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50th Anniversary: 8 JFK Assassination Films That Revisit History

Indiewire By Jessica Kiang | Indiewire November 20, 2013 at 2:09PM

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?
8


Winter Kills

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

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

"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

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Parkland, Oliver Stone, Neil Burger

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