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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Unsolved History: JFK - Death in Dealey Plaza
Unsolved History: JFK - Death in Dealey Plaza
Discovery Channel // Unrated // June 15, 2004
List Price: $21.95 [Buy now and save at Discovery]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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It's hard to believe it, and even more bizarre saying it, but the Kennedy Assassination has become a bit...well, boring. Without someone like Oliver Stone taking factual chances to give us the flavor of this infamous moment in US history, all we usually end up with is a group of glorified crackpots discussing the link between Lee Harvey Oswald, the Military Industrial Complex and Fidel Castro's cabana boy. For decades there has been nothing really new brought to the conspiracy theory table. Indeed, with books like Gerald Posner's Case Closed and recent TV specials like ABC's The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy, the conclusion against a cabal has gotten the bigger postmillennial push. And yet, the pontification continues. Just run your remote up and down the cable channels once in a while and, if you can't find at least one History, Discovery, TLC, A&E, Biography Channel, or Animal Planet program about the killing of the President, Satan must be seeking out his parka for the upcoming subterranean freeze. And it is in this consistent spirit, the desire to discover the answer to one of, perhaps, the last remaining riddles in the modern world that a certain sense of overkill has set in. From the endless looping of Abraham Zapruder's Grand Guignol to the thousands of tomes taking up precious bookshelf space, JFK's murder is no longer a debate, it's a dynasty: a defining moment in history warped by repetition into a commodity-sized myth. So when the Discovery Channel series Unsolved History decided to recreate Dealey Plaza in the computer and retrace the last 45 seconds in President Kennedy's life, they tread this dangerous dimension of the derivative. Unless they have something spectacularly new to show us, it's the same old turkey shoot in a high tech dressing. And guess what? That's exactly what we get. And we still aren't sure what happened that sad day in November 1963.

The DVD:
Unsolved History is the biggest waste of an hour (actually a critic saving 43 minutes in total) ever to proclaim a desire to educate. Trying to use a mixed media, power point production style to sell us the same old swamp water, this mediocre show picks subjects of suspect importance, runs them through the exposition extender and then figures out even further ways to make five minutes of real information play out over an entire running time. In the case of the JFK Assassination, the "novel" approach is to recreate the vantage points of over two dozen still and motion picture photographers to "reimagine" Dealey Plaza and try to decipher if anyone picked up "information" they were not aware of. Now, mind you, the murder of the President in Dallas has been dissected, discussed and debated for decades. Images from that day have been scrutinized with microscopes and complicated computer enhancements, guesses and voodoo dolls, and nothing of substance has ever been found. That Unsolved History would somehow manage to find a smoking gun in the grassy knoll or a wayward image of greedy conspirators rubbing their dirty hands together is insane. And yet, that's the purpose behind the show. Unsolved History is going to use I-Mac modeling to filter out all the ancillary shots of fingers, thumbs and the backs of peoples' heads to cast a microchip light on the story. Only problem is, it's working from a set of materials long dismissed as containing zero viable information.

Everything in this show is badly mishandled. When the reveal is attempted, all we get is some fairly lame CGI, a pointless animatic and no conclusive proof of anything – especially the basics of reporting and storytelling. Unsolved History: Death in Dealey Plaza doesn't understand the first facet of what makes a documentary compelling. It assumes that the story itself is enough of a draw and even if it employed inert rutabagas to explain its theories and hypothesis, the audience will still stick around. Frankly, a mixed grill would be more inviting than this dull, dreary exercise in fraudulent hope building. There are so many "if only's" in the course of this claptrap that you too start building your own pastorals of possibilities. What if...the show hadn't employed a narrator who sounds like she's condescending, patronizing, scolding and seducing you all at the same time? What if...instead of messing with some snapshots and a few feet of under/over developed film, the show focused the calculation power of the PC on the physical fallacies in the conspiracy/Warren commission versions of the crime? What if...the palavering participants in the dull discovery process weren't the equivalent of semi-gloss satin slowly aerating on the wall? But perhaps the biggest call for conjecture would sound a little something like this: what if...this show could shed new light on a very redundant retelling of the same old story? Then and maybe only then could the other paltry parameters be forgiven.

