JFK

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

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You Have the Whole God Damn Thing

Parkland Image

Abraham Zapruder viewing for the first time his home movie of the JFK assassination, portrayed by Paul Giamatti in Parkland.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with the JFK assassination continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Parkland.  For the previous posts in the series, see here and here.

 

In his poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden says the Old Masters were never wrong about human suffering, “they understood its human position; how it takes place…” which is while everyone is going about their daily lives, whether they are treating injuries at a hospital, managing brick production, or making a home movie of the Presidential motorcade.

Parkland begins on the morning of November 22, 1963, with hospital staff watching news reports of the President’s arrival in Fort Worth the night before, and his two speeches thus far that day. Then it shifts to Abraham Zapruder at his office, beginning to tell a joke, and then informing his staff they’re having an early lunch, so everyone can see the president. It’s almost like the first song in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. It seems like it’s going to be a lovely, lovely day, and if you didn’t know which day it was, you wouldn’t guess how unfortunate an event Zapruder is about to witness as he climbs a short column in the plaza to get a clear view above the crowd filling the ninety feet between him and the motorcade route. Not until the president’s car speeds away, with Jackie kneeling over the trunk, does Zapruder suddenly realize what he saw, what is contained on that reel of film. “Oh, my God, they killed him! They killed him! Oh, my God!”

CUT TO a nurse talking on the phone when she hears “601 Code 3!” As she’s hanging up the phone, she has to ask another nurse what a 601 is. VIP transport. The president’s in town. But it’s not until blood-splattered Secret Service men arrive that either nurse begins to understand.

And that blood probably has more time on camera than any of the actors, although it isn’t listed in the credits. The Secret Service men have it splashed over their shirts, with globs of it soaked into their jackets from their contact with the president as they carried him; the doctors and nurses have it up to their elbows; and Jackie is nearly bathed in it. The president’s blood plays a huge role in this film, and yet, the camera never shows the fatal head injury. What we see graphically is not the injury, but the effect of that injury. While this approach is the strength of Parkland, it is also, to a great extent, Parkland’s undoing. Even after fifty years, when any handful of middle school students could easily make a JFK assassination movie on their smart phones–the details are that well known and the conspiracy theories that widely discussed–there are still people, roughly half of all US movie viewers, who want to see the magic bullet again. But Parkland isn’t concerned with how long it might have taken Oswald to run down the stairs, or whether he fired the bullet, or where it came from. What Parkland delves into and serves as the god damn whole is the true impact of that bullet on the people surrounding the president, and on the people surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald.

Because Reading the Warren Commission Report Is Like Drowning

Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back.  Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK.  As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.

JFK Assassination

On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black.  In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat.  With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed.  As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head.  None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone.  If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination.  And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

JFK movie poster 1992

Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact.  “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…”  This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question.  Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.

The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions.  Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles.  Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.