Like most Americans living today, I was born after November 22, 1963, so I don't remember John F. Kennedy and can't tell you where I was when news broke of his assassination. So here's what I know about the man, his presidency, and his death, thanks to the history professors of Hollywood.
Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection
Let me see if I have this right: JFK was a handsome man with the charisma of a movie star. (Indeed, he had connections to Hollywood through his father, a onetime movie producer; through his brother-in-law Peter Lawford and fellow Rat Packer Frank Sinatra; and through his torrid affair with Marilyn Monroe.) Through his youth, good looks, charisma, and forward-looking rhetoric, he inspired a nation to stop wearing hats, build rockets to the moon, and join the Peace Corps. His even more attractive, youthful, stylish, and patrician wife Jackie swept out the dowdy cobwebs of the Eisenhower years and turned the White House into a palace of highbrow culture and tasteful decorations. On weekends, the pair took their two adorable toddlers and retreated to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod for sailing and touch football with a brood of toothy Kennedy siblings and cousins.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, through sheer force of personality, Kennedy prevented the Soviets from starting World War III by staring down Nikita Khrushchev until the latter blinked. It's not clear what else he accomplished in office, but he always had his brother, attorney general Bobby Kennedy, by his side, to give him sound advice or to play bad cop with J. Edgar Hoover.
The Kennedy years were so idyllic for America that they were known as "Camelot." (Except it was Arthur this time, not Guinevere, who slept around.) But Kennedy still had a shadowy cabal of enemies -- the Mafia, the military-industrial complex (which wanted him to ramp up the hostilities in Vietnam), pro-Castro Cuban communists, anti-Castro Cuban anti-communists, disgruntled Secret Service agents, homosexual New Orleans businessmen, what have you. The conspirators managed to kill Kennedy in Dallas, then kill the patsy fingered by the police (Lee Harvey Oswald, an anonymous loser who was also, paradoxically, a well-trained operative), then kill Oswald's killer (mob-connected Jack Ruby). They weren't taking any chances with loose ends. Even Robert F. Kennedy's assassination five years later, on the presidential campaign trail -- you think that was a coincidence?
America was a nation of childlike innocents before November 22, 1963. After that, we were a cruelly disillusioned people, and the violence and bitterness unleashed by the assassination led directly to all the unpleasantness of the '60s -- the Civil Rights protest marches, the Vietnam War, hippies, drugs, the sexual revolution, urban riots, more assassinations, the election of Richard Nixon, Watergate, and our inability ever to trust our government again. We were forced to mature and become cynical and grow up in a hurry, and we've never been the same as we were in that brief and shining moment that was Camelot.
OK, maybe I exaggerated a little, but that's pretty much the myth of JFK that Hollywood has promulgated over the last 50 years. It may or may not bear much relationship to the truth, but it's a great story, the tragedy of a man, a woman, and a nation, a drama we ritually reenact every time a new JFK movie (or TV show, or book) comes out.
Indeed, Hollywood began building the myth even before the assassination. Two movies that came out while Kennedy was still in office set the template. One was 1963's "PT-109," which extolled the president's leadership and heroism when he was still a young naval lieutenant in World War II. Cliff Robertson played the future commander-in-chief as a leader with a common touch, well-liked by his underlings, as well as a man of remarkable physical courage who dragged his men to safety after their boat was torpedoed. That combination of the folksy noblesse oblige and heroism in a crisis set the pattern for how Kennedy would be portrayed on film ever after.
The other film was the eerily prescient "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), with its depiction of a dark conspiracy, double agents, and a political assassination with a sniper rifle. After JFK was killed, the movie was yanked from circulation for years out of sensitivity, but its air of all-consuming paranoia -- that anyone could be a conspirator, and no one could be trusted -- became the dominant mode in spy movies and political thrillers ever after. Indeed, just a few months after the assassination, "Manchurian" director John Frankenheimer released "Seven Days in May," a conspiracy thriller about a military coup aimed at deposing the president.
The Warren Commission came out with its report concluding that Oswald had acted alone, but its findings were met with widespread skepticism, not just because its evidence was incomplete, but because it made for a terrible story, in movie terms. The fall of a powerful leader seemed to demand an equally powerful cabal of conspirators, or at least a comprehensible agenda. There's something reassuring in the notion that it would take a great deal of planning among high-level conspirators in order to bring down the leader of the free world; conversely, the idea that the assassination was something a lone nut could accomplish with relative ease offers only existential terror, a sense that we live in a universe without order or justice.
The conspiracy industry, however --- and starting with Mark Lane's book "Rush to Judgment" and Emile de Antonio's documentary based on the book, JFK conspiracy theorizing did become an industry -- offered a kind of comfort: the universe really does make sense, it's just that powerful interests are trying to hide the truth from you. "Rush to Judgment" became the template, not just for every JFK assassination documentary ever made ("new" evidence and witnesses coming forward," grainy stills of images familiar from Abraham Zapruder's unwitting snuff film), but also for the entire careers of smorgasbord conspiracy-mongers like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones.
