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JFK on Screen

All mentioned films in article
Not released

Sixty years ago, three shots changed the world. On 22 November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and the conspiracy theories started to swirl. Cinema Paradiso commemorates the occasion by looking at how Hollywood has viewed the life and legacy of JFK.

The United States of America has never really come to terms with the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza one Texan lunchtime in November 1963. As the first president to be born in the 20th century, JFK had brought such modernity and glamour to the White House that it was seen as the new Camelot. Consequently, the shock the country felt at his murder was compounded by a sense of loss that became more intense as internal tensions were exacerbated over the ensuing decade by the Civil Rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and Watergate.

A still from The Crown (2016)
A still from The Crown (2016)

Kennedy was only in office for 1036 days and much of what he achieved has been overshadowed by his assassination. A series akin to The Crown (2016-23) has been mooted to remind Americans of his domestic agenda, as well as such foreign policy predicaments as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the media focus will inevitably fall on the depiction of the fateful day in Dallas and who was behind it.

The obsession with the Kennedy killing isn't confined to the US, however, as he had seemed to offer a fresh start to a world that was still coming to terms with the new order that had been established after the Second World War. Yet, while there have been documentaries about JFK's time in office, it's his violent death that has fascinating film and programme makers. Many of them pore over the 486 frames contained in the 26.6 seconds of silent 8mm film captured by Ukrainian-born clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder. No doubt, it will be mentioned frequently in Who Killed JFK?, the 10-part podcast produced to mark the 60th anniversary by director Rob Reiner and broadcaster Soledad O'Brien. But the recent Hollywood strikes mean that we'll have to wait a bit longer to see Assassination, a reconstruction of the crime from the perspective of the Chicago underworld that is due to star Al Pacino, Viggo Mortensen, John Travolta, Shia LaBeouf, and Rebecca Pidgeon. Barry Levinson is slated to direct, but what makes this such an enticing prospect is that it has been written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet and Nicholas Celozzi, the grand-nephew of Chicago mob boss and Frank Sinatra associate, Sam Giancana.

The Clan

America's obsession with the family of John F. Kennedy has resulted in countless books, but surprisingly few screen spin-offs. And very few of these have been released on disc in the UK, so bear with us. Among the most intriguing is Lamont Johnson's The Kennedys of Massachusetts (1990), which charts the marriage of Joseph P. Kennedy (William Petersen) and Rose Fitzgerald (Annette O'Toole). Although the second half of the mini-series centres on the young JFK (Steven Weber) and his rivalry with his older brother, Joe, Jr. (Campbell Scott), the teleplay does explore Joe, Sr.'s time in Hollywood, when he played a key role in the founding of RKO, which would become one of the five major studios during the golden age. He also had a three-year affair with actress Gloria Swanson (Madolyn Smith), with footage from Queen Kelly, their 1928 collaboration with actor-director Erich von Stroheim (Olek Krupa), finding its way into Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Joe Kennedy's name was emblazoned on over 100 films between 1924-29, but they have largely been forgotten. He was less keen on publicising his financial dealings during the Prohibition era and around the time of the Wall Street Crash. However, the fortune he amassed led to him moving in the same circles as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appointed him US Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. He remained in London until a speech warning of the demise of British democracy prompted his recall in 1940. It's surprising that no one has made a feature or TV-movie about Kennedy's role in keeping his country out of the war, while also offering tacit support for Neville Chamberlain's policy of Appeasement.

A still from The Kennedys (1997)
A still from The Kennedys (1997)

Cinema Paradiso users can, however, learn about Joe, Sr.'s ambitions for his heir in the History Channel documentary, Kennedy: Father and Son (1997). In addition to chronicling the dynasty in The Kennedys (which features on the same disc), this thoughtful actuality details how JFK lived in the shadow of Joe, Jr. and only started to be groomed for great things after his sibling had been killed in a flying accident over Suffolk in August 1944. Peter Strauss starred in Richard T. Heffron's Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy (1977), which also featured Sam Chew, Jr. as JFK. Loren Dean and Patrick Dempsey took the roles in Harry Winer's JFK: Reckless Youth (1993), which followed the second son from his schooldays to his election to Congress in 1946.

