And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you —- ask what you can do for your country.”
JFK Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
Fifty years ago yesterday, America changed forever. The innocence and overall optimism of the 1950s came to an abrupt end in Dallas as an assassin’s bullet killed one of the most beloved Presidents this country had ever known. Young, handsome, and charismatic, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had represented the future. It was bright. But, even men regarded almost as demigods are human, a fact that was proven all too clearly when someone shot Kennedy twice on November 22, 1963. This one act ushered in a new world, in three very important ways.
The first was the end of the innocence. Within the next decade, America had changed almost completely. Young men and women were killed by the thousands in a foreign war that not only received very little support at home, it was actively protested against. The younger generation refused to respect the values of their elders, choosing instead to listen to crazy music and smoke funny smelling cigarettes. The inner cities literally burned while women and people of color demanded equal rights. The role of the government was questioned and the leaders were held to task, culminating in the disgrace and forced resignation of only the second President to follow Kennedy. Never again would the American people blindly believe what they were told.
Which leads to the second seismic change, the onset of the conspiracy theory. There have been questions about Kennedy’s death since the day it happened and there is a sense that all of, or at the very least some part of, the truth about the event has been hidden. Many people have spent decades trying to reveal what they believe is the biggest coverup in American history. For most of my adult life, I have believed that some sort of conspiracy did exist and that Oswald did not act alone. Having spent the last few weeks of my life watching all of these shows, however, I have changed my mind. I now believe that a troubled young man managed to bring down a President, all by himself.
And, so we arrive at the third change. The assassination and aftermath were the first widely televised event. Television was still a relatively new medium, but everyone stopped for three days in 1963 and watched as the events unfolded. This blanket coverage would lead the way to what is now endemic, 24-hour news cycles and relentless reporting.
It is only natural that television would not let the anniversary of such an event go unmarked. The following shows all aired in the weeks leading up to the half century mark. Many discuss the conspiracy; some were biographical; all were new.
JFK: The Smoking Gun (Reelz, November 3)
Two men, both of whom have spent decades trying to uncover the conspiracy, now believe that a Secret Service agent accidentally fired the fatal head shot. It is an interesting theory and, I must admit, I was intrigued. For one thing, these two have proved that the Warren Commission’s one bullet theory (the one that traveled through Kennedy’s neck and hit Connelly) is most likely correct. Their strongest argument is that the shot that hit Kennedy in the head had to come from another kind of ammunition as that bullet, unlike the other, exploded on impact, causing the massive head wound. The Secret Service agents carried that type of ammunition and several witnesses saw an agent with the appropriate gun. Whether or not this is what happened, we will never know. But, this is one argument that was well made and supported.
America Declassified: JFK 50th (Travel Channel, November 3)
This show is one of those that tries to be more than it actually is. Reporters (and I use that term loosely) try to uncover what is really happening in the US. The JFK segment was one of three, each more ridiculous than the next. The reporter for the JFK segment made sure we understood that he was an ex-CIA sniper. My guess is that, if that were indeed true, he would not be telling us so on camera. He tried to convince us that the second shooter was on the grassy knoll. As that theory was debunked years ago (forensics show that Kennedy was shot in the back of the head), I found myself impatiently waiting for this to end.
JFK: Inside the Evidence (Reelz, November 4)
This is a Bill Curtis follow-up to the Smoking Gun documentary reviewed above. He brings in the people involved in the documentary as well as some others to discuss the possibility of the Secret Service being at fault. It was simply a re-hash of what had been said before, with a few more details.
Killing JFK: Fifty Questions (Reelz, November 5)
A rather mundane rundown of the timeline around the assassination. A lot of trivia (where JFK spent his last night), not much of which was all that interesting. Having said that, I did learn that Jackie’s pink suit, still covered in blood, is stored in the National Archives. There is something particularly macabre about that.
50 Years of Questions: The JFK Assassination (Fox News, November 9)
A mundane examination of the assassination that broke no new ground. Instead, it just spit back all the old nuggets about the botched autopsy and the Kennedy family’s wish to shield the public from the truth of how bad the President’s health actually was.
Killing Kennedy (National Geographic, November 10)
Based on the book by Bill O’Reilly, this is a docudrama as much about Oswald as it is about Kennedy. Kennedy is portrayed as a womanizer, but a great President and a good man. Oswald is portrayed as a lost man, searching for something and convinced he would one day be famous for doing something good. Rob Lowe is excellent as Kennedy, as is Will Rothhaar as Oswald. Less effective are Ginnifer Goodwin as Jackie and Michelle Trachtenberg as Marina. The story is rather dull as no new ground is explored and the facts, as we know them, are portrayed in a rather mundane way. Not as good a movie as I was hoping it would be.
American Experience: JFK (PBS, November 11 and 12)
A four hour documentary, shown over two nights, that is a very complete biography of the man. With so much time to devote to the subject, many of the issues surrounding Kennedy including his health, his marriage, his personality were given quite a bit of detail. I found it really interesting and would recommend it as a great view of Kennedy as a person.
Oliver Stone’s JFK (Reelz, November 11)
This movie is what it is. My biggest complaint about it is that Stone blurs fact and fiction, passing the entire film as fact. This is just nonsense as this theory is now regarded as pure nonsense. Having said that, it is entertaining and some of the acting is fantastic. Go into it as a good thriller and you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t go into it as fact.
NOVA: Cold Case JFK (PBS, November 13)
An absolutely fascinating look at the forensics surrounding the assassination. Modern science can do much more now than it could fifty years ago, and the tests run by these scientists show that the “magic bullet” most likely did the damage the Warren Commission said it did and that Oswald just might have acted on his own. This was the point that I realized my old mind was changing.
