Thu, Jun 17, 2021

Parkland and the legacy of frame 313


  • 05/15/2021 - by Dean A. Hoffman

For younger Americans of the post-World War II generation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 has for nearly six decades represented a paradigm of the Cold War as an unanticipated and dehumanizing rout of the New Frontier – a conflict between superpowers dramatized in miniature by the gruesome spectacle of a feckless, would-be fifth columnist cowardly pumping three bullets into the head of a young, brilliant, and charismatic figure who had pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation only a year earlier. The seemingly limitless potential of one man for ushering in an epoch of constructive international engagement and flourishing artistic, scientific, and charitable works was eradicated in a mere thirty minutes during a routine political visit to a prosperous, mid-profile US city on a mild November day.

For younger Americans of the post-World War II generation, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 has for nearly six decades represented a paradigm of the Cold War as an unanticipated and dehumanizing rout of the New Frontier – a conflict between superpowers dramatized in miniature by the gruesome spectacle of a feckless, would-be fifth columnist cowardly pumping three bullets into the head of a young, brilliant, and charismatic figure who had pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation only a year earlier.  The seemingly limitless potential of one man for ushering in an epoch of constructive international engagement and flourishing artistic, scientific, and charitable works was eradicated in a mere thirty minutes during a routine political visit to a prosperous, mid-profile US city on a mild November day.

Those of us who were too young at the time to understand fully, let alone engage in, the outpourings of grief and fear exhibited by family and friends who represented the two previous generations nevertheless sustained a deeper and more mysterious wound as the public mourning continued, a new administration assumed power, and the world we thought we were to inherit simply vanished.  We might indeed have been ignorant of the larger international danger to our nation in the wake of the murder of its most powerful leader, to say nothing of our naivete in thinking that the assassination of a U.S. president was something that only happened in the benighted past.  But owing to the  impressionable mindset of schoolchildren, the event was unexpectedly traumatic.  It is not sufficient to proclaim that many of us have never gotten over the loss; rather, we would not realize until several turbulent decades later just how thoroughly we were shaped by it.

The iconography for us of this cataclysmic event has always been derived from the home movie eagerly filmed by Abraham Zapruder, a workaday clothier and Dallas citizen, as a private memento that was destined to become a crucial yet equivocal piece of evidence for the investigation of the crime of the century.  But the decade-long impressions formed from the heavily-censored still photos that were chosen from the 26-second footage tended to raise questions for its devastated viewers rather than provide desperately-sought answers.  

Peter Landesman’s underrated and little-seen film Parkland (2013) – its origin in a source book by the grandstanding celebrity attorney Vincent Bugliosi notwithstanding – does manage to articulate the meaning of this tragedy through its minute-by-minute approach to the shooting and its grisly aftermath – the desperate, doomed attempt of a hospital staff to save the life of the president in all its bloody detail.  But equally important is the brief interaction between Zapruder (played by Paul Giamatti) and Richard Stolley of Life magazine (Jeffrey Schmidt) that resulted in a discrete removal of the most graphic frame, thus providing the official, sanitized narrative that remained in place for the next ten years.

The eventual release of the horrific full footage in the mid-1970’s amid post-Watergate conspiracy hysteria would provoke prolonged attention to the so-called grassy knoll theory of a second assassin, resulting in decades of tiresome forensic re-enactments and computer simulations, all of which devolved into an anticlimactic public acceptance and grudging accommodation by the political left of the lone gunman theory: the notion that, to quote the widowed first lady, nothing more than a “silly little Communist” was responsible for destroying the leader of the free world.

Much more than the loss of such a powerful figure whose ethos of social liberalism, fiscal conservatism, and outspoken opposition to Communism would never be approximated until the advent of Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s, what has remained indelibly etched in the minds of history’s witnesses to this terrible deed is that act which has lurked in the imagination of American citizens for years, one whose eventual appearance in the blurred but unmistakable images of Zapruder’s would-be souvenir of a presidential visit to his city has served only to retraumatize them. 

Despite the unforeseen public profile of his successor – a grandfatherly Texan whose comforting presence was eventually belied by an imperial hubris that would lead the nation into unprecedented division through expansive federalism and disastrous foreign policy in Southeast Asia – it is the enduring reminder provided by a single frame of the Zapruder footage that this loss occurred in such an undeservedly savage manner.

 Nevertheless, the executive producers of Parkland, the American Film Company, have yet to realize the potential of their mission statement.  Founded in 2008 with the intention to dramatize true historical events, AFC’s extant releases have offered promising potential for cinematic exploration of lesser-known episodes from our nation’s history and new perspectives on those already familiar to U.S. viewers.  But since the relative commercial failure of The Conspirator (2010), a drama based on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and directed by Robert Redford, the company has compiled a resume of stalled productions, particularly those devoted to Paul Revere’s ride and the raid of Harper’s Ferry, which seem destined to remain indefinitely postponed in a cinematic age of juvenile subject matter, sophomoric scripting, mimicry in place of acting, visual over-stylization, and an exchange of revenue between budget and box office of almost incomprehensible scale.

But what the AFC has accomplished with Parkland is far more relevant than any resurgent conspiracy, no matter the weight of circumstantial evidence, involving the Soviet Union, Cuba, the CIA, or organized crime.  On 21 January 1961, venerable Yankee poet Robert Frost dramatized the key metaphor in the Inaugural Address of “passing the torch” to the new generation as represented by his vigorous young Bay Stater protégé by declaiming his recollective and prophetic poem “The Gift Outright.” In equal measure, Parkland recalls the abiding reaction to the unspeakable physical destruction of this beloved leader as a reflection of the very same passionate pursuit of liberty and justice that led to the independence of the thirteen colonies and carried their mission to fulfillment with the founding of a new nation. 

 This slow-healing injury to the rebel ethos of the United States of America has ensured that more patriots were likely formed on 23 November 1963 than could have been imagined.

Dean A. Hoffman.
North American Affairs
Occidental Studies Institute