It also covers Kennedy's war service, which is recalled in Leslie Martinson's PT 109 (1963), which saw the president play an active role in selecting Cliff Robertson for the lead over Peter Fonda and Warren Beatty. Centring on the exploits in the Pacific of Kennedy's Motor Torpedo Boat, this was the first-ever biopic of a sitting president and was released in June 1963. Despite only receiving lukewarm reviews, it provides a fascinating glimpse of how Americans viewed their 35th president and really should be on disc. It remains to be seen whether anyone will release 60th anniversary items like The Kennedy Dynasty and Kennedy, an eight-part History Channel exclusive that has been narrated by actor Peter Coyote. But perhaps the most rounded portrait is already on Cinema Paradiso stocks. Narrated by Oliver Platt, Susan Bellow's JFK: Like No Other (2013) goes behind the momentous events to examine Kennedy's personality and the debilitating health issues that he strove so hard to hide from public view.

The Presidency

A key moment in John F. Kennedy's run for the presidency was caught on film by Robert Drew in Primary (1960), an account of the race for the Democratic ticket in Wisconsin between JFK and Senator Hubert Humphrey. Among the cameramen assigned to this landmark study were such future cutting-edge documentarists as Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert Maysles and its impact on reportage is examined in Peter Wintonick's Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (1999).

Kennedy was so impressed with the film that he invited Drew & Associates to the White House to see if it would be possible to profile the president at work. Given unprecedented access, Drew produced Adventures on the New Frontier (1961) to reveal the day-to-day workings of the Oval Office. He was invited back with Leacock and Pennebaker to show how the president and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy handled the Alabama integration dispute in June 1963. Tragedy was to strike, however, just weeks after Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) was broadcast and Drew paid tribute to the man he had come to know in the poetic short, Faces of November (1964).

These actualities are available from the estimable Criterion Collection, but they have yet to be released in the PAL format used for DVD and Blu-ray in Europe. A compilation from the Drew quartet was produced for A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy (2008). Equally valuable is The Making of the President 1960 (1963), a documentary account of JFK's election battle with Richard Nixon, which was directed by Mel Stuart, who is probably better known for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

A still from Kennedy (1983)
A still from Kennedy (1983)

Marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination, Jim Goddard's Kennedy (1983) was a three-part mini-series that sought to provide insights into various aspects of the presidency. Long before he played Jeb Bartlett in The West Wing (1999-2005), Martin Sheen excels across five hours as JFK, whether creating the Camelot myth with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Blair Brown) or handling domestic and foreign crises with his brother, Bobby (John Shea). Charles Brown and Vincent Gardenia also impress as Martin Luther King, Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover - whose dealings are chillingly exposed in Samuel D. Pollard's documentary, MLK/FBI (2020).

Clint Eastwood would cover some of this territory in J. Edgar (2011), which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the FBI chief who used taped recordings to exert power over the Kennedys and Dr King. Sadly, Abby Mann's King (1987) is currently out of reach, as are Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Michael O'Herlihy's Hoover vs The Kennedys: The Second Civil War, and Robert L. Collins's J. Edgar Hoover (both 1987). This is frustrating, as they allow viewers to assess Kennedy's conduct of business, as do Mike Newell's Blood Feud (1983) and Danny DeVito's Hoffa (1992), which examine the administration's clashes with Teamsters union leader, Jimmy Hoffa.

Bert Lovitt's Prince Jack (1985) put a satirical spin on events in the early 1960s, with an emphasis on the relationship between JFK (Robert J. Hogan) and Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Kenneth Mars). This has never been released on disc anywhere in the world and the same goes for Life in Camelot: The Kennedy Years (1998), an HBO presentation that combined unpublished LIFE magazine photos and recordings found in the JFK Library Collection. But Cinema Paradiso users can discover the behind-the-scenes roles played by aides Dave Powers, Kenny O'Donnell, and Larry O'Brien in David Harvey's documentary, The Kennedys' Irish Mafia (2015).

While the aforementioned titles focus on domestic policy, less attention has been paid to Kennedy's conduct of foreign affairs. Nick Macdonald's The Liberal War (1972) offered an anarchist overview of JFK's response to the situation in Vietnam (which Oliver Stone has since vigorously contested), while David Davis's The Bay of Pigs (1997) assessed the calamitous CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba by 1200 exiles on 17 April 1961. This failure to remove Fidel Castro is addressed in his interview with Stone in Comandante (2001), as is the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear conflict in the autumn of 1962. This was first dramatised in Anthony Page's The Missiles of October (1974), which was adapted from Bobby's own memoir of the incident and cast William Devane and Martin Sheen as the Kennedy brothers. Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp took the roles in Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days (2000), which viewed the emergency from the perspective of special assistant Kenny O'Donnell (Kevin Costner).