But Unsolved History will have none of that. As it photoshops its way to a graphically enhanced, half-baked ending, we learn nothing new about the grassy knoll, see very little of interest in the various 35mm recreations and realize that, as time trudges on, the Kennedy assassination is moving from myth and a microcosm on America circa 1963 and into a realm of uneasy urban legend. It won't be long before stupid scenarios about curses, UFOs and past life time travel tenets are discussed in the same breath as the lone gunman/magic bullet theory. Unsolved History could argue that zombies with a double death wish were roaming around Dealey Plaza looking to lunch on a few innocent Presidential bystanders and we'd have to accept their pronouncements as true. Why? Because they cannot not prove that the living dead were among the well wishers on that fateful day 41 years ago. Indeed, the majority of its findings in this faux fact fallacy are of the double negative variety. Since Zapruder stopped filming before his viewfinder found the grassy knoll, it's too bad that we have no clear visual record of that notorious nook. But also, since he failed to find NOTHING (of course, by also failing to film ANYTHING) this means a marauding band of murders could have been hanging out along that particular picket fence and we have no proof that it's not true. That's the lovely logic of Unsolved History. Like belief in God or the reliance on your instinctual skills as a Homo Sapien, this is faith-based fact finding at its most anemic. And it's what makes the vast majority of this show as salient as a slug with mental retardation.

But the biggest sin this expose commits is the lack of any real relevant revelations. All kidding aside, the death of President Kennedy is often seen as a seminal setback for the United States in terms of both a social and political agenda. Part of the reason why his untimely demise spawns so many questions is that it was an unthinkable act that now seems to have history altering properties. Vietnam, civil rights, and technology all seemed shifted, or scuttled, once the youthful visionary was shot down. Indeed, the abject adjective used in the previous sentences ("untimely" "visionary") comes from this revisionist history mentality. So when you tread upon the shores of this almost sacred situation in the course of American events, you better be sound and secure in your reasoning and rationale. But Unsolved History doesn't do this. The whole Kodak idea is fairly crackpot from the beginning. Following the sightlines of photographers who failed to capture anything concrete the first time around, either in real-life or hard drive recreation, can't possibly lead to anything constructive. And predictably, nothing interesting results. All we end up with are countless repeated buzzwords, an over-explanation of the technology and theories being employed, and more conjecture than a tabloid take on J-Lo's latest wedding. Even the element of how well documented this infamous crime scene was - from all angles and attitudes, resulting in NO additional evidence - is only briefly discussed. Unsolved History: Death in Dealey Plaza intended to use the latest breakthroughs in digital imaging to finally find the missing piece in the oldest, most brain teasing puzzle in the modern US lexicon. But the result is as empty and unenlightening as a certain Chicago gangster's underground vault. All that's missing is Geraldo and a few empty bathtub gin bottles.

The Video:
The Discovery Channel has what can best be described as a VHS mentality when it comes to DVD production. Somewhere along the line, they obviously misunderstood the abbreviation for the medium. Instead of digital versatile disc, they thought it meant deliverer of video dreck and they loaded up the aluminum with said skunk spunk. Visually, while the 1.33:1 full frame looks fine, the lack of any chapters (you can only advance through the show in 10-minute intervals. What genius came up with that idea?) and the inability to fast forward through the opening commercial for the online store shows that, when it comes to advances in entertainment sciences, the smart-ass cable network is still stuck in four-head mode.

The Audio:
Just our luck, the Dolby Digital Stereo sound is crystal clear and aurally effective. This means we can hear our forced female voice-over in all her quasi-sexy snobbery perfectly. Along with all the dread and doom background music that sounds like someone fell asleep on the synthesizer, the audible elements of Unsolved History are acceptable if grossly overdone for diminishing dramatic effect.

The Extras:
Here's the best added feature ever to be found on a digital disc. Once Unsolved History is over, it automatically stops your DVD player for you. No need to hit a button or anything. Now, if it would only release the drawer, eject the title and toss it effortlessly into the nearest landfill for you, this package would be flawless. Instead, the self-cessation aspect is the only thing that can even be considered a bonus on this bare bones briar patch.

Final Thoughts:
When it's done right, narrative histories can be absolutely fascinating. But when they're pointless and redundant, they are a part of that most mindless of glass teat treats, the self-important time waster. And nothing drinks in the seconds more readily than Unsolved History. Trying to breath new life into old stories can occasionally reveal depth and dimensions heretofore never thought of. Indeed, most ancient enigmas are such because the technology and teaching was not available at the time of their occurrence to accurately and fully explore all the aspects. Had police the forensic and evidence gathering capacity of a modern metropolitan force, the legend of Lizzy Borden would be a minor footnote in the history of homicide in the US. The same can be said for the Lindberg baby and the Helter Skelter murders. And in the mass media, 24-hour cable channel ideal of our current society, Oswald would have been witnessed by a hundred amateur auteurs, each one looking to capture the money shot for a future five-figure payout. Pundits would have overanalyzed any found footage, and a myriad of websites would have second-guessed the instantly arriving conclusions. We are no longer a society based in the innocence of not knowing. We are actually inundated with far too much information. Too bad the same can't be said for Unsolved History: Death in Dealey Plaza. It could use a good dose of data to bolster its boredom. President Kennedy's memory deserves better than this.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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