Blogging about conspiracy theories Monday brought to mind one chapter of my Screen Enemies of the American Way, discussing the way movies and TV have handled John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and how the treatment has changed over time.
As I imagine y’all know, JFK’s assassination was one of those events that almost instantly became myth. Part of that myth was a refusal to believe Oswald acted alone. Real-world conspiracy theories put the blame on the Mafia, Howard Hughes, shadowy government cabals and of course The Jews. As Abbie Richards’ conspiracy chart says, every conspiracy theory gradually progresses towards The Jews.
The first movie to spotlight the Kennedy assassination was 1973’s Executive Action. A cabal of businessmen including Will Geer and Burt Lancaster fear that if Kennedy wins a second term he’ll pull us out of Vietnam and begin supporting the civil rights movement. They think granting equal rights to black Americans will bring on a race war followed by martial law; withdrawing from Vietnam will block the racist cabal’s plans to use Vietnam as a base for culling the Asian population, then applying the same techniques against people of color in the U.S. Oswald is a patsy, but realizes it too late to escape the web of lies.
The Parallax View (1974) deals with the JFK assassination — or more precisely, a politician’s assassination in which multiple witnesses insist there were two shooters (nobody listened, the fools!). And guess what, all the witnesses are now dead (another part of the Kennedy assassination myth)! Reporter Warren Beatty goes undercover and learns that behind the shooting and multiple others lies the sinister Parallax Corporation. He doesn’t realize Parallax knows who he really is and they have plans for him …. This is a stylish, unsettling movie where the conspiracy never explains itself and the bad guys remain cloaked in shadow at the end.1979’s Winter Kills is another film using a fictional surrogate for the JFK shooting. Based on Richard Condon’s same-name novel, it stars Jeff Bridges as brother to the murdered president. When a dying man confesses to being the real assassin, Bridges sets off on a quest for the truth. Which turns out to be that his father’s right hand (Anthony Perkins) arranged the killing to benefit the family’s bottom line and Dad (John Huston) covered it up (the novel had dad directly responsible, horrified that his son planned to spend his second term working for the American people rather than Kennedy family cronies). It’s not a great film, but it’s interesting.
Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is utter bullshit but it’s a much higher quality production than Executive Action. Based on prosecutor Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) theories about the case, it posits an implausible alliance of the Mafia, the CIA, the military and American business arranging to kill Kennedy; when someone tells Garrison how absurd that is, he replies that “the Mafia were only involved at a very low level,” as if that made it believable.
The 1991 mockumentary Tribulation 99 is more entertaining as it doesn’t intend to be taken seriously (if you find anyone who thinks otherwise, run away. Fast). The film explains aliens from Quetzal installed Fidel Castro in Cuba; after Kennedy attempted Castro’s overthrow, the Quetzals decided to strike before he could try again. Come on, nobody human could possibly shoot as fast as Oswald!
All of these films offer explanations of the Kennedy assassination, however absurd. Part of the appeal is the sense it should take more than one man with a gun to change the course of history. If there’s a conspiracy, a plan, then there’s more logic to it; not only that, we have chance to find the ones responsible and Make Them Pay.
After this point, however, films dealing with the Kennedy assassination are less about “who killed Kennedy” and more about using the shooting to ground the story. Showing the film’s made-up conspiracy murdered JFK is a way to tie it to reality and prove that yes, these bad guys are serious dudes. It may also reflect that their are fewer people around today who were alive when Oswald started firing; perhaps they feel no more concern about the man on the grassy knoll than I feel about the assassination of James Garfield.
The X-Files‘ episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” shows Scully and Mulder’s chain-smoking nemesis (William B. Davis) shooting Kennedy but it’s not given any more weight than his decision to block the Buffalo Bulls from ever winning the Superbowl.
The Silencer (1999) has an FBI agent investigating an assassination plot discover the terrorist Group is just a red herring to cover up the existence of an FBI assassination ring. They assassinated both JFK and Martin Luther King to keep the country on what they considered the right track; J. Edgar Hoover didn’t order the kills but he did cover them up afterwards.
2010’s Salt stars Angelina Jolie as a Russian sleeper agent. In the course of the film she learns that her bosses have been implanting brainwashed sleeper agents since the USSR was a thing; Lee Harvey Oswald was one of their first successes. Again the point is not that now we know who did it, it’s to establish this conspiracy is thoroughly badass. I’ve seen the same thing in a few comic books, where the sinister conspiracy establishes they’re the ones behind Oswald — have to take them seriously now, right?
Those aren’t the only movies to deal with the Kennedy assassination but most other films aren’t relative to the subject of this post. So here I will end.