JFK: What the Zapruder film really means

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Image Credit: Zapruder Film © 1967 (renewed 1995) The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza Frame 261

It used to be said that every American could remember where he or she was when they heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Today, it’s official that no one under 50 can, or ever will, remember that moment. But I bet a great many people who are too young to have experienced the cataclysm of JFK’s murder can remember where they were the first time they saw the Zapruder film. Because for anyone too young to remember the assassination, that 26-second, 486-frame little home movie — the film that has been viewed more than any other film since the medium of film was invented — isn’t just the looking glass we pass through each time we think about the JFK assassination; it’s not just how the assassination lives inside our minds. The Zapruder film expresses the meaning that the killing of JFK has acquired. As shocking a tragedy as it was, tearing a black hole in the nation’s psyche, the assassination would have been, without the Zapruder film, an event that belonged to the past. Over time, however, the killing of JFK became more than the savage murder of a leader: It became, through conspiracy theory, a metaphor for the larger breakdown of our world. And it’s the images from that film that have kept JFK’s assassination alive as a bad dream we’re still trying to wake up from.

I remember the first time I saw it. It was in 1975, on the late-night ABC program Good Night America — which was, in fact, the first time the Zapruder film had ever been shown on network television. Frames of it, of course, had been published in Life magazine, one of whose editors, Richard B. Stolley, purchased the film directly from Abraham Zapruder in the days following the assassination. But when you consider the place that the Zapruder film now occupies in our world, it’s extraordinary to consider that no one basically saw it until the middle of the 1970s, after Richard Nixon was out of office. Arriving on network when it did, on the heels of the televised bloodbath of Vietnam and the televised conspiracy of Watergate, the Zapruder film, with its grainy, blunt, ugly-beautiful, and enigmatic images, made you feel like it was something that had been locked up in a vault for a reason, as if that little film possessed secrets nearly radioactive in their potency. Now the time had come to view those secrets. It felt like the ultimate forbidden movie — a snuff film that was also the missing puzzle piece in some vérité noir. In 1975, as I settled into my family’s living room to watch it, I felt, for the first time, the feeling that has preceded every viewing of the Zapruder film that I’ve undertaken ever since. It’s a fusion of mystery and horror and awe that says: “I will watch this film — and when it is over, I will know.”

Know what? Who killed John F. Kennedy? As the Zapruder film unspools, we see that Dallas roadway, so open and optimistic in an early-’60s way, and then the motorcade rolling forward, led by the president’s car glinting in the sun, and then there’s a moment of amateur photography so telling that it’s nearly poetic: The car drives behind that road sign, so that its movement is obscured for about three seconds — and as soon as it emerges from behind the sign, JFK is already pulling his hands up toward his throat, a reaction to the second bullet. In other words: The first gunshot to hit Kennedy is off camera, as if someone didn’t want us to see it. I don’t mean that literally (was Abraham Zapruder in on the conspiracy?), yet that’s the effect of the film as you’re watching it.

The haunting enigma of the Zapruder film begins with the fact that four American presidents have been assassinated and five others have been the victim of failed assassination attempts (that’s nine attempts out of 44 presidents — a disturbingly high percentage), and in almost every case, we know who did it. Yet the only fatal assassination that was caught on film — in broad daylight, in queasy Kodak color, with the blood and brain matter directly in front of us — surrounds what is still the greatest mystery of the 20th century. We watch the Zapruder film, and it seems to show us just what happened, yet somehow what it shows isn’t enough. After you’ve seen it enough times, you can start to wish that it had more frames — that maybe the ultimate clue lies in between the frames. Arriving as it did, after years of conspiracy theories about who killed Kennedy, which it only continued to inspire, the Zapruder film mocks our desire for closure, since what it suggests is that the more we see, the less we know. Welcome to the dawn — the Ur-moment — of the media age.

