All The Director’s Men: A Notable Kennedy Narrative
It is safe to say that there generally two groups of people: those who know the story of John F. Kennedy and those who might not know, at least not more than what is recorded in the history books. When you consider all the fêted material that has been written about his life, the full range of admirers becomes more evident. An attempt to address every level of audience, albeit intriguing, is excessive content for one article to cover adequately. A visit to the library or bookstore will more often than not reveal a flattering arrangement of biographical books on the life of John F. Kennedy as well as the aftermath of his term in office. Another way to better ascertain the substance of his administration before, during and after, is by viewing the commendable list of films made in his honor.
As such, this is not another entry in the vast collection of material on the subject. The objective is that a reading through this arbitrary assortment of books and films will entice the casual historian into confirming, retracting, or projecting the events surrounding the life of the youngest president in U.S. history. The topics to follow emphasize the high and lows of his family life, professional growth and outstanding contribution to mankind. In order to garner attention from a broad spectrum of interests, the stories recorded in print, film and television are discussed. The forthcoming selections attest to the desire to either remain faithful to the government account of events, the public version, or in some instances, even on those stories that fixate on the probable sequence of events had he lived into old age. In relaying phases within the Kennedy lineage as well as successive moments of that period in history, the first time reader can better situate themselves on the matter. The well-acquainted viewer can breach new ground and ponder an unfamiliar façade of the debate.
The first film traces his bravery as a Naval Reserve ensign during World War II. It is one of four films that rely heavily on books to carry the film. The book PT 109: John F. Kennedy in World War II galvanizes the tragic ramming of Kennedy’s vessel during combat in the south Pacific. The author, Robert J. Donovan, reveals how Kennedy was awarded medals of valor for rescuing his shipmates and devising a way to signal for help while they clung to life after swimming ashore to a nearby island. The fact that the film was a revival of the book is not as unusual as knowing that the film was released during the time Kennedy was still in office. The film PT 109 was directed in 1963 by Leslie H. Martinson and Lewis Milestone who have emboldened the first of many exploits through a biographical film of the would-be president.
The second film also tracks Kennedy through archival material. In 2000, Roger Donaldson directed Thirteen Days to examine the perilous stand against the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis. The film provides a broad historical perspective by using declassified government documents. The role of political consultant Kenneth O’Donnell is played by Kevin Costner in what would become his second JFK movie. Donaldson combines those documents with a book written by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zeliko The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. The end result in this case is nothing less than a boundless and creative appendage to a normally straightforward documentary of historical events.
The third film returns to the unimaginable shooting in Dallas. The film Parkland replays the valiant effort by medical and nonmedical staff to resuscitate the fallen president. Among the notable cast is actor and Forth Worth resident Bill Paxton who was present among the spectators during a Kennedy speech. This flashback of those terrifying moments at Parkland Memorial Hospital was directed by Peter Landesman in 2013 and takes a cue from the book Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi.
The fourth film was released in 1973 as a conspiracy film directed by David Miller. The film Executive Action is a documentary based on the 1966 book Rush to Judgment: A Critique of the Warren Commission’s Inquiry into the Murders of President John F. Kennedy, Officer J.D. Tippit and Lee Harvey Oswald written by Mark Lane. In that book, Lane takes issue with and confronts the findings of the investigation and subsequent conclusions within the report filed by the Warren Commission. The book is widely regarded as the origin of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination.
Unlike the first four films, the next film aired as a television production for American, Canadian and European viewers through a National Geographic broadcast network. In 2013, Nelson McCormick directs Killing Kennedy guided by a book of the same title by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Aside from success through the wide distribution, the film features Rob Lowe as the president.
The Cuban missile crisis and the Dealey Plaza shooting account for only a portion of Kennedy’s prolific life. Although some films use books to navigate the sequences, a film can apply other methods to greater effect. A more intimate experience of events is composed by director Bruce Herschensohn through voice-over by Gregory Peck and Maximilian Schell. The director highlights the newly formed Peace Corps, the Cuban missile crisis, the space program, the Alliance for Progress, the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the US, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These segments are, in turn, infused within a lingering recurrence of the funeral procession in Washington. In the film John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums (1964), Herschensohn alternates between color and black-and-white rendition of early and late presidential speeches and between English and German narration. Since the film was sponsored by the United States Information Agency primarily for overseas audiences, an act of Congress was sought in order to facilitate domestic viewing.