An interesting side angle is provided by the casting as naval pilot William Ecker of Christopher Lawford, who was JFK's nephew via sister Patricia's marriage to film star Peter Lawford. Born in London, Lawford had made his name in pictures like S. Sylvan Simon's Son of Lassie (1945) and Charles Walters's Easter Parade (1948). He was also a member of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack and co-starred with his pals in Lewis Milestone's Oceans 11 (1960).

Lawford was played by Angus Macfadyen in Rob Cohen's The Rat Pack (1998), in which William L. Petersen played Jack Kennedy and Ray Liotta was cast as Ol' Blue Eyes. As is revealed in James Steven Sadwith's Sinatra (1992) and Frank Sinatra and His Fabulous Rat Pack (2002), the crooner had campaigned ardently for Kennedy in 1960 and Alex Gibney's Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing (2015) mentions how he had been entrusted with staging the inauguration gala as a reward.

A still from Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001)
A still from Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001)

Jackie Kennedy, however, disliked Sinatra, perhaps because he had introduced her husband to Marilyn Monroe, with whom Kennedy had had one of his numerous affairs. Both Joyce Chopra's Blonde (2001) and Andrew Dominki's Blonde (2022) draw on Joyce Carol Oates's Pulitzer-nominated novel to explore the actress's troubled life. But, while the former makes no reference to JFK, the latter features Ana de Armas and Caspar Phillipson in a sordid tryst. The White House's role in Monroe's death is also explored in documentaries like Patty Ivins Specht's Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days (2001), although the facts have been clouded by conspiracy, as in the case of JFK's own demise.

Another of Kennedy's indiscretions is related in à clef style in William Olsson's An American Affair (2008), in which Gretchen Mol plays Catherine Caswell, who was based on artist Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was murdered a year after the Kennedy assassination. The truth is less thinly veiled in Lee Daniels's The Butler (2013), which stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a fictionalised version of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for 34 years. James Marsden and Minka Kelly feature as the Kennedys coping with the crisis in Cuba.

Ryan Sampson took the role of the president in Series 7 of Horrible Histories (2015-), while Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour pay a call on Claire Foy and Matt Smith at Buckingham Palace in Season 2 of The Crown (2016-23). This episode brings to mind Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), in which Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (Bill Murray and Olivia Williams) hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) in the spring of 1939, when Joseph Kennedy was ensconced in the US Embassy in London.

The Assassination

Released to mark the first anniversary of President Kennedy's murder, Mel Stuart's Four Days in November (1964) was nominated for an Academy Award for its blend of archive clips, amateur footage, and dramatic reconstruction. Bruce Herschensohn's John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums was also completed in 1964, but administrative issues prevented it from being screened in the United States for another two years. Narrated by Gregory Peck, this was a survey of Kennedy's term in office, as well as a memorial. By contrast, Emile De Antonio's Rush to Judgment (1967) drew on a book of the same name by Mark Lane to challenge the findings of the Warren Commission by interviewing witnesses who claimed that the fatal shots were fired from Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll rather than the Texas School Book Depository.

A still from JFK (1991) With Kevin Costner
A still from JFK (1991) With Kevin Costner

This, of course, is the terrain covered by Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), which based its contentions on those found in two books: Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs's Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. Garrison was the District Attorney of New Orleans and he is played in Stone's opus by Kevin Costner. Among its eight Oscar nominations were wins in the Cinematography and Editing categories, but it lost out for Best Picture to Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. A raft of declassified documents prompted Stone to reopen the case in JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass (2021), which was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and Donald Sutherland and should be an essential DVD release.

For all the conviction of Stone's assertions, counter theories remain prevalent, such as those espoused in Nelson McCormick's Killing Kennedy (2013). Adapted from a tome by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, this docudrama stars Rob Lowe as JFK and Will Rothaar as Lee Harvey Oswald. Resisting sensationalism in suggesting how the two men became embroiled in a complex situation, this would also be well worth a UK disc release.

