doaskdotell MOVIE/VIDEO/DOCUMENTARY REVIEWs of The Men Who Killed Kennedy and JFK: A Presidency Revealed; Beyond Conspiracy (2 films); Oliver Stone’s JFK; Zapruder Film; Inside the Target Car, The Kennedys: The Curse of Power; Oswald's Ghost, Executive Action; Bobby ; An American Affair; 1968 with Tom Brokaw; Robert Kennedy Remembered; The Kennedys

 

Title: The Men Who Killed Kennedy

Release Date:  2000

Nationality and Language: USA, English, and UK, English (different versions)

Running time: about 280 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG

Distributor and Production Company: Turner Films and The History Channel

Director; Writer:

Producer:

Cast:   Narrated by Roger Mudd (and Bill Curtis/US and Hilary Minster/UK, see below)

Technical:  TV film (video)

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Review: Video/Cable Film Review: The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1999)

Turner Films; Shown on the History Channel in five segments, August 2000; about 280 minutes

Narrated by Roger Mudd

I remember what I was doing when I learned of the assassination, at 20 years old. I was sitting in an oil viscosity rheology lab at the National Bureau of Standards on the old campus (now University of D.C.) when my boss came in and told me.  I remember the bus ride home, wondering if bombs were going to fly soon. I lived in Dallas from 1979-1988, and would sometimes read Dallas Morning News (or then also Dallas Times Herald) accounts of how Dallas was a “city of hate” in 1963, in the days before the assassination.   

As the opening of this film indicates, the JFK assassination remains one of history’s most intriguing murder mysteries. And the circumstances behind it may have had a tremendous effect on the course of history to follow, according to the filmmakers.

I did see Oliver Stone’s epic JFK, (Warner Bros, 189 min, R), in late 1991, and I remember the exaggerated versions of the probing of Jim Garrison and exploitation of the “gay angle,” as when David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) goes to a party with men body-painted in gold. And those interested in this subject would want to look at Gerald Posner’s 1994 book, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.  I had thought that the most detailed evidence, including the studies of the Zabruder films, supported the idea that Oswald was the lone gunman, as in the Warren Commission Report.  . Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is very much prsented as the hero.

 But the JFK story is a bit like Roswell, or for that matter Watergate.  Evidence of a cover-up still continues to surface.  The Turner film presents considerable eyewitness evidence that Mafia elements, particularly in Marseille, France and Corsica, could have been involved (and were involved in a frontal shot from the Grassy Knoll).  The idea that Oswald had a double is explored.  Also, that someone in the Dallas Police deliberately left “the back door” open for Jack Ruby on Sunday morning to kill Oswald, “the first nationally televised murder.”  The forensic evidence is graphic.  Kennedy could not possibly have survived his head wound with the best of treatment, and was probably brain dead almost instantly, well before he arrived at Parkland Hospital.  

 So an alarmist theory shapes up.  That is, ultra-right-wing  elements, who wanted a war in Vietnam and who wanted to carry out a specific agenda v. the Soviets and the Chinese and who interpreted JFK’s intentions, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, as pacifist, set up Maria elements and Oswald as independent assassins, with Oswald as the fall guy. 

 Based on my own experience with the Army (detailed in Do Ask, Do Tell), this theory rings true for me.  When I was a freshman at William and Mary in 1961 two years before, the influence of McCarthyism and the possibility of government meddling was still strong.  In the Army, at the Pentagon in 1968, I would read papers showing concerned about Soviet nuclear possibilities as far back as the Korean War, and I know that the capability to draft large numbers of young men in a conventional war was seen as a deterrent to nuclear war, even if there was concern of the use of tactical nuclear weapons.  The idea that freedom was conditional and very much on edge very much ruled the Pentagon and kept the juices flowing for the military establishment.  On the other hand, were a “right wind conspiracy” behind JFK and were Johnson somehow part of it, how did he get going with civil rights and his “Great Society”?  We know from the Johnson tapes presented on ABC “Nightline” that Johnson was not as sympathetic to African-Americans as popular notions held, as he was willing to sacrifice them as cannon fodder in Vietnam. 

 All in all, it strikes me that powerful forces were squeezing on our society early in the Cold War. What would follow would be RFK.

I did enjoy Oliver Stone’s monumental and conspiratorial JFK (1991, 188 minutes—although the portrayal of David Ferrie painted in gold was a bit much. 

