November 22, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of what many believe to be the greatest unsolved murder in American history: the 1963 shooting of President John F. Kennedy.
Conventional thinkers may continue to believe the lone gunman, magic bullet and other official stories about the about assassinations and the like -- but the big screen knows better.
Behind-the-scenes conspiracies shrouded in mystery and carried out by government elites, rogue agents, mobsters, secret societies and special interests, all of which are probed by intrepid investigative reporters, crusading district attorneys and patriotic "truthers" make for far more and exciting sagas to entertain audiences.
To observe the half-century anniversary of President Kennedy's death, The Progressive remembers the four most compelling JFK assassination films of all time. Who knows what evil conspires in the hearts of men? The movies, of course!
4. Executive Action
Ten years after Kennedy's killing, the trailer for Executive Action proclaimed the movie to be "possibly the most controversial motion picture of our time." Indeed, Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan lead a group of conspirators in this covert action feature that boldly contradicts the Warren Commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
The 1973 movie raises the specter of two "Oswalds," anti-Castro Cubans and ex-CIA agents as part of a shadowy conspiracy to whack the liberal leaning chief executive. Executive Action is also noteworthy for its left-leaning pedigree: It was co-written by ex-Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo, who'd been one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten and co-produced by Dan Bessie, whose father, Spanish Civil War veteran Alvah, had also been a member of the Ten.
The co-writers included attorney Mark Lane, one of the original independent investigators of the Kennedy assassination, and progressive playwright Donald Freed, who co-wrote the 1984 Nixon movie Secret Honor, directed by Robert Altman. Executive Action was produced by Edward Lewis, who was also a producer for 1960's Spartacus and Costa-Gavras films, including 1982's Missing.
Blacklisted actor Will Geer (1954's Salt of the Earth) co-starred as one of Executive's rightwing co-conspirators. According to Freed, seed money was provided by antiwar activists for the low budge movie shot for $175,000, which -- despite the fact that TV networks refused to advertise it -- eventually earned millions.
Oliver Stone is also on the trail of Kennedy's assassins in this 1991 masterpiece, which received eight Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Director, winning in the cinematography and editing categories, as well as scoring the Golden Globe for Best Director.
JFK is probably the finest Hollywood assassination/conspiracy movie ever made. At the peak of his powers Stone skillfully demolishes the Warren Commission Report piece by piece, constructing an alternative history wherein Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner plays the New Orleans DA, who in a bit of canny casting portrays Earl Warren!) leads an all-star cast on an epic quest for the truth to find out who killed Camelot's king. And, most importantly, as Donald Sutherland's inside man Col. Fletcher Prouty ponders in this exhaustively well-researched film: "Why?"
Stone was subjected to an unprecedented character assassination campaign for his audacious artistry, which proved worth his patience. Ultimately, JFK helped trigger passage of 1992's Assassination Materials Disclosure Act, which expidited the review process for the Kennedy assassination files.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has released a JFK Ultimate Collector's Edition, which includes Stone's Director's Cut of his classic with an extra seventeen minutes never seen on the big screen, plus a cornucopia of Kennedy-ana, including several documentaries, such as JFK: To the Brink from Stone's The Untold History of the United States Showtime series.
2. Rush to Judgment
The very first Kennedy assassination film is the 1966 documentary Rush to Judgment, directed by the radical filmmaker Emile de Antonio and written by the unstoppable Mark Lane. This crudely-made, low-budget, nonfiction film is as artless as Stone's JFK is an aesthetic tour de force. Nevertheless, shot only a few years after the hit on JFK, Rush to Judgment is often chilling.
The main character Lane, a lawyer, presents much of the doc as a brief for the defense -- presumably for Lee Harvey Oswald, who was no longer around to defend himself. The crew travels to Dealey Plaza and interviews on camera numerous eyewitnesses who describe in vivid detail the shooting of Pres. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Witness after witness describes at least some shots being fired from behind a wooden fence, on the infamous grassy knoll, where they also report seeing "puffs of smoke." De Antonio cleverly cuts to text from the Warren Commission's 889-page final report to contradict what the filmmakers clearly believe are the tome's bogus findings.
Another early JFK truther, newsman Penn Jones, asserts: "The only way to believe the Warren report is not to read it." Along the way, witnesses die mysterious deaths, are threatened and the like, causing Jones to wish for a computer to calculate the odds of these events unfolding.
After viewing this unforgettable film, the odds are against any open minded viewer believing that some lone nut carried out the crime of the century with a bolt action rifle from the Texas School Book Depository Building.
1. The Zapruder Film
Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder was filming the fateful presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza with his Bell & Howell camera, on a concrete pedestal at Elm Street on Nov. 22, 1963, when shots rang out.
The 26 second, 486 frames of silent, 8mm color celluloid he captured is the Urtext for conspiracy movies and the most telling depiction of what happened that day in Dallas. According to Executive Action's Donald Freed: "That's the film behind all the films."
In it, JFK rides in his limousine and appears to be caught in a crossfire, hit by bullets being fired from different positions. And while Oswald is supposed to be behind Kennedy, the president seems to be hit by a final shot fired from in front of him -- perhaps from the fabled grassy knoll -- as his skull explodes in frame 313. As Kevin Costner playing Garrison repeats in JFK: "Back and to the left" -- not from the direction of the Texas School Book Depository Building.
The Zapruder Film arguably makes "conspiracy theorists" of us all, asking: "Who are you going to believe? Your lying eyes -- or the Warren Commission and its 'magic bullet' flight of fancy?"
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book," published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.