Jacqueline Kennedy, on her refusal to remove her blood-stained outfit.
Stunning documentary on the Kennedy assassination. History has released JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America, an absolutely brilliant three hour doc from 2009 that utilizes unseen film and kinescope footage from news stations and amateur photographers during the first 48 hours of the assassination event, to give a minute-by-minute impression of what it must have been like for a TV viewer back 1963 to experience first-hand this national tragedy, as it unfolded on their set. Part two of the documentary details the immediate aftermath of the shooting, including Oswald's own assassination and the subsequent investigations of the shootings over the decades, all without the aid of a narrator, letting the original film footage tell its own story. If you've seen as many Kennedy assassination documentaries as I have, there seems to be a few select archival images and sequences that are endlessly recycled as a form of visual shorthand for the event. Not so in JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America, which gives the viewer an immersive, entirely different - and no less disturbing and unsettling - picture of the shooting, than an umpteenth re-running of the Zapruder film. No extras on the disc, though, unfortunately.
The documentary format as it's usually practiced on networks like History and Discovery follow the basic tried-and-true amalgamation of reenactments, interviews, graphs and maps, overlaid with an unseen narrator or a host talking directly to the viewer, which has been the norm for these types of TV docs for decades. JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America, directed and produced by Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick, and edited and produced by Katerina Simic, achieves an immediate "hushed" atmosphere of dread and foreboding by jettisoning that design and immersing the viewer right in the middle of this little-seen archival footage, with only the occasional brief title card to orient the viewer to a particular sequence, or the image of a ticking-down digital flipper clock, keeping the timeline of events straight. Opening and closing the doc is an inexplicably ominous, unfamiliar silent sequence - appearing to come from the lead car of the slow-moving motorcade heading into Dealey Plaza - that perfectly captures the mood and method of this doc. We've seen the familiar motorcade route sequences countless times in other docs, but watching it in this unfamiliar way, with "us" at the head of the parade, knowing something violent is waiting for "us," is quite unsettling. Of course, no documentary is 100% objective; once one clip is chosen over another for inclusion into a film, an artistic choice has been made, and a version of reality - whatever the hell that is - has been created. And obviously, the filmmakers do have a point of view about the infamous events here; if they didn't, the doc would end with either the killing of Oswald or the release of the Warren Report. However, JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America comes quite close, particularly during its first two-thirds, to fulfilling its opening title card that states, "This is what happened, as it happened," because it gets rid of most of the tired, clichéd elements of the documentary format (the narrator, the shaped, interpretive, contemporary interviews by so-called experts) and just lets the news footage and audio selections speak for themselves.
Unusual, too, for a Kennedy assassination doc, is the care that's taken to detail the events immediately prior to the murderous motorcade down Dealey Plaza. Taking the time to set the stage for the assassination, JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America brilliantly builds tension and suspense by showing Kennedy's arrival in Fort Worth for a breakfast speech, as newsmen discuss his need to "mend fences" down in hostile territory Texas. A clip of Adlai Stevenson, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, getting heckled and clipped on the head with a protestor's sign the previous month in Dallas, coincides with Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry issuing a horrifically ironic statement that nothing must happen to "disgrace" the President while visiting Dallas. Utilizing the deeply disquieting, menacing music of Paul Brill as a constant drumbeat undercurrent, this seemingly irrelevant sequence (who cares what the President was doing right before the assassination, one might ask) is remarkable in suggesting ill-omens at every turn. As newsmen mention that the President is breaking security protocol by going out into the crowd unprotected, the President gives his last speech, sounding like the long-lost Cold War warrior Democrats we sorely need today (no far-flung "apology tours" for American exceptionalism here), calling out for vigorous support against communism (he's turning in his grave today), and reminding everyone how much water America had carried for the rest of the world, and how it was "our duty" to keep freedom alive. But the filmmakers don't rest on this cautious yet hopeful moment. They overlay the breakfast's benediction with composer Brill's scary music, while alternating color and black & white footage jump-cuts of the President and his wife leaving the hall, achieving a jarring, context-breaking structure that perfectly foreshadows the coming chaos: a simple yet strikingly brilliant editorial decision.