Stone cast Gary Oldman as Oswald and his remains among the most compelling portrayals. Yet Oswald remains a man of mystery six decades on and in spite of having twice endured posthumous trial by television in Larry Buchanan's The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964) and David Greene's The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977), with Charles Mazyrack and John Pleshette respectively on the stand. Among the documentaries currently available from Cinema Paradiso on Oswald are Jim Morris's The Lee Harvey Oswald Conspiracy 2 (2005) and The Lee Harvey Oswald Conspiracy 3 (2008), as well as Anthony Giacchino's Lee Harvey Oswald: 48 Hours to Live (2013). Dramatised accounts, however, have drifted out of reach, even though Helena Bonham Carter is deeply empathetic as Marina Oswald in Robert Dornhelm's Fatal Deception: Mrs Lee Harvey Oswald (1993). There's also much to be said for Danny Aiello's depiction of Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, in John Mackenzie's Ruby (1992), which was released 14 years after Michael Lerner had played the strip club owner crossing paths with Frederic Forrest's assassin in Ruby and Oswald, which was the third film on the assassination to have been directed by Mel Stuart.

Two Dallas-related dramas that Cinema Paradiso can offer are Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field (1992) and Peter Landesman's Parkland (2013). Reflecting the nation's collective shock, the former follows Jackie-obsessed hairdresser Lurene Hallett (Michelle Pfeiffer) on a bus journey to Washington to attend JFK's funeral. Pfeiffer received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as Lurene befriends African American father Paul Cayter (Dennis Haysbert) and his young daughter, Jonell (Stephanie McFadden). More of an ensemble piece, the latter centres on the emotions felt by the trauma staff at Parkland Memorial Hospital, as well as the FBI officers who had been on duty on 22 November, the assassin's brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), and Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti).

A still from Unsolved History: JFK: Conspiracy Myths (2003)
A still from Unsolved History: JFK: Conspiracy Myths (2003)

A small industry has grown up around Kennedy's death, with many being documentaries seeking to shatter the conspiracy theories. Among them are Barbara Kopple and Danny Schechter's Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy (1991), Robert J. Groden's JFK: The Case For Conspiracy (1993), Robert Erickson's JFK: Death in Dealey Plaza, Unsolved History: JFK: Conspiracy Myths (both 2003), Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundrick's JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America (2009), Vince DiPersio's The Kennedy Detail (2010) and The JFK Assassination: Conspiracy Files (2013), Robert Stone's JFK: The Lost Bullet (2011), Malcolm Mcdonald's JFK: The Smoking Gun, JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide, Cold Case JFK, Chris Martin's JFK: The Lost Tapes (all 2013), Errol Morris's The Umbrella Man (2016), Laurent Guyénot's Israel and the Assassinations of The Kennedy Brothers, and Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman's Truth Is the Only Client: The Official Investigation of the Murder of John F. Kennedy (both 2019).

The latter would be a welcome addition to the JFK disc canon, as would Leslie Woodhead's The Day Kennedy Died (2013), a 50th anniversary overview that sought to find fresh perspectives. Cinema Paradiso does have a couple of noteworthy contributions among its 100,000 discs, however. Roger Moore narrates David McKenzie's The Secret KGB JFK Assassination Files (1999), which uses the Kremlin archive to put events in Dallas into a Cold War context, while producers Lloyd Fales and Payal Bawa consider the potential involvement of Chicago kingpin Sam Giancana in Did the Mob Kill JFK? (2009). It's also fascinating to see how Kennedy's shooting fits into Sheldon Renan and Leonard Schrader's thesis about a national obsession with violence in The Killing of America (1981).

Numerous viewing platforms have marked the 60th anniversary and it's to be hoped that a couple of titles find their way on to disc in the UK. Barbara Shearer's JFK: What the Doctors Saw considers the strains placed on the medical team at Parkland Memorial, who received Kennedy and Oswald in 1963 and Jack Ruby when he suffered a pulmonary embolism in January 1967. Finally, Ella Wright's three-parter, JFK: One Day in America (both 2023), offers a voice to those who have not previously told their story, including reporters Peggy Simpson and Sid Davis and Secret Service protection agents, Clint Hill and Paul Landis.