 Medium Cool, Watergate, the fall of Vietnam, the Arab oil embargo, stagflation, AIDS, Saddam Hussein, terrorists.  Yet, freedom and the rise of individualism would win out. Amazing.  Or is it?

(2/2003):

A reader made the following comments. They are included here for accuracy.

  1. You list the production date for the series as 2000, but the first five
    episodes (The Coup D' Etat, The Forces of Darkness, The Cover-Up, The Patsy,
    and The Witnesses) were done in 1988. The sixth, The Truth Shall Make You
    Free, was done in 1995.

    2. You list the narrator as Roger Mudd. Mudd did not do the whole series.
    Mudd gave comments before and after TMWKK. The
    US version (which I believe
    is the target of your review) was done by Bill Kurtis. The
    UK versions were
    done by Hilary Minster.

In the 2003 commemoration The History Channel showed (apparently) seven episodes, including some of the U.K. version mentioned by the reader above. This time I saw additional theories of conspiracy from a mistress of Oswald, in which she claimed participation in the development of a lung cancer virus to kill Castro. It sounded pretty fantastic, like the double crossing and double agenting found in Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn novels. She claimed she was told to keep a low profile for the rest of her life, and not draw attention to herself by excelling in anything (and I guess that means not self-publishing books or websties!)  There was also a theory that Lyndon Johnson spawned The Plot, to cover up his own reportedly dirty dealings in Texas in previous years that could have put him in jail. Particularly disturbing was an account of a party in North Dallas the day before the assassination at which LBJ appeared, at which point party guests, including J. Edgar Hoover scattered like roaches. These episodes have probably been shown before.

 ABC News aired, on Nov. 20, 2003, a special, “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy”, and emphasized the idea that the factual forensic evidence (including digital restorations of the 22-second “home movie” Abraham Zabruder films) supports the idea that Oswald acted alone, and was perhaps motivated by his need for attention and craving to be in the limelight. Oswald, Jennings said, was important to no one but himself, and it is hard to believe that such a “little person” could affect history this way, but that is the way of asymmetric struggle like terrorism. The show also came down on what it sees as fabrications in the Oliver Stone film. However, it still seems to me that, even if the ballistics prove that Oswald was the only gunman, there could have been a major conspiracy. Indeed, President Johnson claimed later he was not sure that Air Force One would land that day before World War III broke out.

The History Channel took this report and made it into a full two hour special ("Beyond Conspiracy", dir. Mike Obenhaus), broadcast on Nov. 24, 2007 (without Peter Jennings; the documentary is essentially remade and lengthened).  In the early part of this film the Zapruder Film (link below) is shown and then analyzed frame by frame with a 3-D stop-motion rotoscopic animation (similar to that used in modern animation from Dreamworks, Pixar, etc). The evidence proves that one bullet passed through both Kennedy and Connelly, and the sight line goes right to the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, where Oswald's rifle was found.  A detailed history of Oswald is presented, with psychological analysis presenting him as rejected by his mother and having grandiose or narcissistic levels of ambition comparable to his education and talents. The period in Russia is covered in detail. The shooting by Jack Ruby is shown and analyzed.  The claims in Oliver Stone's film are debunked one by one. The comment at the end is that it disappoints us that an insignificant man like Lee Harvey Oswald could change history this way.   

 The History Channel (on Nov. 16, 2003 and again on the 40th anniversary Nov. 22, 2003) aired the documentary film “JFK: A Presidency Revealed.” The film, after documenting Kennedy’s health problems, makes the fine point that Kennedy was wearing a back brace when assassinated, and therefore his head was kept in position for a number of seconds for multiple rounds. This could have been known to anyone planning the assassination, besides Oswald himself.