The next selection of titles cover ground that remain perplexing in the eyes of many. The main one addresses the question of ‘what if?’ the president had survived the gunman’s bullet. Another one considers the clandestine existence of the presumed second gunman. The last topic reflects on the peculiarities of a time affectionately known as Camelot.
The world averted a catastrophic decision during the Cuban missile crisis. Yet, Harvard University professor Niall Ferguson proposes the alternate outcome of similar turmoil in Vietnam had Kennedy not been targeted in Dallas. This version of ‘virtual history’ is the subject of a 2008 documentary by Koji Masutani. The film Virtual JFK: Vietnam if Kennedy Had Lived is a thought-provoking stance on history unfolding in the absence of the shooting. The same stance is projected on the alleged gunman through two films. In the absence of the shots fired by Jack Ruby, director Larry Buchanan speculates how the Lee Harvey Oswald trial may have ended had he been spared by Jack Ruby. In 1964, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald dramatizes the verdict had such a trial been allowed to run its course. Then, a made for TV movie directed by Gordon Davidson and David Greene revisited the dilemma. For 1997, the identically titled The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald ponders the same question on the mind of Buchanan and possibly everybody since.
In this chapter in history, as in many others of a controversial nature, no stone is left unturned. The second gunman theory is posed in Interview with the Assassin. In 2002, director Neil Burger re-imagines a retired Marine that is diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to ask his reclusive neighbor to document a startling confession. The unemployed cameraman is told that the ex-Marine, not Lee Harvey Oswald, killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. The stunned neighbor is reminded of the conspiracy theory stating that there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll. The claim of the Marine being that second gunman hovers around the existence of a spent bullet casing supposedly retrieved from the assassin’s rifle.
The pseudo-documentary by Burger is only one in the film genre. Another that was reenacted in the tradition of cinéma vérité by D. A. Pennebaker appeared on a television network in 1963. The ABC movie Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment was directed by Robert Drew as an attempt to preserve time by revisiting the stifling confrontation between Black students and officials at the University of Alabama. This equally enthralling perspective by director Jonathan Kaplan is undertaken in a subtle; yet, laudable depiction of race and obsession during the Kennedy years. In 1992, Denzel Washington was in the lineup for the role opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in Love Field, but was eventually recast with actor Dennis Haysbert.
A precarious moment in time is entwined with portrayals of two Kennedy brothers; namely, Edward Moore Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. This time, actor Peter Strauss effortlessly represents the eldest Kennedy son who was seamlessly marching toward greatness at the White House. The doomed military flight operation that derailed that hope is the backdrop to Young Joe, The Forgotten Kennedy directed by Richard T. Heffron in 1977. A melancholic biography that follows the well-meaning intention of the first of what would be five Kennedy contenders for first Catholic president based on The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy written by Hank Searls. Another presidential candidate met a similar encounter on the ground. The lapse of judgment displayed by Senator Ted Kennedy during an automobile crash is the theme behind Chappaquiddick. This film was released in 2017, several years after the senator’s death and several decades after the incident.
The flair for the political that is the hallmark of the Kennedy name was elevated to the flair for the cinematic in 2006. That was brought to life in a fictionalized account of the hours preceding the June 5, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. That day in Los Angeles celebrated his triumphant 1968 Democratic presidential primary. The director for Bobby was none other than Emilio Estevez in the film that stars his own father Martin Sheen, among a lengthy roster of top actors and leading actresses.
As expected, the rivalry among siblings is not reserved solely for the Kennedys. In 1991, Oliver Stone sways public opinion away from the Warren Commission report with his magnum opus, JFK. The role of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison became Kevin Costner’s first JFK movie. A year later, directors Barbara Kopple and Danny Schechter expressed their skepticism to the Stone version by producing a complementary rebuttal resting on the conflicting eyewitness testimony, in stark contrast to the public and privileged evidence at the core of JFK. The Kopple and Schechter documentary is titled Beyond ‘JFK’: The Question of Conspiracy.
