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50th Anniversary: 8 JFK Assassination Films That Revisit History

by Jessica Kiang
November 20, 2013 2:09 PM
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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” (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" (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

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  • BAD BLAKE | November 26, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    I bought this book :)

    http://img1.imagesbn dot com/p/9781932958522_p0_v1_s260x420.jpg

    peter travers 1000 best movies on dvd

    I went from A to Z

    and towards the end of the book 'winter kills' was one that caught my eye

    intoxicating atmosphere
    a clever script
    great performances jeff bridges.. john Huston and Anthony perkins

  • angel jonathan | November 26, 2013 5:47 PMReply

    Wow, kudos for not being snarky about "conspiracy theories" in this piece. Given 90% of the media coverage for the anniversary supporting the lone shooter hypothesis, quite an accomplishment indeed.

  • the sayer of the truth | November 24, 2013 4:36 PMReply

    50 years ago Lee Harvey Oswald became the biggest patsy in history, the real killer is probably still out there, now 75 years old and living on nothing but beluga caviar and pink champagne, what a bizarre world ! ! !.

  • Pandera | November 21, 2013 4:43 PMReply

    Parkland Hospital is not only the place where JFK died, but where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died two days later, and also where Oswald's own assassin, Jack Ruby, also died four years later.

    Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it something about Parkland that caused all these people to coincidentally die in the same place?

    Parkland has come under fire recently from government regulators, at one point losing its Medicare status, and is currently on 7 straight years of federal probation for patient care lapses and fraud. Many patients who come to Parkland die for no reason at all.

    It’s no coincidence. You can read about the intriguing back story about Parkland and the JFK assassination on the website, "The Parkland Orgy of Death."

  • William Urban | November 21, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    ("Peter Landesman is vehement in his personal conviction, about the truth of the lone gunman theory").

    Based on the above statement by director Peter Landesman, I doubt I will rush to the cinema to view his movie, "Parkland" regarding the assassination of President Kennedy tomorrow. Aside from the fact that I have invested 47 years of my life investigating this foul crime, through two Wars, (Vietnam/Yom Kippur) and two Branches of the Military, (US Army/US Navy) and having qualified "Expert" with weapons while in the military, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind, that a conspiracy WAS involved, in the murder of the 35th President.

    I have compared Oswald's Rifle Scores in the Marine Corps, with my Rifle Scores in the Army. I could shoot circles around Oswald and I was never even in the Marine Corps. I could not have done what Oswald was supposed to have done: (i.e. fire three shots in less than 6 seconds, inflicting two wounds on President Kennedy and five wounds on Governor Connelly). Nor, (by his own admission), could US Marine Corps Sniper and Vietnam Veteran, Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock.

    Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, USMC, was the best "Sniper" we had in Vietnam. He single-handedly took out a Viet Cong sniper, (named the "Cobra"), who was raising hell with US Forces in the Danang area and later killed a North Vietnamese Army General with one shot through the head, at a great distance. In the case of the "Cobra", Hathcock stalked this elusive Viet Cong sniper for weeks, before finally pinning him down and killing him with a single shot through the Cobra's right eye.

    Normally Marines are considered the best, when it comes to competition shooting with other branches of the military. In Oswald's case, he fails miserably. Hathcock said before he died, not even he could have done what Oswald was supposed to have done, with 3 shots in just 5.6 seconds, with an old World War Two vintage Italian Rifle, that was considered absolutely worthless, (the bolt stuck, the windage was off, the leverage was off). The rifle that Oswald owned, (but did not fire), was called by the Italians during WWII, "The Rifle that never hurt anybody........on purpose".

    I would advise Peter Landesman to contact Professor Jim Marrs of Springtown, Texas, before he makes any more movies. Author, Journalist and Professor Jim Marrs spent 25 years investigating Kennedy's assassination before his book: "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy" was published in 1990. He taught a course in "Assassinations" at the University of Texas, in Arlington, Texas, for 30 years. He is something of an expert, when it comes to this subject.

    Likewise, Peter Landesman should also make contact with former New York City Attorney, ("Solicitor" in England), Mark Lane. Attorney Mark Lane worked on John F. Kennedy's 1960 Presidential campaign and helped deliver the State of New York's 45 electoral votes in the General Election. Following the assassination, Mark Lane flew to Dallas, Texas and began his own investigation into the murder of the President, much to the displeasure of the Warren Commission, which was formed a week after the assassination. Mark Lane soon began coming up with eyewitnesse accounts of both the assassination and the murder of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippet, which were far different, than the conclusions reached by the Warren Commission.

    Oswald's own Mother, Margarite Oswald, was so impressed with Attorney Mark Lane, that she retained him to represent her Son, Lee Harvey Oswald, before the Warren Commission, since Oswald obviously could not represent himself, having been silenced by Jack Ruby, when Ruby shot Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail. Mark Lane went on to write the book: "Rush To Judgement", which was published in 1965 and became the first book to seriously question the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Since then, Mark Lane has published two additional books on this subject: "Plausable Denial: Was The CIA Involved In The Assassination Of President Kennedy" (1990) and "Last Word: My Indictment Of The CIA In The Assassination Of President Kennedy", (2007).

    Has Peter Landesman ever read the 888 page Warren Report? Or the 26 Volumes of Supporting Evidence, from which the final 888 page Report is drawn? If he has, (as I have), Peter Landesman will find numerous errors in the final 888 page report. He will find, (as I have), that much crucial testimony given in sworn avidavit's by eyewitnesses, was left out of the final 888 page report.

    He may even be forced to relinquish his personal conviction, about the truth of the lone-gunman theory.

    William P. Urban
    SGT US Army
    PO2 US Navy
    Vietnam (Quang Nam Province) 1970
    Yom Kippur (Suez Canal) 1974

  • MikeD | November 20, 2013 8:58 PMReply

    Interview with the assassin is awesome, especially the first half

  • RON KOVIC | November 26, 2013 10:26 PM

    Raymond J Barry is a real scene stealer in

    falling down
    the chamber
    and best of all..
    his indie spirit award nominated performance in STEEL CITY

  • Taylor Jones | November 20, 2013 7:26 PMReply

    Errol Morris's "The Umbrella Man" is nice and only six minutes long.

    There should be a link to the short film in an "errol morris umbrella man" Google search.

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