Watergate and Vietnam only cemented the air of distrust of our own government. In 1974, the year President Nixon resigned over Watergate, Alan J. Pakula directed the movie "The Parallax View," in which crusading reporter Warren Beatty uncovers a conspiracy behind a political assassination that involves government collusion with corporate interests. Two years later, Pakula would direct "All the President's Men, in which real-life crusading reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the real-life conspiracy behind Watergate.
By that time, the paranoia and suspicion cultivated by the fictional "Parallax" was a given, yet the real-life conspiracy detailed so compellingly in "President's Men" was ultimately much more mundane. It was missing an assassination, something that seemed to be increasingly de rigeur in movies about America and its politics. Even Robert Altman's 1975 "Nashville," which culminates in a political rally in the country music capital, ends with a lone-gunman assassination, but everyone just keeps on singing. Then there was "Taxi Driver," where a lone nut nearly kills a Democratic presidential candidate, more out of a bid for attention than out of any political agenda. There's simply an undercurrent of violence in the American character, one that occasionally bubbles to the surface and claims a body count, these movies seemed to suggest, with a shrug. We might be shocked by individual killings, but we were learning to live with that strain of violence as part of everyday life in the U.S.A.
Kennedy conspiracy theorizing even found its way into a movie as unlikely as "Annie Hall," where Woody Allen satirically suggested that the obsession was a masturbatory one, a channeling of sexual energy that distracts us from connecting with the people who are important to us. Meanwhile, movies continued to ritually reenact the assassination ("Winter Kills," "The Greek Tycoon," and even horror film "The Dead Zone," where the targeted presidential candidate was played by Martin Sheen, who'd made a career out of playing Kennedys).
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Baby Boomer filmmakers made coming-of-age stories that had little to do with Kennedy but were set in 1963, with the year itself serving as a cheap shorthand for the loss of innocence and transition to adulthood. Movies like "The Flamingo Kid," "Dirty Dancing," "Mermaids," and "A Perfect World" didn't have to spell it out for you, they just had to mention 1963 and imply a sense of dread over the horrors yet to come that November as a metaphor for sudden disillusionment and having to grow up fast.
Of course, the key movie at the center of the aggregated Kennedy mythology is 1991's "JFK," which Warner Bros. has graciously re-released in a handful theaters nationwide just in time to for the 50th anniversary of what the movie claims is a massive failure of justice. Oliver Stone's movie is a piece of brilliant filmmaking, conveying huge blocks of information in a visually exciting way. The information may all be hooey, but you can't deny the film's bravura technique. Stone doesn't really come up with a coherent conspiracy theory, but through his "Mr. X" character (Donald Sutherland), he spins enough doubt about the official history to form the basis of any conspiracy theory you like. It doesn't much matter to Stone which powerful interest group contracted the hit because Stone isn't really interested in Kennedy's politics. Indeed, even though the movie is named for him, Kennedy is absent from it as a character and is a complete cipher, important not at all for how he lived, only for how he died.
Following Stone's film was a mini-wave of movies about what happened in Dealey Plaza, including "Love Field" and "Ruby." But more important, Stone juiced a new wave of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing, as exemplified by "The X-Files" TV series and 1998 movie, that ran far afield from even the wackiest Kennedy theories (prehistoric aliens!) but relied on the climate of suspicion created by the conspiracy-theory industry and given new dramatic life by Stone.
By the late '90s, the whole thing was starting to look like a sick joke. In "The House of Yes," the JFK assassination is ritualistically re-enacted by an incestuous brother and sister. In "Zoolander," the "Manchurian Candidate" scenario gets entangled (hilariously) with the men's fashion industry; bonus points for having "X-Files" star David Duchovny as the Mr. X who explains it all. "Company Man" took a satirical look at the Cold War Kennedy who oversaw the Bay of Pigs invasion and other disastrous anti-Castro efforts (exploding cigars, beard depilatories), as administered by ridiculously incompetent CIA agents.
Amid all the myths, fantasies, and satires, the real Kennedy threatened to disappear, though there was also "Thirteen Days," a rare attempt to show what he was like at work, during the crucible of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bruce Greenwood plays him as level-headed and resolute. Kevin Costner shows up as White House aide and longtime Kennedy family factotum Kenny O'Donnell, apparently in penance for having starred in "JFK."
Even so, "Thirteen Days" still buys heavily into the Camelot myth, one that portrays Kennedy as always being the smartest guy in a room full of Ivy League technocrats, including his brother Bobby. Like the assassination theories, it's a comforting myth. But true? We may never know.
Certainly, it does the man a disservice to portray him two-dimensionally as a saint, just as it does to portray him as a back-slapping horndog (as in "Forrest Gump," where Kennedy openly displays an autographed photo of Marilyn Monroe in the White House restroom).
Still, at least the movies have started to portray what he was like as a man and as a leader, not just as a victim (as in this fall's "Parkland," a re-enactment of the scene at the Dallas hospital where the president was pronounced dead). In 2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler," James Marsden portrays Kennedy as a man so frail from Addison's disease, whose back is so weak, that he can't even dress himself without the help of his valet. Is that any more true than the other movie Kennedys we've seen? Who knows, but it's certainly a Kennedy we haven't seen before on screen. Maybe it's just an issue of enough time elapsing until filmmakers too young to have anything invested in keeping the myths alive can come along and serve as objective historians, not just entertainers and yarn-spinners.