That discordant effect is carried even further during the next sequence that shows Kennedy arriving at the Dallas airport. How many times have we seen those faded, contrasty images of the President and Mrs. Kennedy departing the plane, all smiles, in seemingly placid, static images that are supposed to offer quiet, poignant counterpoint to what is about to come? Sound designers Brill, Simic and Damon Trotta create an entirely different feel here, aided by news footage that captures the barely-controlled pandemonium that Kennedy's arrival created with the crowd (with a newsman again commenting on the President's dangerous habit of working the crowd without adequate protection from the Secret Service). Heightening the sounds of the screaming jet engines, and combining them with the frenzied screams of the adulating crowd, the filmmakers create a cacophony of almost unbearable tension, foreshadowing the horrified screams that are just minutes away at Dealey Plaza. With the sickly ironic comment on the soundtrack from a newsman who cheerfully details about the President's limo ("The top is down...everyone will have a good look at the President"), the doc lurches towards the kill zone, with a disturbing, second-long shot, caught at random by a shaky, hand-held camera, of a shadowy figure in an open window of the Texas School Book Depository at the penultimate moment. Is this Oswald?
Most JFK assassination docs at this point would concentrate on the actual assassination and subsequent discussions of ballistics, eyewitness accounts, and elaborate reconstructions (with the de rigueur inclusion of some Zapruder frames). However, JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America jumps over those fateful 5 or 6 seconds of history and brilliantly goes to...As the World Turns, the CBS soap opera that was playing when Walter Cronkite broke in with an audio bulletin about shots fired at the President. The film again returns to clips of innocuous daytime television, including a Nescafe® commercial (with an ominous-looking pendulum swinging to and fro in it) and a local talk show for housewives over the Dallas airwaves before Jay Watson, the WFAA program director, breaks in with the ever-evolving story of the assassination. That's a remarkable moment in JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America, showing the filmmakers' adeptness at recreating the experience of a comfy TV watcher in 1963 suddenly yanked out of the fairly-tale existence of soap operas and home fashion shows, and into the often ugly, violent world that lays outside the confines of the tube (the round-the-clock network and local TV coverage of the assassination was certainly a major stepping stone in television's evolution towards becoming the primary rival news source to newspapers and magazines).
What follows in JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America is one remarkable sequence of archival footage after another that gives the contemporary viewer a feeling that they're watching the assassination coverage unfolding as it's happening. Jay Watson is a reoccurring presence (I love watching all the guys smoking on camera - TV was great, then), scoring some major reporting coups, talking immediately after the shooting with Bill and Gayle Newman and their children (they're the family we always see in these JFK docs, lying in the grass at Dealey, protecting their children after the blasts), with Bill confirming on television that shots came from behind him on the grassy knoll, along with an interview with Abraham Zapruder himself (Watson doesn't grasp at this point the significance of Zapruder's act of photographing this historical event). The filmmakers don't just focus on Dallas; we get some amazing "man on the street" footage in New York City, where pedestrians react with horror at the radio bulletins that confirm the President's death (we also get to see the prejudice and naiveté of one New Yorker who assumes it was "Southern radicals" who killed the President, because no "sane person" would do such a thing, a belief immediately challenged by another bystander who claims Communists were behind the killing).
This archival film and kinescope footage - much of it uncommonly pristine and clean - yields a remarkable amount of information beyond just what is stated by whomever appears to be speaking on camera. It's fascinating to watch the endless marching of Oswald back and forth through the cramped, crowded hallways of the Dallas police station, with reporters and their huge, bulky TV cameras blocking the way as it appears that there is little or no security separating the suspect and the public. Vividly capturing how much has changed in police procedures in 50 years, the single most important piece of forensic evidence in the case, Oswald's rifle - or is it his? - is paraded around to the reporters, held aloft by an officer not wearing any gloves (I love the audio of the reporter asking, "Did he say this was the gun?", an interesting tidbit for those 7.65 Mauser/6.5 Mannlicher Carcano conspiracists out there). And any student of today's laws concerning Miranda rights and legal representation during interrogations will be fascinated by the spectacle of Oswald unwillingly brought before a press conference, no less, asking repeatedly for legal counsel while answering reporters' questions, just hours after the shooting (even better, a chilling moment happens right before he leaves the room: Oswald looks up at someone we can't see, and frowns, his demeanor changing noticeably - clearly at this point he knows something is wrong with this whole set-up. Has he spotted Jack Ruby, his soon-to-be assassin and some would say, compatriot in the assassination plot, whom we know from recently discovered footage was actually in the corner of that room during the press conference?). And why did the filmmakers put in that unexplained silent shot of an amazing Oswald look-a-like being taken into police headquarters sometime that first night, except to have a little fun with the viewer (according to some conspiracists, there were Oswald doubles all over Dallas that week)?