  But more important for this film is how it traces how we came so close to the brink of nuclear war during this 1000 day period, when Kennedy himself sometimes felt privately that a nuclear exchange was almost inevitable. The documentary makes the interesting point that Kennedy viewed the series of confrontations in 1961, from a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June to the construction of the Berlin Wall, started on Aug. 13, 1961, to be almost as provocative as he would later view the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The Soviets constructed the Wall to prevent the fleeing of most of its labor talent to freedom, and there would be another confrontation around October 27, 1961. Kennedy felt that the Soviets could take Berlin any time they wanted, and then West Germany, and then all of Western Europe, although when the Wall went up Kennedy saw that its existence could be used by the West to advance our own propaganda war. In the event of further escalation of tensions around Berlin, the United States did not have enough conventional forces then to provide a reasonable deterrence without the use of nuclear weapons (“mutually assured destruction”). Kennedy increased draft calls then, partly to provide the illusion of conventional deterrence. I saw this point discussed in papers in the Pentagon when I was in the Army myself (http://www.doaskdotell.com/content/xchap2.htm)  Kennedy also made much of Soviet atmospheric  testing of the largest thermonuclear weapons in history. Of course, Kennedy is much remembered also for his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on June 26, 1963, when he said essentially that no one if free until everyone if free. Visit http://www.jfklibrary.org/pr_berlin_speech_40th_anniversary.html Finally, Kennedy would negotiate a test ban treaty, and the powers would begin to recede from the brink, for a more subtle kind of struggle, and it is debatable how Kennedy would have managed Vietnam had he lived.

 The Cold War mentality contributed both to the draft itself and the idea that “men must be men” and protect women and children, but also to the idea of student deferments, that “geeks” could get out by being brainy enough. I cover this in conjunction for my own expulsion from the College of William and Mary as a freshman in November 1961 for admitting homosexuality to the Dean of Men, covered at http://www.doaskdotell.com/content/xchap1.htm   There is a certain irony that my own exchange with the Dean had started over my use of patent medicines in the dorm, when the History Channel special makes so much of Kennedy’s “addiction” to prescription drugs. Later, I would be in psychiatric “reparative” therapy at N.I.H. in Bethesda Maryland, but making day trips to George Washington University where I could hear Kennedy’s speeches about the crises. Kennedy then actually pondered, but did not announce, the evacuation of major cities including the Washington area, and I wonder what would have happened to the patients in the “mental ward” at N.I.H. in this climate. The Cold War was very much on the minds of male college students then. But it is interesting to ponder how the courses of personal lives are effected by external political events not fully understood as they unfold. And, with the Kennedy presidency, one must sort out the enemies: did they come mainly from without (Communist ideology), or from within (corruption and hypocrisy, starting with J. Edgar Hoover himself), or even from our own limited moral compass (the resistance to civil rights). It seems that “the threat to civilization” came from of these, and it is astonishing the JFK juggled all three, given his condition, and that our country has managed all of this since, even given all of the faults. To personal lives, politics does matter.

 The History Channel followed up with LBJ v. The Kennedys: Chasing Demons, to cover the early period of the Johnson administration, especially up to the time of his re-election in 1964. My own father would say, “Nobody can beat LBJ.” Of course, we remember the ads picturing Goldwater as a nuclear war mongerer, when actually Goldwater would claim that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” But LBJ went to work quickly to distance himself with the Kennedy family, while J. Edgar Hoover began his unauthorized investigation of Martin Luther King. Things would come to a head in 1964 when Walter Jenkins was arrested for homosexual acts in a public restroom near the White House. Johnson would then ask Hoover to conduct a despicable investigation for “sexual perversion” in top government officials. Hoover would come back with the conclusion that Jenkins had not compromised national security. Of course, this is all the more shameful since it is practically certain that Hoover was homosexual himself and even had a relationship with Cohn.  In those days, I remember the Civil Service forms that stated that the penalty for “sexual perversion” was “Removal.”

 What does all of this add up to? The modern physical evidence is that Oswald acted alone, at least in actually firing the shots; yet there are anomalies and stories of various witnesses or participants in secret plots that are quite disturbing, such as the mistress who was told to keep a low profile for the rest of her life. It is quite credible that the CIA was still trying to kill Castro, and that Khrushchev would have felt bitter about his backing down during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and about the fact that Kennedy seemed to have outfoxed him on Berlin, at least with respect to propaganda, as horribly as their initial contacts went for Kennedy. So could the CIA have offered Kennedy as a sacrifice to appease the Soviets and solve some problems for LBJ?  Whatever happened, the idea that Kennedy would have become a dove on Vietnam seems inconsistent with his riding through confrontations with Soviets, on the verge of nuclear war, leaving a world unfit for a “sissy boy” like me to live in.

The Zapruder Film (26 sec.) may be viewed on YouTube here.

JFK: Inside the Target Car (Discovery, 2008) Australian researchers prove with an experiment that Kennedy's fatal head wound (frame 312 in Zapruder) was indeed caused by Oswald.