The Aftermath

The whole world grieved alongside Jacqueline Kennedy. Even Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev seemed mournful when he signed a book of condolence at the US Embassy in Moscow. The images of the 34 year-old widow in a blood-specked raspberry pink Chanel suit accompanying her husband's body back to Washington have become as iconic as those of her behind a translucent veil in a black Givenchy dress at JFK's funeral in Washington on 25 November. How on earth, just three months after losing a premature baby, did she maintain her composure when John, Jr. saluted his father's coffin outside St Matthew's Cathedral on what was his third birthday?

Having withdrawn from the spotlight to raise her children, Jackie courted controversy when she married Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis in 1968. A decade later, J. Lee Thompson produced a thinly disguised drama about the relationship in The Greek Tycoon (1978), which starred Antony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset. Having played a presidential type in this film à clef, James Franciscus took the JFK role opposite former Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith in Steve Gethers's TV-movie, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981).

Marianna Bishop and Sarah Michelle Geller essayed the younger heroine of Larry Peerce's A Woman Named Jackie (1988), with Roma Downey joining Stephen Collins in the White House. Sally Taylor-Isherwood, Emily VanCamp, and Joanne Whalley similarly shared the part in Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (2000), a four-hour adaptation of a Donald Spoto biography that followed on from Waris Hussein's Onassis: The Richest Man in the World (1988), another 240-minute teleplay that starred Francesca Annis alongside Raul Julia as Aristotle Onassis, Anthony Quinn as his father Socrates, and Jane Seymour as opera diva, Maria Callas, whose encounters with Jackie O are recalled in Tom Volf's documentary, Maria By Callas (2017).

Other actualities to name-check Jackie include Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt's Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), and Frédéric Tcheng's Halston (2019). But she's much more to the fore in Leon Gast's Smash His Camera (2010), which focusses on paparazzo Ron Galella, who sued Kennedy Onassis after his relentless pursuit of her resulted in his arrest by three Secret Service agents in 1969. Jackie counter-sued and the game of cat and mouse continued until 1982, when Galella vowed to leave her in peace after the 12th breach of a restraining order.

A still from Jackie (2016)
A still from Jackie (2016)

In Larry Shaw's Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot (2001), the wives of Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy were played by Jill Hennessy, Lauren Holly, and Leslie Stefanson. David F. Kelly stood in for JFK, while Dane Caspar Phillipson took the role for the first time in Pablo Larraín's Jackie (2016), which was based on Theodore H. White's TIME magazine interview a week after the assassination and earned Natalie Portman an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Rachel Weisz and Darren Aronofsky had originally been attached to a project that Steven Spielberg had also expressed an interest in directing.

Winning six Emmys and two Golden Globes, Michael Sucsy's Grey Gardens (2009) cast Jeanne Tripplehorn as Jackie, while Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore played her aunt and cousin, Big and Little Edith Beales, who had first come to filmgoers' attention in Grey Gardens (1975), a classic documentary that was directed by David and Albert Maysles, along with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer. Remaining in biopic territory, Elizabeth Marley appeared as Kennedy Onassis opposite Richard Gere in The Hoax (2006), Swede Lasse Hallström's take on the literary forgeries of Clifford Irving. And, having been Liz Cassidy in The Greek Tycoon, Jacqueline Bisset got to play Jackie O in Eric Laneuville's America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story (2003), which was headlined by Kristoffer Poloha and featured Tara Chocol as John John's onetime girlfriend, Daryl Hannah.

A more thoughtful contribution to the canon is Tanya Maryniak and Anna Wallner's documentary, I Am Jackie O (2020), which covers the main events of her fraught life, while also seeking to divine her personality and assess the impact Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had on American society and culture, as First Lady, dignified widow, and literary editor. As a link between the past and the future, she can be seen in archive footage in Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016). Many commentators have claimed that the Fab Four did much to lift America's spirits when they arrived two and a half months after the assassination for a brief tour that was recorded in Albert and David Maysles's The Beatles: The First Visit (1991), another landmark actuality that was co-directed by Kathy Dougherty and Susan Frömke.

