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?
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 Stone’s 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.
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.