Film’s Failed Quest to Understand JFK’s Death
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.