THE MOST common image of the assassination of President Kennedy is embedded in the collective consciousness due to the fact that it was the subject of what may be the most-seen film in history, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second home movie, grainy and garish in color and fact. The more recent eruption of reality television may have left us nearly unshockable, but a long, hard look at Zapruder’s short, hard film is still horrifying. The most provocative context in which I’ve seen the film located is Stephen Sondheim’s meaty musical Assassins. The Broadway production had Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald with the film projected onto his white T-shirt. That the show took place at Studio 54 served to underline the demonic bargain at the intersection of the military-industrial-circus complex: The nightclub theater location satirized the fact that our stories about killing can either critique the cultural appetite for destruction or serve to perpetuate more of it as a form of entertainment.
If Assassins was the most provocative screen for the Zapruder film, the most politically complex is Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK, now being rereleased to mark the assassination anniversary. It’s one of the greatest examples of cinematic craft applied to polemic (current examples are Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave)—edited like a dance, with a television miniseries’ worth of big name actors (Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, John Candy) in small roles holding up the edifice of big speechifying done by Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a thrilling film, and it has intellectual substance—the point is not whether or not the conspiracy theory posited in JFK is true, but that human beings “sin by silence” when we should speak.
The films of Zapruder and Stone are ostensibly used to mark the martyrdom of a good king, but of course that story is more often put to the purpose of birthing new fear-mongering rituals, denying shared responsibility for civic life, obfuscating the heart of the matter that killing always makes things worse, and becoming a justification for sending more people to die.
Fifty years ago, a kind of innocence was taken, and a kind of brokenness remains unrepaired: We can watch footage of the murder of a king on YouTube any time we like, but we haven’t lamented his death or reckoned with its meaning. The Zapruder film, of course, is like the videos telegraphing the in-the-moment horror of the destruction of the Twin Towers, and we haven’t lamented or properly mourned that either. President Kennedy, flawed and hopeful, wanted to challenge the idea of “Pax Americana, forced on the world” with the notion that “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.” A decent memorial still awaits.
Gareth Higgins, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. He is the author of the new book Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies (Burnside Books).