By CHRIS VOGNAR
Conspiracy theorists, like cultural critics, live to connect the dots. What looks like a coincidence to one person becomes another shard of evidence or thematic through-line to another. The dark corners exist to be explored, the currents of conventional wisdom defied. Interpretation and implication become as vital as hard proof.
So it is for those decoding how the Kennedy assassination reverberated through pop culture. Sure, you’ll find some intriguing movies and stories that address the assassination directly. But to my mind, they’re nowhere near as compelling as the works infused with the fear and the rush of cinematic paranoia, particularly the films of the early 1970s in which no official version of the truth — no explanation for murder — is to be trusted.
Some movies, including 1992’s Love Field and 1993’s In the Line of Fire, explore the sense of mourning and regret stemming from the assassination. The conspiracy movies, including 1974’s The Parallax View and The Conversation and 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, exude suspicion and despair.
Most of these movies don’t directly approach the assassination, though some inch closer to that dark November day than others. Most are more like the stray ricochet that nicked James Tague as he stood under the Triple Underpass. They suggest rather than explain. They embrace the mystery and menace of a new world in which nothing can be taken for granted.
“There are a lot of references to the Kennedy assassination, both direct and indirect, in late ’60s and ’70s movies,” says Rick Worland, a Southern Methodist University professor who teaches a course on ’70s film. “There’s a general sense that nothing is to be trusted anymore, that the power structures — whether it’s corporate, military or government — are just corrupt and dangerous.”
The most direct of these films is the clunky and creepy Executive Action (1973), a sort of dry run for the madly entertaining JFK that Oliver Stone directed 18 years later. Culling from the myriad nonfiction book speculations of the ’60s, the film posits a group of wealthy power players (portrayed by, among others, Hollywood stars Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan), who see President John F. Kennedy as bad for business. Mixing documentary footage and backroom plotting, Executive Action is the bizarre “Hey gang, let’s put on a show!” assassination movie, complete with rehearsals in the middle of the desert. It plays a little like JFK’s older, boring cousin.
Then you have the more oblique approaches — some of which still manage, in their own way, to be quite direct. The most sinister of these is The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 movie based on Loren Singer’s 1970 novel. The film begins with the Independence Day assassination of a free-thinking senator, followed by an ominous shot of a seven-member assassination committee (shades of the Warren Commission), sitting before a wall that looks like a coffin, proclaiming their official findings: The assassin “acted entirely alone, motivated by a misguided sense of patriotism and a psychotic desire for public recognition.”
What unfolds next could have sprung from the mind of the most fervent and imaginative JFK conspiracy theorist. Witnesses to the assassination are methodically bumped off (shades of Executive Action andJFK). A reckless newspaper reporter (Warren Beatty) discovers what he believes to be a corporate training program for assassins — which might actually be a corporate training program for patsies. Cue the Oswald apologists.
By the time the Parallax novel was published,
had lived through the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and
Bobby Kennedy. By the time the movie came out, national cynicism had new
targets, including the Vietnam War and Watergate. These events permeated the
American films of the ’70s, but there’s no mistaking the echoes of JFK
conspiracy mania in these particular films. America
The noise grew louder in 1975 when the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination was broadcast on ABC’s Good Night America, hosted by a scrappy young Geraldo Rivera. This was the first time most of the public had seen the assassination footage, and the shock was palpable for Americans seeing the president shot in the head on their TV screens.
“It turned out to have an impact like filmmakers all along have wanted their documentaries to have,” says Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum at
“It created a response, a sensation, a reaction.” Dealey Plaza
It cranked the suspicion levels even higher. It also helped bring the cultural conspiracy subtext to the surface by buoying arguments for multiple shooters and against magic bullets. Old myths were expanded, new ones created. Both would soon get a high-profile workout within a three-year period: Don DeLillo’s chilling novel Libra was published in 1988, followed in 1991 by the bombastic fantasia of Stone’s film JFK.
These works share a great deal of conspiracy content: anti-Castro Cubans enraged by the failure of the Bay of Pigs; shady
operatives cooking up murderous schemes in darkened rooms; a confused and
drifting Lee Harvey Oswald, manipulated by the above like a puppet; and, of
course, the Zapruder film, without which neither story would exist.
But the contrasting tones are a testament to how disparate voices can shape the same conspiratorial material. Libra, like so much of DeLillo’s work, is cool, detached and postmodern, far different from Stephen King’s recent page-turner
It’s as much a study of conspiracy’s mechanisms as a brief for what might have
actually happened. Oswald is the protagonist, but the figure we relate to most
is Nicholas Branch, the “curator” contracted by the CIA
to sift through daunting mountains of information, evidence and speculation.
His conclusion: “The conspiracy against the president was a rambling affair
that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.”
Speaking of rambling affairs, JFK is still the 800-pound gorilla of Kennedy assassination movies. Fueled by Stone’s moral certitude and broad strokes of agitprop, it takes the basic premise of Executive Action and cranks it up to 11.
In the movie’s view, there was nothing chancy about the assassination. It was a coup d’état that reached all the way to Lyndon Baines Johnson and advanced with the purpose of fueling the Vietnam War. Complicating matters further, JFK is also a highly engaging piece of moviemaking, filled with star turns and the highest level of craft. I still enjoy it immensely, mostly because I know better than to mistake it for history. (It also proved to be a gift for Seinfeld, which enlisted former Mets star Keith Hernandez for an inspired parody of the famous “back and to the left” scene.)
Such stories grip us for much the same reason that we gravitate to the theories they espouse. “Conspiracy theories make order out of chaos,”
SMU’s Worland says. “They present an
explanation, even if the explanation scares us. They present a logical or at
least a rational explanation for something frightening and chaotic.”
In other words, they help us connect the dots — even when the trail may very well be illusory.
Follow Chris Vognar on Twitter at @chrisvognar.