A young president gunned down in the prime of his career, his glamorous wife at his side. A mysterious assassin who fired the fatal shots with almost unbelievable precision and who was shot to death before he could answer questions about whether he’d acted alone.
Rumors of mysterious figures around the grassy knoll. Questions about the so-called “magic bullet.”
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, not only was a monumental tragedy for the country, it offered up one of the most compelling murder mysteries of our time — a story that seemed almost as if it had been scripted for Hollywood.
So it’s no surprise that over the past 50 years, the Kennedy assassination has played out again and again in film and television, a sign of the endless fascination with a story that shocked the world.
“It remains this insoluble question because the absolute positive proof of what happened that day is probably irretrievable. The people who could ultimately clear it up aren’t around anymore,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It is one of the greatest American mysteries. ‘Who was Deep Throat’ was up there with it, and that’s over. And unlike the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot, we are talking about the death of a sitting American president. There is no bigger drama than that.”
Since 1963, more than dozen films have tackled the assassination — either as a primary subject or as the backdrop for other drama.
Perhaps the most famous film to take on the assassination was Oliver Stone’s 1991 thriller “JFK,” which embraced conspiracy theories that shooter Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. Stone’s film was a major hit, grossing more than $200 million worldwide, and it planted new seeds of doubt among younger moviegoers about whether the Warren Commission was right when it ruled that Oswald had fired the fatal shots.
The film’s iconic scene features Kevin Costner, who plays a district attorney in New Orleans who doesn’t buy the Oswald theory, watching a gruesome clip from the film of the assassination shot by onlooker Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera. Costner's character argues that the clip proves the shot that killed Kennedy came from in front of him, not behind him, where Oswald was positioned in the school book depository — and to prove it, he plays the clip again and again to show the movement of Kennedy’s head during the last fatal shot.
“Back, and to the left,” Costner says again and again.
Released almost 30 years after the killing, Stone’s film was controversial but it received a more positive reception than 1973’s “Executive Action,” another movie that suggested Oswald had not acted alone. The film, starring Burt Lancaster, was the subject of outrage from almost the very beginning. Many television stations around the country refused to run ads for the movie, and many theaters ended up showing the film for only a week — suggesting the public wasn’t ready to begin debating conspiracy theories about the assassination.
There were films about other players in the saga, including “Ruby and Oswald,” a 1978 made-for-television movie that centered around Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who fatally shot Oswald two days after the assassination. That was followed by the 1992 film “Ruby,” which suggested the mafia was behind the JFK killing.
And then there were films that build their dramas around the backdrop of the assassination, including 1991’s “In the Line of Fire,” which starred Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent who had been on the Kennedy detail that day in Dallas. More recently, there was “Parkland,” which followed the chaotic events at Dallas' Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead.
On television, films inspired by the Kennedy assassination have been prolific — with countless miniseries, including “The Kennedys,” a 2011 production starring Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy and Greg Kinnear as JFK that cast the family akin to the Corleones in “The Godfather.”
And just this month, ahead of the anniversary of the assassination, Ginnifer Goodwin and Rob Lowe played the first couple in “Killing Kennedy,” a film that aired on the National Geographic Channel that was based on a book co-written by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
Part of the interest has been fueled by the baby boom generation, which was just old enough to remember the horror of that day.
“It’s remained an obsession because the generation that grew up with the assassination in their rear-view mirror is still around and are among the key media consumers and media producers,” says Art Simon, a film studies professor at Montclair State University who wrote the book, “Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film.” “But I wonder once this generation is gone, whether the fascination will continue. … The farther we get away from it, the less of a hold it has on us.”
There is at least one sign that the assassination is no longer the somber topic for the country that it once was. While comedians were once booed off the stage as late as the late 1970s for making jokes even related to the Kennedy killing, one of the most famous episodes of the sitcom “Seinfeld” referenced the assassination in a scene making fun of Stone’s “JFK” film.
The episode, which aired in 1992, featured a Zapruder-style retelling of when Kramer and Newman were spit on at a New York Mets game. They blamed Mets legend Keith Hernandez, but in a re-creation mocking Stone’s film, Jerry disputed the theory of a “magic loogie” and instead fingered a “second spitter.”
“It kind of surprised me when I saw it,” Thompson said. “But the way they got away with it by not coming off as completely tasteless was because it was making fun of Oliver Stone.”