The reel truth: The man who filmed JFK assassination

AS THE 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination approaches later this month, so too does the anniversary of the most notorious home movie ever shot.

A scene from Parkland. Picture: Complimentary

For 26 seconds on 22 November, 1963, an unassuming, 58-year-old dressmaker by the name of Abraham Zapruder kept his new Bell & Howard 8mm camera rolling as the president’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas.

Standing atop a 4ft high concrete pedestal next to the grassy knoll, Zapruder briefly captured a smiling Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, waving to the crowds in the midday sun. But as he panned his high-end Model 414 Zoomatic camera from left to right, it was what he captured next that would change the course of history.

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As the president’s open-topped limousine emerged from behind a street sign that had temporarily obscured Zapruda’s view, the silent Kodachrome II colour film running through his camera caught in forensic detail the horrific sight of the president’s head being blown apart as the kill shot struck his skull.

It’s a shocking image, and the subsequent historical importance of the Zapruder footage is hard to overstate. But 50 years on, what does it really represent as a piece of film?

“It’s become a piece of mythology,” suggests Peter Landesman, whose new film Parkland dramatises the Kennedy assassination from the point-of-view of Zapruder, played by Paul Giamatti, and others accidentally caught up in the atrocity. “It’s entered the zeitgeist as a cultural artefact. It has been used as evidence in conspiracy theories; it’s been used as evidence against Oswald; it’s become evidence of Zapruder’s own involvement in a way. But it’s none of those things. It was just a man taking a home movie who happened to capture a crime. It’s just a film of a thing that happened. But it’s taken on mythological proportions.”

If Landesman, a former investigative reporter for the New York Times, sounds reluctant to attribute any deeper cinematic significance to the Zapruder film, it’s perhaps because movies are partially responsible for mythologising it in the first place. In his hugely contentious 1991 film JFK, for instance, Oliver Stone not only appropriated the grainy style of the Zapruder footage to lend authenticity to his own much-debated historical reconstructions of the assassination, he ended the movie by dramatising its hero, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner), replaying and analysing the Zapruder film in a courtroom.

Released long before this footage was widely available on the internet, Stone’s cinematic commentary helped fuel the conspiracy theorists that have pored over every frame of footage for evidence of government wrongdoing or sinister intent. Yet it also prompted Congress to expedite the declassification of millions of documents under the JFK Records Collection Act of 1992. This curious blend of fact and fiction seemed to simultaneously validate and cast doubt upon what was contained within the footage itself.

But there’s something else going on in the Zapruder film that, according to Paul Greengrass, has had an interesting if contradictory impact on the way films are made in the modern era. “We’ve lived through these profound revolutions in image quality that have given us greater and greater clarity and resolution,” says the Captain Phillips director, “but oddly, I think this has given rise to a corresponding thirst for authenticity of a different kind, which is ‘live-ness.’”

Greengrass, whose verité-style docudramas Bloody Sunday, United 93 and now Captain Phillips dramatise real-world calamities with chaos-replicating veracity, reckons this “thirst for live-ness” can be traced back to the Zapruder footage - which was cutting edge for the time, but seems very distorted by modern standards. “Somewhere encoded in the Zapruder images is a sense you’re glimpsing the truth but it’s something that’s confusing. You’re glimpsing through history at truth, but it’s not something that’s attainable.

“When people study it in the obsessive way that they do,” he adds, “what they’re really looking for is authenticity in the visual coverage of momentous and confusing events. And I think that’s what’s happening [in cinema].”

His own films are a case in point. As is Parkland, which sees Landesman deploying a similar aesthetic to capture the confusion of the Kennedy assassination and its immediate aftermath in a way that will perhaps feel more authentic to modern audiences weaned on Greengrass’s movies.

Landesman, however, disputes the notion that there’s anything confusing or unattainable about the Zapruder film itself. “It’s capturing the truth and everything you need to know is right in front of you. If you look at the Zapruder film and study it frame by frame, where the bullets come from is clear, the wound is clear, where it happened on his body is clear. It’s completely attainable.”

In this respect, the Zapruder film arguably foreshadowed the rise of citizen journalism, something that’s also been made possible by technological advances that have placed video recording devices at the fingertips of almost anyone who wants them.

When 9/11 happened, civilian witnesses reached for their video cameras and started shooting. Ditto the Arab Spring and the recent Syrian gas attacks. Whether consciously channelling Zapruder or not (and there have been other important benchmarks, such as the Rodney King tape), people seem intent on creating a constant visual record of the world that can counter or confirm any official or reported version of events. In cinematic terms, that’s been reflected over the last decade in the ubiquity of gimmicky found footage films, which have attempted to replicate the sense of “live-ness” Greengrass mentioned in the faux-amateur shaky-cam approach of films such as Cloverfield, or the banal, surveillance-style footage of the Paranormal Activity movies. That such films rely on audiences buying into the notion that some event has been covered up is one of the cruder legacies of the Zapruder film and the conspiracy theories it has inspired.

Yet a more positive legacy can be seen in the way documentary filmmaking has started to evolve thanks to our willingness to obsessively mediate our reality through a video screen. “There’s so much video footage rolling of the world the whole time that when something happens like a crime or a story or what not, you can retroactively piece together video that was shot without a specific story in mind and investigate something.” So says Lucy Walker, whose current film The Crash Reel does just that.

Pulling together multiple sources of video footage (she ended up with 19 terabytes worth of digital data) she was able to reconstruct a tragic accident that befell the subject of her film - 2010 Olympic snowboarding hopeful Kevin Pearce - as it happened instead of relying on after-the-fact accounts by witnesses. “It was thrilling to have that kind of footage because it meant we were able to tell this story in a very cinematic way.”

But what of the psychological impact on those doing all this filming? What often gets forgotten about in discussions of the Zapruder film and its larger implications is the effect it had on the man who shot it. As Parkland reminds us, Zapruder (who died of stomach cancer in 1970) never picked up his camera again. Shooting the film effectively ruined his life. “And he knew it was going to,” says Landesman, who got close to the Zapruder family while researching the film. “He was smart enough to understand: European immigrant; comes to America to escape anti-Semitism; triggers the American Dream; becomes a real patriot; loves Kennedy; moves his family to Dallas; is successful - only to see it all ripped away in 26 seconds. It’s a horrible irony.”

Parkland is in cinemas from 22 November. Captain Phillips is out now. The Crash Reel airs on Sky Atlantic on 5 November