as a voice-over announcer sets up the premise: “Your team has just assassinated the President - can you get away scot free? Shake the dice and see...

A few years later, a surreal and somewhat comical take on the cluster of conspiracy theories came along: William Richert’s WINTER KILLS (1979), starring Jeff Bridges as Nick Keegan, the brother of a slain President, of course, the victim of secret forces. The controversial film didn’t get much of a theatrical run, VHS copies of it were rare, and its out of print now on DVD (a 2003 edition of it can be found on eBay) so it’s a bit of obscure title that few people have heard of, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Bridges’ very “un-Dude” performance as the Robert Kennedy-ish hero neatly heads an impressive cast including John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Elizabeth Taylor and ToshirĂ´ Mifune in an outlandish scenario yet again involving evil men pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The usual suspects of mobsters, the military, and power hungry oil barons are trotted out, as Bridges investigates the wide-ranging suspected cover-up.

Apart from the TV miniseries “Kennedy” starring Martin Sheen, and various PBS documentaries, the ‘80s were relatively free of movie treatments of the mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassination, but it’s funny to note that in Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM (1988), Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis delivered a speech to Susan Sarandon listing his core beliefs, and one of them was “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”

A few years later, Costner would be speechifying the complete opposite at length as New Orleans investigator Jim Garrison in Stone’s before mentioned opus, which recently played at the Crossroads in Cary to mark the anniversary. 

Stone’s movie is the biggest production to date dealing with the events of November 22nd, 1963, and definitely the most star studded. The film is largely accountable for the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game because Bacon appears alongside a cast that features seemingly everybody who was working in the early ‘90s including such A-listers as Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, Sissy Spacek, and so on.

These folks help distill the information Stone displays down to further his theory, informed by decades of other’s research and speculation, that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy that stretched through the military industrial complex, involving the CIA, and anti-Castro Cuban nationals. Newsweek welcomed Stone’s movie with a cover story that had the headline: “The Twisted Truth of ‘JFK’: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted,” yet in the same issue had a very favorable review of the film by David Ansen. That sums it up neatly: JFK is an entertaining and thought provoking movie, but it’s just a movie, it shouldn’t be taken as historical record.

In the years after JFK, Danny Aiello played Jack Ruby, the Texas nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald in RUBY, Clint Eastwood played a Secret Service agent who was in Kennedy’s detail that day in Dallas in IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993), and the long running Fox television program The X-Files revealed that its chief antagonist, the Smoking Man played by William B. Davis, was the real gunman who shot the President from inside a sewer drain along the route of the motorcade.

Yep, JFK’s tagline, “The story that won’t go away,” really is truth in advertising.

More recently, Peter Landesman’s drama PARKLAND, concerning the aftermath of the assassination with another cast of big names (Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Effron) partly set at Parkland Hospital where Kennedy’s body was taken after the shooting, played briefly last September at the Raleigh Grande. The film effectively captures the chaos and confusion in the air on Nov. 22, 1963 and the days after, but it’s not concerned at all with conspiracy, and it doesn’t really add anything to the cinematic history of the world-changing events of that date.

Neither does the National Geographic Channel’s telefilm adaptation of Bill O’ Reilly’s best seller “Killing Kennedy,” which premiered earlier this month, though there’s some fun to be had watching Rob Lowe take on the President’s Boston accent. O’Reilly isn’t a fan of conspiracy theories so it’s a pretty dry run through the facts.

We may never get the answers to the questions about what really went down that day, but one thing’s for sure: whether it’s another feature film, a new documentary (there are tons of them on cable these days), or an episode of a ‘60s-set TV show (Mad Men did their Nov. 22, 1963 episode in their third season), we are destined to relive the JFK assassination again and again until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

* Mel Stuart's 1964 documentary FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER was technically the first film produced about the assassination, but this essay concerns the dramatizations of the event.

More later...

1 comment:

Joe C said...

Nice treatment, but you do not mention the best film evidence we have-- the Abraham Zapruder film.

Any student of physics will see how Kennedy's head moves toward the back of the car. If Oswald was behind and above that means at least 1 more other shooter.

I always love the "22 material witnesses die of unnatural causes" so gleefully proclaimed in the "Scot Free" Kentucky Fried Movie clip. What are the chances of that?