Remembering John F. Kennedy on film — 50 years after his assassination

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Probably the most important movie about JFK ever made was also the most tragic.

It’s the Zapruder film, shot by Abraham Zapruder on that historic fatal day in Dallas—Nov. 22, 1963.   Zapruder, the man who accidentally filmed the actual assassination, was just another on-looker who’d come to Dealy Plaza to see the Kennedy motorcade as it sped through downtown. Instead, he recorded one of the key moments in our nation’s loss of innocence.

I’m sure you’ll see plenty of it this week since about a zillion and one 50th Anniversary specials are planned.

But before you get Kennedy’d out, here are some other films — as in Hollywood — that may interest you.

Oliver Stone’s “JFK” is probably the best-known of all the conspiracy-theory movies. Essentially, it’s a state-of-the-art…for 1991…harangue. Self-important yet incisive, tiresome yet compelling, the picture gathers together the dozens (maybe more) theories that questioned the Warren Commission’s airbrushed (perhaps…) conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed the President.

Stone then weaves them together into the tale of one dedicated truth-seeker. That would be former New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, who became the first (perhaps only?) person to ever bring Kennedy’s assassination to trial. He’s played by Kevin Costner, then at the height of his career. That is, post “Dances with Wolves” and pre “Waterworld.”

As a deliberate act of rabble-rousing, Stone’s film is incredibly effective. He may not persuade you to take his point of view, but he does get you thinking. And maybe questioning. As simply a movie, at three hours,  “JFK” is overlong. It’s also one-nut obsessive, like being stuck on a long flight sitting next to a talkative conspiracy nut. So, take the picture with a grain of salt and a big box of popcorn, but I would also add, take a look.

Everyone is going to tell you to watch “JFK.” But I’m willing to bet you’ll only hear about these next two movies from me. That’s the value of an institutional memory.

“Ruby,” as in Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV, is more of a curiosity than a recommendation. It came out the year after “JFK,” and I’m pretty sure it was intended to ride on that film’s coattails (“JFK” was respectable enough to nab a bunch of Oscar nominations).

“Ruby” is a semi-documentary look at the Dallas club owner whose “patriotism” made him a historical footnote. And that’s the movie’s essential weakness. You keep asking yourself, would I give a rat’s ass about Ruby and his favorite stripper, Candy Cane, if he hadn’t plugged Oswald?

So, when a disclaimer appears at the movie’s end telling us Cane is a fictional composite, you do feel a little had.  We’re left with a believe-it-or-not script that’s an opportunistic welter of famous names and fumbled conjecture. That said, “Ruby” does have a time-capsule fascination in that it stars Danny Aiello as Ruby and Sherilyn Fenn as Candy.

Aiello was then about as famous as he would ever get, coming off the one-two punch of roles in “Moonstruck” and “Do the Right Thing.” And Fenn was having her TMZ Moment because of her connection with David Lynch’s TV series, “Twin Peaks.” If not else, “Ruby” should appeal to the whatever-happened-to… in most of us.

Finally, “Love Field” probably does deserve another look. Though a plot summary suggests “JFK” meets “Jungle Fever” (Spike Lee’s movie about interracial romance), that’s both glib and misleading. Especially given the caliber of the performances by the two stars, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert.

Pfeiffer plays a Dallas housewife who dons her best pillbox hat and hops a bus to Washington to attend the President’s funeral. En route, she meets Haysbert who’s on board with his adorable little girl. And…well, let’s just say the script is equally sincere and contrived.

What helps enormously is Jonathan Kaplan’s strong direction, which brings out the film’s innate humor and humanity. Pfeiffer is especially fine as the good-hearted bubblehead who learns some important truths between Dallas and D.C. Plus, she wears ridiculous wigs better than just about any actress on earth.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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