Today is November 22, and if you are a reader of a certain age that's probably a date that resonates with you, as it's the day fifty-four years ago that President John F. Kennedy was shot. Some months ago, I got the idea to set aside this date to look at Kennedy's legacy through films that have been made about him.
1. PT 109
This film, released in 1963 just five months before Kennedy died, tells the story of young Lieutenant Kennedy as a young war hero of the World War II Pacific theater. Cliff Robertson plays JFK as he captains a PT boat and struggles to help his men survive when their ship is attacked. It's a classic of the 1960s war genre, and the first movie about a sitting president released while the president was still in office. But interestingly, it was not the first filmed telling of this story. The story of PT 109 had earlier been done as an episode of a 1950s television series called Navy Log, an anthology series that showed dramatic reenactments of true-life Naval events. "PT 109" was produced as an episode in 1957.
Primary is a 1960 documentary, and one of the early pioneers of the verité style in documentary film. Essentially what that means is the camera is just a fly on the wall, following action as it unfolds but not commenting on it, or crafting interviews. The movie is made in the editing. When I was (briefly) a film student in college, this was one film we studied. Directed by Robert Drew, Primary focuses on candidate John F. Kennedy as he campaigns to be the Democratic candidate for President. The movie is available on a set from the Criterion Collection called The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew and Associates, and it includes three other documentary films that cover other moments in Kennedy's presidency, including Faces of November, which covers his funeral. If you've never seen any of these films, I suggest looking for this set at your local library or going out and buying it. (And if you're looking for something to give me for Christmas...)
3. Thirteen Days
I saw Thirteen Days back in 2000 because the very first trailer for Lord of the Rings was attached to it. Thankfully, the movie turned out pretty good too. It's about the Cuban missile crisis. Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood plays Kennedy here (you might know him as Captain Pike from the recent Star Trek reboots), but even better is Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy. I love Steven Culp and would see him in anything. The only flaw of this movie is Kevin Costner's dodgy Boston accent.
While the other films I highly recommend, I include Parkland more as a curiosity, as I don't like it as much. It's a movie that takes place immediately after Kennedy's assassination as he is rushed to the hospital. It tries to tell little human stories around the chaotic event of a President's death. It doesn't all work, but some of it is okay.
Of course I had to include Oliver Stone's JFK. But not for its historical accuracy (which is questionable in places), but because it is well-made and an elegy for Kennedy's legacy. Also because it captures the broad-sweeping nature of the ensuing conspiracy theories. Stone to this day truly believes the assassination was a military coup, and talks about it like it is fact. But there's so much going on in JFK beyond the straw-grasping. It's a pop cultural moment, almost as much as the actual assassination. But if JFK is a little extreme for you, you can always pair it with:
6. Quantum Leap - "Lee Harvey Oswald"
Donald Bellisario broke a cardinal rule of his show when he decided to have Sam Beckett leap into a famous historical figure. And the reason this special episode was made was to refute the conspiracy theories surging in America after the release of JFK. And it's one of the better science fiction stories to deal with the Kennedy assassination, something that's kind of a trope in time travel stories. Did you know that Gene Roddenberry kept pitching "Kirk and Spock try to stop the Kennedy assassination" as a plot for a Star Trek movie in the 1980s? More recently, Steven King's 11/22/63 novel dealt with the subject, and it was made as a TV miniseries on Hulu. But I haven't seen it, and didn't think it belonged here.
Finally, I include a film from the other side, last year's look at Jackie Kennedy as played by Natalie Portman. At first, the movie is a little off-putting because Portman is doing a very affected accent which is hard to get used to. The film is shot very tight in close-ups, but in the end I think that was exactly right, as we see the Kennedy presidency from her perspective. We are in Jackie's head the whole time. It is a fascinating movie that I highly recommend checking out. We've all become so sort of numb to the famous Zapruder film imagery that it's shocking to see a camera just linger on Jackie's face spattered with her husband's blood as she's in shock and anguish. It is a surprisingly effective movie.
Blood and Chrome
3 years ago