The November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy mystified and disillusioned his country, and the tragedy raised more doubts than its official investigation could, for many, competently assuage. While nonfiction explorations of the murder are countless, its controversies have also inspired numerous popular novels and films, from Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Don DeLillo’s Libra to Oliver Stone’s JFK and Alan J. Pakula’s Parallax View, each trying to display a facet of the “truth.”
Stephen King’s alternate-reality novel 11/22/63 explores the much-covered territory of the John F. Kennedy assassination with a science-fiction twist: time travel. Protagonist Jake Epping frequents a diner containing a portal to the year 1958, which he uses with the goal of preventing the murder. King first tried to write the book in 1971, as he pondered what the world would have been like had Kennedy not been killed. The novel’s answer—a post–nuclear war dystopia—is bleak, considering Kennedy’s Cuban missile crisis leadership, which brought the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction.
Oliver Stone, director of the controversial political-conspiracy film JFK, believes Kennedy would have ended the Cold War altogether had he lived. Stone and King also diverge on Lee Harvey Oswald’s legacy as the lone Kennedy shooter. King’s research left him skeptical about the numerous Kennedy conspiracy theories that postulate multiple assassins and plotters, but Stone has described JFK itself as a “metaphor for all those doubts, suspicions and unanswered questions.” By depicting the only court case brought for conspiracy in the murder, JFK touches on a few alternative theories while entreating viewers to continue the search for the truth themselves.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to explore the assassination of his predecessor, along with its frenzied aftermath. Composed of seven government officials and politicians (including future president Gerald Ford), the committee ultimately released an 889-page report that clarified things the only way a document its size could: by supplying as many new questions as answers. Its soon-to-be disputed conclusion was that ex-marine and communist sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald had alone killed John F. Kennedy by firing from the book depository where he worked, which overlooked Kennedy’s motorcade.
Oliver Stone’s polemical JFK tells the story of real-life district attorney Jim Garrison, who launched a crusading inquiry to disprove the commission’s findings—seeking to show instead that rogue CIA elements, supported by powerful Washingtonians, had ordered and perpetrated the killing. With a tense narrative style, JFK offers what Stone calls a “countermyth” to the “myth” of the Warren Commission’s lone-gunman solution. Garrison himself plays Chief Justice Earl Warren, whose name the commission bears: Garrison resembles Warren enough to justify the casting, but the cameo is ironic given that the lawyer risked his career and his family’s lives to paint Warren’s investigation as ludicrous at best, fictional and sinister at worst.
The U.S. government proved it had a tenuous relationship to honesty in the post-Watergate 1970s, but suspicions had begun to surface in the previous decade, with JFK’s assassination and the infamous Warren Commission report, which was widely criticized for discounting potentially important evidence. Full of complex intrigue, Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View is not as well-known as the director’s 1976 exposé of the Watergate affair, All the President’s Men, but its veiled truths perfectly reflect the era’s mood of national distrust.
Parallax opens and closes with a government committee erroneously concluding that lone shooters perpetrated two political assassinations. These scenes obviously reference the Warren Commission’s determination that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing JFK. In the film, the girlfriend of journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) dies mysteriously; the shady Parallax Corporation, which she believed had ordered the public murder of a presidential candidate, may be responsible. To uncover the truth, Frady takes a job with the company, only to be set up for blame in a later killing—à la Oswald, who had referred to himself as a patsy, implying he was protecting more high-profile conspirators.
Parallax is a term photographers and astronomers use to describe the way perception of an object changes with the angle of sight. In The Parallax View, a reporter becomes drawn into the web of the appropriately named Parallax Corporation, a company that specializes in covering up assassination conspiracies—i.e., presenting alternate, misleading views on them. Featuring a dark, disorienting visual style crafted by master cinematographer Gordon Willis, the film follows a search for truths beneath the surface of reality, only to suggest that they can never be revealed. The powerful shadow organization responsible for political assassinations will not be brought to justice.
Seventeen years later Oliver Stone made JFK, a movie featuring similar themes about the frustrations of trying to find the truth in the face of powerful conspiracies to hide it. Rather than inventing a symbolic fictional story, Stone based his plot on the real-life 1969 investigation that brought New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw to trial for collusion to assassinate John F. Kennedy. The film has its own parallax moment when district attorney Jim Garrison tells his team they have gone “through the looking glass” after an investigative breakthrough shows they will be implicating the federal government itself.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK—one even reenacted for laughs on TV’s Seinfeld—is the courtroom analysis of the astonishing, gruesome Zapruder film. Businessman Abraham Zapruder shot 26.6 seconds of 8mm footage while watching John F. Kennedy’s motorcade drive through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the president was killed. Zapruder recorded the bullets graphically hitting their target, the back of Kennedy’s head being blown open and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy beginning to climb onto the trunk of the limousine in an automatic, agonizing attempt to retrieve the scattering parts of her husband’s brain.
Claiming Zapruder’s film provides evidence of multiple shooters, JFK shows obsessive New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) reviewing its frames repeatedly and in slow motion for the jury, describing the president’s recoil as he is shot. “Back. And to the left,” Costner drawls ad nauseam, emphasizing that these involuntary movements indicate the deadly rounds came not from the book depository behind the motorcade, where Lee Harvey Oswald was stationed, but from a grassy knoll to the front and right of Kennedy’s convertible. Zapruder died in 1970, of stomach cancer, and Stone paid Zapruder’s family $85,000 to use his famous film in JFK.
Don DeLillo’s novel Libra is a speculative reimagining of the mysterious life of JFK shooter Lee Harvey Oswald. In his postmodern style, DeLillo treks through the vague wilderness of Oswald’s documented past—from childhood to the Kennedy assassination and Oswald’s own shocking murder, by purported mobster Jack Ruby, two days later. At every step, Oswald is portrayed ambivalently; he is a blank slate, a man searching for an identity. In the book, Oswald falls in with CIA agent Win Everett, who has engineered a covert operation to simulate an assassination attempt on the president. The attempt is supposed to fail, but the operation takes on a life of its own, with Oswald set up unwittingly as the fall guy (although he is not entirely innocent).
DeLillo drew inspiration from the Zapruder film—the iconic amateur footage of the JFK assassination—which had long fascinated him as the event’s most visceral historical record. DeLillo has claimed that any number of college courses could be taught on this film alone, “from history to physics.” He also uses it to demonstrate how the movie medium itself allows us to “examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not”—for better and worse.
The Zapruder film is one of the most studied, discussed and disagreed upon pieces of media ever made. Commentators have variously, and vigorously, argued that it proves, disproves and raises numerous JFK assassination theories. A concise example of such deconstruction is “The Umbrella Man,” a short film by renowned documentarian Errol Morris consisting of an interview with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, whose 1967 book Six Seconds in Dallas was one of the first publications to reject the government’s official analysis of the murder. In Morris’s short, the charming Thompson expounds upon the Umbrella Man, a bystander he noticed on the Zapruder film who opens a black umbrella along the path of Kennedy’s motorcade right where the killing occurred. Was the umbrella a signal to the shooter for the time to strike? Thompson brought him to public attention, and the man himself, Louie Steven Witt, ultimately had to appear before Congress to explain what he was doing: protesting the Kennedy family’s World War II support of then British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, an appeaser of Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain often carried a black umbrella. The revelation demonstrates that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction—and frustratingly, surprisingly random.