American Experience: Oswald's Ghost (2007, PBS, dir. David Stone, 86 min), blogger here.

The Kennedys: The Curse of Power (2004?, History Channel, 120 min) documents the history of the family back to the 1920s, with a very telescoped account of all of the family accomplishments and tragedies (it does not linger on the 1963 and 1968 assassinations too much). It spends some time on Chappaquiddick Incident in which Senator Edward Kennedy M. ("Ted") Kennedy was convicted for leaving the scene in an accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in a driver near Edgartown, MA.  Some claim that he could have saved her. It also covers Kennedy's expulsion from Harvard for cheating (ref). Earlier, the elder Kennedy had once said that he didn't want power so much as that he feared that if someone else had it, his freedom could be taken from him.

 Another important film about the assassination is Executive Action (1973, National General, dir. David Miller) with Burt Lancaster as James Farrington and Robert Ryan as Foster. Smaller than the Oliver Stone film, it emphasized the business reasons for conspiracy, such as collusion among oil and defense companies who wanted a war. This film is sometimes credited as having motivated the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and the film is seen as a credible counterweight to the Warren Report since it plays down the hysterics of Stone’s film.

Bobby (2006, MGM/TWC/Bold, dir. Emilio Estevez, 120 min, R) is a Robert-Altman style drama of the day leading up to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy (Dave Fraunces) at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan (David Kobzantev). Apparently the real hotel was used, but it has since been imploded. 22 characters are presented, and a number of dramatic situations related to racism and drug use are presented. Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore) finally sings just before the Senator's appearance. William H. Macy plays Paul, the sympathetic hotel director, who fires one of his managers Timmons (Christian Slater) for not giving the employees paid time off to vote in the Primary. (I related to that since I have worked as an election officer in 2006.) Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf play two young campaign workers who succumb to the temptation of a day long LSD trip when they visit the room of Fisher (Ashton Kutcher). Fisher has a cute pet cat in his room, and the cat is shown almost as a parody of the MGM Lion. There is a chess double-header with  John (Anthony Hopkins) checkmating a sandbagging Jack (Martin Sheen) twice with Black in the middlegame, but the kibitzing commentary is awkward (they talk about a rook sacrifice in unchess-like terms).  A Latino dishwasher Jose (Freddy Rodriquez) can't get a second shift off to go see Don Drysdale pitch a six straight shutout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, so he gives his ticket away and is "crowned" as a King Arthur by one of the other workers, who gives him a radio. (The commentary is wrong; Drysdale, pitching at home, would pitch in the top of an inning, not the bottom.) This film as an old Casino Royale parade of stars making various appearances, including also Elijah Wood, Joshua Jackson, Helen Hunt. Some of them, mostly young men, will be wounded when Sirhan shoots, but only Senator Kennedy will die. The climax of the film is riveting. 

The History Channel offers a 3:37 summary video "Infamous Murders: John F. Kennedy".

On Thanksgiving Day, 2007 ABC News had a story by Chuck Goudie from WLS-TV: “44 Years After JFK’s Death, New Assassination Plot Revealed: Just Three Weeks Before Dallas, Fed Uncovered Plot to Kill JFK in Chicago, Ex-Secret Service Agent Says,” here.  The agent is Abraham Bolden, 72

An American Affair (2009, Screen Media / Astrakan, 93 min, R) features Cameron Bright as a Catholic school teen drawn into a "friendship" with an older woman involved in the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Blogger.

1968 with Tom Brokaw (2007, History Channel, dir. narr. Tom Brokaw), aired on Dec. 9, 2007, 2 hours, blogger discussion here. There was an unrelated film "1968: America Is Hard to See" directed by Emile de Antonio, which is now hard to find.

Robert Kennedy Remembered (1968, National General, dir. prod. Charles Guggenheim, 30 min) is a black and white documentary tribute to RFK.  Blogger review.

American Experience: The Kennedys (2009, PBS/WGBH, dir. Phillip Whitehead, Marilyn H. Mellowes and David Espar, 180 min). Blogger.

Related reviews: 13 Days; The Assassination of Richard Nixon; Death of a President ; Eyewitness to Murder: The King Assassination   CIA Secret Experiments (about RFK)  King; The Night James Brown Saved Boston

 

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