Regardless of the quality of directing or acting within each film nor the level of journalistic integrity, a true enthusiast will tend to seek more footage to satisfy their curiosity or to suit their taste and to ultimately draw their own conclusion on the matter. In the decades since the Kennedy assassination, there have been an endless stream of documentary programs to address the perception of wholesomeness against the irrepressible reality. It starts with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. who has had to withstand scrutiny as to the provenance of personal wealth and of deceptive practices in public and private industry. In his own corner, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. doubling as the Ivy Leaguer while philandering with an Anglican divorcée then remarried mother of three during his military tour of Europe. It continues with John F. Kennedy toggling the image of war hero despite a longstanding and debilitating ailment as well as his commanding rhetoric against communism vis-à-vis a propensity for lax negotiation thereto. It doesn’t subside with Robert Kennedy who waged a relentless affront on organized crime only to wield a preachy stance on human decadence. Neither to discount Ted Kennedy who cultivated an unparalleled 47-year senate career that was tainted by the blemish of misconduct starting in college and, in one form or another, during his term in office. In all fairness, a philosophical perspective provides one way to comprehend all the scorn upon the goodwill. In 1975, French theorist Michel Foucault succinctly captures the conceivable culprit behind the family misfortune: “Visibility is a trap.” For the time being, the eternal Kennedy anthology awaits untold generations through the family progeny.
The most emblematic moments of the Kennedy presidency mirrored the Lincoln presidency in that both presidents were assassinated. The funeral cortège for President Kennedy was modeled after the memorial service for President Lincoln. Many people decided to pursue a political career due in part to being inspired by the Kennedy Administration. In the time between the end of the war and the beginning of his presidency, Kennedy fomented an enviable political portfolio: the congressional candidate to Massachusetts; the freshman congressman; the junior senator; the Pulitzer Prize author of Profiles in Courage; the vice-presidential contender in 1956; a campaign that did not end with him. Three other Kennedy brothers had presidential aspiration and it was often speculated that John F. Kennedy Jr. would one day run for his father’s office as well. Unlike his father, only one significant TV film surrounding pivotal moments was aired in 2003. The movie America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story was filmed on location in Toronto and New York with Kristoffer Polaha as the son of the former First Lady who is, in turn, portrayed by sultry actress and namesake Jacqueline Bisset.
In late 2019, President Kennedy was honored with the christening of the second U.S. aircraft carrier bearing his name. As she did in 1967, his daughter Caroline swung the apéritif against the nuclear powered vessel. A gesture of deference; but, also one that reverberates with presidential pedigree. In keeping with the family literary predisposition, Caroline has published her own Profiles In Courage For Our Time in 2002 that pays homage to the next swathe of noteworthy statesmen. Another documentary film produced by Rory Kennedy details the impact of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. The daughter who was born soon thereafter directed Ethel in 2012 to document the political dynasty unraveling. The only sister to survive the tumultuous family years, Rosemary became the sole offspring to perish merely from natural causes. Amid reconcile, centenarian Rose Kennedy remarked, “I would much rather be known as the mother of a great son than the author of a great book or the painter of a great masterpiece.” Soon after President Kennedy’s interment at Arlington National Cemetery, his wife was interviewed by Theodore H. White for Life magazine. Mrs. Kennedy told the journalist that she and her husband enjoyed listening to the musical at night. They particularly enjoyed the title track where Richard Burton playing King Arthur sings: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Solemnly, she concedes “There will be great presidents again, but there will never be another Camelot.”
The Kennedy White House was often compared to Camelot in matters of social mingling or political meandering among the dignitary, celebrity and mediocrity alike. It was a metaphorical choreography of mythical proportion: in diplomacy, in combat, in orbit, in theatrics and in family. The Kennedy presidency was as much a product of the time as it was an arbiter. The imminence of the Cold War and the seething domestic matters ensured that the presidential agenda would leave a distinctive mark on the nation nearly as indelible as the ones left by the Founding Fathers.
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