It’s no accident that Oliver Stone made the showing of the Zapruder film during the Clay Shaw/Jim Garrison trial in 1969 — the first time it had ever been shown in public — the climactic centerpiece of JFK. After all of JFK‘s pathways of baroque paranoia, what the movie’s evidence came down to was: “Back…and to the left.” That’s the direction the president’s head snapped, which “meant,” of course, that there had to be a bullet coming from the right — that is, from the grassy knoll. The ballistics were superficially compelling yet finally dubious. (Just ask anyone who’s a police officer.) Yet the real point may have been that the Zapruder film converts the JFK assassination into a ghostly work of art, and in doing so, it allowed our culture to recast the assassination as a thriller with a resolution always hanging just out of view. Watching Kennedy’s head blown apart, you realize that nothing will ever make sense of what you’re watching. And so for those of us who’ve always viewed the JFK assassination through the lens of those 26 seconds, conspiracy theory begins not with the live-on-TV murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, or with the questioning of the Warren Commission Report, but with the inexplicability of the horror of seeing Kennedy destroyed out of nowhere.

Under the spell of JFK, which I still think is a dazzling cinematic testament to how the JFK assassination echoes in the cave of our imaginations, I became, for a while, your typical, yeah, it must have happened that way conspiracy theorist, convinced that one of those tireless investigators must surely be right, that the government, or the underworld, or the Cubans, or some interlocking network of power was responsible for the murder of JFK. Yet the more I consumed and the more I read, the more I began to believe what I now believe fully: that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And that the power of conspiracy theory feeds a need in us as surely as those conspiracies are almost always wrong. If you want to re-experience the Kennedy assassination in a way that will box your mind open, you could, I suppose, watch Stone’s epic labyrinth again, but what I recommend is that you get a hold of Robert Stone’s fantastic documentary Oswald’s Ghost (2007), which is a study of how conspiracy theory works. Stone interviews everyone from Mark Lane to Robert Dallek, but the film’s on-screen bard is Norman Mailer, in one of his last interviews, discussing how he evolved, over a period of decades, from passionate conspiracy nut to old-school Oswald-as-lone-gunman rationalist. To watch this movie is to go through the looking glass and then come back through the other side.

Regarding JFK, I happen to have a conspiracy theory of my own. It is, of course, a cliché to say that when a tragedy like the JFK assassination occurs, with a great man cut down potentially at random, most us can’t deal with the meaninglessness of it — with the fact that such a vital and important leader could meet his fate at the hands of a mentally unhinged nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald. Surely, we say, the very course of America can’t have been shifted by this one trivial madman. And so, to ease our pain and lend meaning to the universe, we create conspiracies — grand motivations for murder — that are commensurate with the size of the man cut down. We invent conspiracy theory because, on some deep level, it comforts us.

In the case of JFK, though, it’s hard to be comforted, since the real conspiracy, I would wager, is us. Here, I think, is the true meaning of the Zapruder film. The film has become a kind of ritual — a flickering black-mass newsreel in 8mm grain — and what you feel in your guts as it unspools is that we may not know who killed John F. Kennedy, but what we do know, watching the profound horror of that act, is that he was killed by something larger than Lee Harvey Oswald. He was killed by a force. And that’s why we want to say that it was the CIA, or the Mob, or what have you.

But there are other kinds of forces at work in the world. Oswald may have been a nobody, but he was a very distinct and contradictory nobody: a left-wing Texas gun nut — a reactionary in Marxist clothing. He seemed to be channeling both political extremes of the country in one body, as if he were acid and base at the same time. You know what happens when you mix an acid and base, right? Kaboom! But it’s also as if Oswald, in melding those ideological extremes together, was channeling a war in the collective American psyche. His killing of JFK was an eruption — and, of course, it was the first of four assassinations of the four greatest political leaders of the 1960s. Two years later, in 1965: Malcolm X. Three years after that, in 1968: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Every one of those deaths comes with its own conspiracy theory (or with its own lone-gunman wackjob), yet whatever you believe, surely it is not just a coincidence that this was all happening.

What I think still spooks us, 50 years later, about the first of these murders — the assassination of John F. Kennedy — is that even if Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone, we experienced (and still experience) the assassination as some kind of karmic act of national self-sabotage. It’s as if we didn’t have the faith, or strength, to believe in this leader we loved so much; it’s almost as if the collective unconscious of the nation had coalesced into a kind of political death wish — as if it had risen up, through Oswald, to destroy the very president who represented our hopes and dreams. And what that says, to me, is that there was something larger in the air. What remains haunting about the JFK assassination is that it seems, as you watch it on film, to have the terrifying ring of inevitability. It’s the random act of horror that created our world, and therefore seems not random at all but as if it was meant to be. The Zapruder film shows us that act, over and over again, but not, perhaps, the reality behind it. And maybe there’s no way that it could. After all, it’s only a movie.

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