A sad aside from a family history riven with tragedy is the fate of Kennedy's younger sister, Rose Marie, who underwent a prefrontal lobotomy at her father's insistence in 1941. After Emma Stone had been linked, Elizabeth Moss was announced as the lead in Ritesh Botra's A Letter From Rosemary Kennedy in 2018. Five years later, however, there's still no sign of the film. Her younger brother, Robert, would also fall victim to an assassin when he ran for the presidency in 1968. The consequences of the killing are captured in Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969), while Shane O'Sullivan considers the motives for Sirhan Sirhan's actions on 5 June 1968 and whether he acted alone in RFK Must Die (2007). A fictional account of events at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles is provided by Emilio Estevez's Bobby (2006), which features Dave Fraunces as RFK and David Kobzantsev as his Palestinian-Jordanian killer, who is still behind bars outside San Diego.

Brad Davis took the title role in Marvin J. Chomsky's Robert Kennedy and His Times (1985), with Cliff De Young essaying JFK. Martin Donovan played the president to Linus Roache's attorney general in Robert Dornhelm's RFK (2002), while the senator's role in securing the passage of the Civil Rights Bill is recalled in Matt Norman's Salute (2008), Suzanne Rostock's Harry Belafonte tribute, Sing Your Song (2011), and Raoul Peck's James Baldwin profile, I Am Not Your Negro (2016). Moreover, the wider debt owed by his country is assessed in Robert F. Kennedy: Legacy (2008) and Oliver Stone's The Untold Story of the United States (2013).

Bobby Kennedy sought the Democratic candidacy in 1968 because Lyndon Johnson had decided not to seek re-election. He was played by a Golden Globe-winning Randy Quaid in Peter Werner's LBJ: The Early Years (1987), which includes Charles Frank and Robin Curtis as Jack and Jackie. But the focus is purely factual in Anthony Giacchino's The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After (2009), which shows how Johnson conducted himself either side of swearing the Oath of Office between Jacqueline Kennedy and wife Lady Bird Johnson aboard Air Force One. Bryan Cranston took on the 36th POTUS in Jay Roach's All the Way, a tele-adaptation of Robert Schenkkan's Tony-winning play that co-starred Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King. This really should be on disc, as should Rob Reiner's LBJ (both 2016), which stars Woody Harrelson in a chronicle of Johnson's political career, his dealings with the Kennedys (Jeffrey Donovan and Michael Stahl-David), and his marriage to Lady Bird Taylor (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

A still from The Kennedys (2011)
A still from The Kennedys (2011)

Cinema Paradiso can bring users John Curran's The Senator (2017), which recreates the dilemma facing Edward Kennedy (Jason Clark) after assistant Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) drowned in a car he was driving at Chappaquidick in Massachusetts in July 1969. This incident is also recreated in Jon Cassar's The Kennedys After Camelot (2017), a sequel to The Kennedys (2011), an eight-part mini-series that shows how Joe Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson) sought to realise his political ambitions through his sons, Jack (Greg Kinnear), Bobby (Barry Pepper), and Ted (Matthew Perry, in his final TV role). Katie Holmes makes a splendid Jackie, so don't believe any negative reviews you might have read.

And coming right up to date, Alan Govenar's documentary, Down in Dallas Town (2023), is a 60th anniversary assessment of the impact that Kennedy and his assassination have left on his compatriots and the social problems that linger from his time, including the prevalence of gun crime.

Alternate Realities

Centring on attempted presidential assassinations, Lewis Allen's Suddenly (1954) and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) have often been tied into the Kennedy case, especially as the former starred Frank Sinatra. Laurence Harvey headlined the latter, with Denzel Washington taking over the role of the brainwashed hitman when Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate in 2004. But these are just three of the non-factual films and television shows that have exploited JFK's murder.

Four avant-garde offerings sought to recast events that the entire nation had watched unfold on television. In addition to Andy Warhol's Since (1966), Bruce Conner's Report (1967), and The Eternal Frame (1975) by the Ant Farm and TR Uthco art collectives, there is also John Waters's Eat Your Makeup (1968), which cast Howard Gruber and Divine as the president and first lady in a bizarre fantasy segment of a film that has yet to be released in any home entertainment format. Cinema Paradiso users can rent Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), in which Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) has a sinister dream that she's on a yacht with the Kennedys.

Despite Tonino Valerii's Spaghetti Western, The Price of Power (1969), alluding to events in Dallas in depicting the shooting of President James A. Garfield (Van Johnson), the first feature to question the Warren Commission findings was David Miller's Executive Action (1973), a brilliant conceit co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo that stars Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan as right-wing conspirators and makes evocative use of archive footage of President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby. There's no excuse for this not being on disc in the UK, when so many other conspiracy pictures of the period are so readily available, including Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green (1973), Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (both 1974) and Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975).