Indeed, there seems to be a wealth of subtext information to be gleaned here for the JFK assassination buffs, information that might not have caught the eye and ear of viewers back in 1963 when they were still processing the overwhelming impact of the assassination. What does one make of reporter Bernard Kalb (I believe that's him; he's not I.D.ed) making a brief statement about the Dallas P.D. wishing to extend the investigation to include information involving an international communist plot...only to have that suggestion immediately scotched, most likely by the federal government? In JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America, the doc's single most amusing (and alarming) sequence comes on the first night of the investigation when Police Chief Jesse Curry asserts that he was just informed by the FBI that very night that the Bureau had interviewed Oswald in Dallas two weeks prior to the shooting and had not informed the Dallas P.D. of this known radical's presence in the city, prior to the arrival of Kennedy - a remarkable admission that immediately causes the reporters to smell a massive scoop headed their way. Just as remarkable, however, 40 minutes later, Curry comes out into the hallway of agitated reporters and categorically denies any such story about the FBI interviewing Oswald...the story he just gave to the reporters (you have to give some higher-up in the conspiracy a little credit: it only took 40 minutes to scare the sh*t out of Curry enough to have him go out there on camera and do a total 180° on the story). Conspiracy buffs will have a field day connecting up all the inconsistencies in the various reports that are featured here (I particularly like the look of abject terror in Curry's eyes - after his ass has been put in line with the "official story" - when he reports that the FBI, in less than 24 hours, has miraculously traced all of Oswald's gun receipts and paperwork back to Chicago...almost as if they had all that info handy on a man they supposedly weren't aware of until that very day).
The final section of Part II of JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America necessarily isn't as gripping as the examination of the two assassinations (the doc's final bravura moment is the contrast between JFK's grand state funeral, and Oswald's grubby, cruddy little burial, set to the music of Mahler's Second Symphony's Resurrection, conducted by Leonard Bernstein on television that weekend as a tribute to the fallen President). Contrary to popular belief, America, right from the start, wasn't as trusting of the "official story" concerning Oswald and Kennedy as we might believe today, and the doc goes into decades-long looks at the various conspiracy theories that evolved over time. This look at the evolution of America's preoccupation with the notion that something happened outside the version of the assassination as presented by the Warren Report, seems less focused and more scattershot in its approach than the almost hallucinatory power of the first two thirds of the doc. Clips of various conspiracists and subsequent investigations are shown, and we even get to spend some time with Geraldo Rivera debuting the Zapruder film on television in 1975 (god I miss the old Geraldo) and wacko filmmaker Oliver Stone, whose goofy but undeniably entertaining JFK in 1991 helped spur the release of many heretofore classified documents on the assassination. Brief mentions of MLK's and RFK's assassination are dragged in, along with side views of rioting in America and even the Vietnam conflict, in what I assume are the filmmakers' efforts to somehow tie in JFK's assassination as the impetus for the country going to hell in the sixties - an argument that may or may not have merit, but which nevertheless comes off as far too facile and underdeveloped here to hold much weight (the doc really falls apart at the very end, casting about wildly for cultural references that have nothing to do with the subject at hand, including a spurious, faintly obscene plug for the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue). Hazy third act construction aside, enough of the brilliance of the first two-thirds of JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America remain with the viewer, largely cancelling out this repetitive and sometimes irrelevant material.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.