JFK: One Central Standard Time (PBS, November 13)
A very interesting examination of how the press handled the assassination of JFK. Its primary focus is on Walter Cronkite, but many newsmen are interviewed who participated in reporting the events that day. Worth a watch just to see how much relaying the news has changed in the past fifty years in terms of a network being able to get on the air and report immediately.
The Sixties: The Assassination of President Kennedy (CNN, November 14)
A relatively straightforward account of the event and the conspiracy theories that resulted. The producers obviously believe that Oswald acted alone and tend to treat the conspiracies with a touch of contempt and not a little sarcasm. Having said that, this was a good overview of all the theories and how many of them have been debunked over time.
JFK: The Lost Bullet (National Geographic, November 15)
A look at all the home movies shot during the assassination to try to discover what happened with the third shot. The films are fifty years old and, even with new high-def resolution, do not show anything new. The filmmakers determine that the first shot fired by Oswald hit a streetlamp, bounced off the curb, and hit a passerby. Forensically, this works.
The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination (National Geographic, November 15)
A show that was simply a montage of the news footage, both radio and television, of the assassination and the aftermath. Nothing new, but what struck me was that reporting of a tragedy has not changed one bit in fifty years. The reporters, determined to be the first, reported every rumor and speculation as though it were true. Sound familiar?
JFK: The Final Hours (National Geographic, November 15)
A documentary about the final twenty-four hours of Kennedy’s life. If it weren’t for the fact that the man would be dead at the end of them, it was a standard political day. What saved this documentary from being truly dull were the recollections of the people who had been part of the vast Texas crowds that day. Their memories of meeting both the President and Mrs. Kennedy were very sweet to hear.
As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years (CBS, November 16)
Bob Schieffer narrates an hour long attaboy to the CBS coverage of the assassination and the aftermath. Frankly, by this time in my viewing of these specials, I had already seen the vast majority of the footage he showed. The one interesting tidbit in this special was that, without exception, all the newsmen who are still reporting talked about the fact that they had gone through their careers thinking this would be the most dramatic thing on which they would ever report. Then, 9/11 happened and that all changed.
Face The Nation (CBS, November 17)
Bob Schieffer devoted this Sunday talk show to the assassination. It was very much a group of talking heads telling us things we already knew; but, again, I was surprised. Schieffer interviewed Lucy Baines Johnson who told her story of the day of the assassination. She was at school, in Spanish class, when the news broke. While everyone else was praying for the President and Connolly, she was trying to discover if her parents were still alive. No one was able to tell her until, finally, one of her Secret Service detail told her that not only were they alive, her dad was now President. Listening to this woman speak put a very human face on a story that, by this time, I was beginning to feel as though I knew too well.
Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy (TLC, November 17)
I was just under a year old the day that Kennedy was shot, so he has only ever been a historical figure to me. As I have watched these shows over the past weeks, it has become clear to me that many people felt a real connection to the man. After Kennedy died, the White House received over 800,000 letters of condolence. They came from every creed, color, and social strata. The filmmaker has found some of the best and has actors and actresses read them over shots of Kennedy. Many of these were incredibly moving, but they all had the same sentiment. The letter writers may not have known the man, but they respected and admired him. Much, much better than I had expected. Give this one a shot.
The Day Kennedy Died (Smithsonian, November 17)
Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber (Smithsonian, November 17)
These are two I was unable to watch as my hick part of the world does not carry this channel. If anyone saw one or both, please comment below.
Frontline: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? (PBS, November 19)
A two hour documentary about Oswald that was strangely moving. Here was a highly troubled young man who spent his life in a Walter Mitty state, convinced he was something he was not. He was rejected by everyone from the Russians to the Cubans to his wife. He failed at one execution, but succeeded brilliantly at his second attempt. Ironically, this man, whom no one paid attention to while he lived, will live forever in the history books. This one was up to the usual PBS standards -- brilliant.
JFK: The Lost Tapes (Discovery, November 21)
Last year, the White House released the tapes that were made by the Dallas police and between Air Force One and the Situation Room the day of the assassination. They are truly interesting to listen to as one gets a real sense of the panic that day. What was especially sobering is listening to the Situation Room give information to a plane on which the Secretary of State was flying. They were reading from an AP bulletin. In other words, the government was getting its information exactly the same way the rest of America was.
Where Were You? The Day JFK Died (NBC, November 22)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that, whenever a major news event occurs, the people who were alive at the time can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. This was a two hour documentary in which Tom Brokow interviewed dozens of people, all of whom you have heard of, and asked them the question. Without exception, each had a story to tell. What surprised me was how emotional some of these people still became discussing the event. The profound impact that Kennedy had on his generation cannot be denied.
Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours To Live (History, November 22)
Several historians, all of whom have extensively studied Oswald, discuss the forty-eight hours from when Kennedy was shot to when Oswald died. Nothing wildly exciting or new is revealed, but the historians all discuss what an enigma the man was. The one thing on which they all agree is that, because of his own assassination, what we will never know is why he decided to do what he did.
JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide (History, November 22)
A two hour recounting of all the conspiracy theories, which one by one are all debunked. By this time, I was already convinced that Oswald had acted alone and didn’t need to be convinced. What saved this from being truly dire was a segment on the wildest on the theories which were, frankly, hilarious. Nazis, the Catholic Church, the CIA protecting the fact that aliens had landed at Roswell (seriously!) are all mentioned. By this time, however, I had seen enough on the assassination and was glad to see the end of it.