The Kegans stand in for the Kennedys in William Richert's Winter Kills (1979), an adaptation of a Richard Condon bestseller that sees Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) discover that a second gunman was involved in the shooting of his presidential sibling. Such conspiratorial speculations had been parodied in a commercial for a board game inspired by the Kennedy killing in John Landis's The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), while French director Henri Verneuil alludes to the Zapruder footage in his fictional assassination saga, I As in Icarus (1979).

Texan border guards Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams become convinced that the skeleton found in a long-buried vehicle may be connected to events in Dealey Plaza in William Tannen's adept thriller, Flashpoint (1984), while a superhero (Matt Salinger) discovers that Red Skull (Scott Paulin) is responsible for the deaths of both Kennedy brothers in Albert Pyun's Captain America (1990). The same year saw schoolteacher Robert Hays go back in time to prevent the assassination to prevent LBJ from escalating the war in Vietnam that has claimed his brother in Bruce Seth Green's Running Against Time (1990).

Although not currently on disc, this adaptation of Stanley Shapiro's book, A Time to Remember, is worthy of note as it's the first of many time-travelling stories with November 1963 as their destination. Another was related in 'Profile in Silver', a Season 1 episode of The Twilight Zone (1985-88) that sends Dr Joseph Fitzgerald (Lane Smith) back from 2172 to prevent ancestor John Fitzgerald Kennedy (Andrew Robinson) from being murdered without disrupting the historical timeline.

In Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) boasts that Oswald fired off three rounds 'with an old Italian bolt action rifle in only six seconds and scored two hits, including a head shot' solely because he had been trained in the US Marine Corps. Writer-producer Donald P. Bellisario had served alongside Oswald and he used his personal knowledge to challenge Oliver Stone's conclusions in the two-part 'Lee Harvey Oswald' episode in Quantum Leap (1989-93), in which a glitch in the leaping process sees Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) assume the assassin's identity.

A still from Forrest Gump (1994)
A still from Forrest Gump (1994)

Secret Service agent Clint Hill plays a crucial role in the denouement and the actions of the security detail in Dallas in 1963 come under scrutiny, as Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) deals with his guilt in order to confound another potential killer (John Malkovich) in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire (1993). While Clint holds his nerve, Oscar winner Tom Hanks struggles to hold in 15 Dr Peppers at the White House on meeting JFK in Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump (1994). Louis Malle's My Dinner With André (1981) inspired the title of Paul Duane's My Dinner With Oswald (1997), a short that turns around a dinner party in Dublin.

There's a comic impetus behind the time travelling in 'Tikka to Ride', the first episode of Series VII of Red Dwarf (1988-), in which Dave Lister (Craig Charles) misfires in transporting himself to a curry house and accidentally enables the Soviet Union to win the Cold War and the Space Race by landing in the Texas School Book Depository and preventing Lee Harvey Oswald (Toby Aspin) from shooting JFK (Michael Shannon). More smiles can be found in 'Diatribe of a Mad Housewife', a 2004 episode of The Simpsons (1989) that sees Homer and Marge write a novel, Who Really Killed JFK, that's based on the premise that Oswald wanted to steal the Jack Ruby.

Taking a more serious approach, 'Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man', a Season 4 episode of The X-Files (1993-2002), sees the eponymous fumeur (Chris Owens) inform Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) that he shot JFK and framed Oswald using the alias, 'Mr Hunt'. Robert Dyke's Timequest (2000) would very much like to be taken as seriously, but critics rather went for this fantasy, in which the machinations of a time traveller (Ralph Waite) ensure that JFK (Victor Slezak), RFK (Vince Grant), and MLK (Reuben Yabuku) all survive and give epoch-changing service to their homeland.

Kevin Willmott re-imagines history with markedly more wit and acumen in the mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2003), and there's more revisionism on display in David Zucker's An American Carol (2008), in which Chriss Anglin's JFK serves as a kind of Marley's Ghost for a Michael Moore-like documentary maker who is visited by the spirits of General George S. Patton (Kelsey Grammer) and George Washington (Jon Voight) in a bid to force him to mend his ways.

Frivolity informs the Jackie K fashion choices of Posh Spice (Victoria Adams) in Bob Spiers's Spice World (1997) and Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Robert Luketic's Legally Blonde (2001) and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld's Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (2003). But there's nothing so discreet about Don Coscarelli's Bubba Ho-Tep, as Ossie Davis plays a resident in an East Texas care home who confides to Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) that he is really JFK and was dyed Black and abandoned on LBJ's orders after he had survived Oswald's magic bullets. The delusion is more dangerous in Neil Burger's Interview With the Assassin (both 2002), which deserves a release on disc as Raymond J. Barry seizes the attention as the ex-Marine who claims to have been the second gunman on 22 November.

Thomas Heinze produces love letters belonging to his aunt's in claiming she slept with President Kennedy during his 1963 visit to West Berlin in Franziska Meyer Price's comedy, Ich ein Berliner (2005). However, being JFK's illegitimate son soon turns out to have its drawbacks. Charred remnants of a missive found in the fireplace of CIA counter-intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton comes under scrutiny in Cybela Clare's ETs Among Us 7: UFOs, CIA & the Assassination of JFK (2023). And Angleton is retooled as Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) planning the Bay of Pigs invasion in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd (2006).

A still from Shooter (2007)
A still from Shooter (2007)

References to conspiracies can be spotted in Antoine Fuqua's Shooter and Jon Turteltaub's National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (both 2007), while The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is seen committing the deadly Dealey deed in Zapruderesque detail in Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009), which draws on the 1980s DC Comics series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

In 'The Grown-Ups', a 2009 episode of Mad Men (2007-15), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the staff at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency react to the news filtering in from Dallas. The following year, Hamm would play JFK opposite Kristen Wiig's in a Saturday Night Live sketch that would see them spend Halloween with Bill Hader's Vincent Price. But gravity was the watchword for 'The Proof in the Pudding', a 2010 episode of Bones (2005-17) that has the Jeffersonian Lab sealed off so that Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), Seely Booth (David Boreanaz), and Jack Hodgins (T.J. Thyne) can conduct a forensic examination of a skeleton they soon come to realise belongs to JFK.

The Babushka Lady played by Lolita Davidovich in JFK is a key off-screen character in Tony Zavaleta's The Bystander Theory (2013), which offers a conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy. As does Michael Grasso's The Umbrella Man (2016), which is set in Pittsburgh in 1983 and centres on another eyewitness (who was played by Errol McLendon in JFK) whose brolly-opening presence in Dealey Plaza exerts a grim fascination on a father mourning the loss of a son in a hunting accident.

A pair of 2014 offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe reach differing conclusions. Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier puts the blame for shooting JFK on Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who was acting on orders from Hydra. In Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, however, Logan (Hugh Jackman) travels back to 1973 to discover that Magneto (Michael Fassbender) had been in prison beneath the Pentagon for a decade for what was said to be his part in Kennedy's killing. Is there an MCU conspiracy? Did JFK really have an X-gene? Surely we should be told?

High school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) goes back in time to try and prevent a calamity in Kevin Macdonald's sci-fi series, 11.22.63 (2016-17), while Grant Jordan essays a teenage JFK jaunting back to 1934 to prevent his own murder and be warned about keeping away from Dallas in 1963. But there's a fiendish twist to 'The Kennedy Curse' episode of Timeless (2016-18), although it's almost upstaged by the one in Spaniard Eduardo Casanova's short, I'm Sorry, My Love (2018), which sees Jackie Kennedy solve her marital woes with a little extraterrestrial assistance.

Jim Meskimen voices both Dwight D. Eisenhower and his successor in Sam Liu's Superman: Red Son (2020), which pits a patriotic Lex Luthor (Diedrich Bader) against a Kremlin-loving Man of Steel (Jason Isaacs). And, finally, East End landlord Mr Pope (Al Carretta) agrees to escort Sister Andrea (Charlotte Reidie) to Paris, even though she's having premonitions about JFK's slaying in Al Carretta's Saint Cecilia of Spiralence (2021). All that's missing now is a thriller indicting the Vatican for the preemptive killing of a Roman Catholic president because of an apocalyptic revelation made by the Virgin Mary in Portugal in 1917. If the reference leaves you baffled, check out Marco Pontecorvo's Fatima (2020) and ponder the potential for decades more speculation before the truth comes out - if, indeed, it ever does.

A still from Superman: Red Son (2020)
A still from Superman: Red Son (2020)
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