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Episode 7.2 “JFK: DOA” (part 2), feat. Cultural Historian Peter Knight

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

"Lights! Camera! Fire!"

(Paranoid Planet Podcast, Season 2, Episode 7.2B, Chapter 2)

Scene from Stephen King's 11.22.63 (TV Series, 2016)

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in an open-top limousine through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Whether or not you were alive and old enough to remember these events happening in real time, your memories of the assassination have probably been shaped and filtered through dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of media messages about it. You were perhaps most influenced by a documentary, or a history book, or a magazine article that outlined the basic facts and official interpretations of JFK’s death by professional historians and forensic investigators. But more likely, it was through fictional and true-but-sensationalized stories told in movies, TV programs, novels, cartoons, Broadway musicals and rock songs that you’ve come to conceptualize JFK’s murder—an event that fueled widespread cynicism about the virtues of elected officials and the powers and secrets of a vast and faceless government bureaucracy.

Scene from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins (Broadway musical, 1990)

This “cruel and shocking act” reverberated throughout American society, across the world, and into the lives of those who had not yet been born. It came to be seen not just as a moral abomination, or the fruit of a Marxist or fascist conspiracy, but as an event so emotionally troubling and historically confounding that it seemed to make the earth stop suddenly and start to turn the wrong way, halting decades of democratic progress and opening the door to a new dark age of imperialism, government repression, widespread propaganda, cut-throat economics, and war without end. As Cultural Historian Peter Knight wrote in his 2007 book, The Kennedy Assassination, “hardwired into most accounts of the Kennedy assassination, whether conspiracist or not, is the implicit assumption that it profoundly altered the course of American and even global history, […] that the descent into chaos, violence and corruption of the later 1960s and […] 70s can be dated to [the 22nd of] November 1963.” (Knight, p.5).

President Kennedy remains a larger than life historical personality, more than almost every other political figure of the last hundred years. Though he served little more than two years in office, his life and death have been the subject of approximately 40,000 published books and countless other documents. For millions of Americans, and many more internationally, the Kennedy assassination is a filter through which the rest of recent history gets interpreted, a time stamp at which everything began to go wrong: from the Vietnam War and conscription to race riots, police violence, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., foreign assassination plots and coup d’états, illegal surveillance of American citizens, and secret scientific programs—some illegal and deadly—performed by U.S. government agencies, many of which were exposed by Congressional investigations during the 1970s.

Some historians and media critics have pinpointed the Kennedy assassination as the moment when the post-war era—a period of optimism, hope, and trust in the promise of scientific progress—came to a screeching halt, giving way to the pessimistic and relativistic worldview of post-modernism which suggests that elite groups, authority figures, and qualified experts are all to be doubted and opposed, not because of any specific thing they say or do, but simply because they hold power and influence. (Knight, p.6).

As the troubled Sixties gave way to the cynical Seventies, Professor Knight continues, media depictions of the Kennedy assassination increasingly “fed into a culture of paranoia […] that saw evidence everywhere of a shadow government based on institutionalized secrecy and immune to democratic control, with the vulnerable individual [as] the victim of a vast conspiracy of interlocking and increasingly impersonal organizations and forces. […] The fascination with […] mega conspiracies that the [JFK] assassination brought to the fore is central to much postwar American fiction”. (Knight, p.105-6). These fictional works include the novels of celebrated authors like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Condon, Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Don DeLillo—to name but a few. Even when such authors were not directly referencing the Kennedy assassination, their conspiracy thrillers and futuristic dystopias often rested on the assumption that a massive takeover of society had recently and secretly taken place in the halls of American power by a cabal of unscrupulous businessmen and warmongers. These evil characters were often just distorted exaggerations of unpopular political figures like Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, James Angleton, and Joseph P. Kennedy.

The film industry is not any different. The 1970s witnessed a wave of dark and pessimistic assassination thrillers—a movie genre Knight calls “Paranoid Noir”. These were films that drew their inspiration from the vast and ever-growing conspiracy theory literature about the CIA, the Deep State, the Watergate Affair, and the Kennedy Assassination. Such films include classic thrillers like Klute, The Conversation, Blow Out, All The Presidents’ Men, and Capricorn One, to name but a few.

One of the most influential of these films is the 1973 drama Executive Action, a slow-moving didactic exposition of how a group of hired assassins and right-wing Washington powerbrokers (their identities are left rather ambiguous) organized the murder of JFK to prevent a liberal Kennedy dynasty from controlling the White House for as many as six election cycles. Co-written by conspiracy buff Mark Lane and former black-listed scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo, Executive Action gives us a peek, not into actual historical events, but into the deepest existential anxieties of the political left during the Nixon administration.

Another notable example is the 1979 film adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel Winter Kills, which presents a thinly disguised Bobby Kennedy-like protagonist called Nick Kegan, who investigates the assassination of his older brother, President Tim Kegan, who was allegedly shot by an angry lone nut. Having discovered that there were in fact two gunmen involved in his brother’s murder, Nick is sent on several wild goose chases to investigate whether the mafia, the CIA, oil tycoons, corrupt policemen, or scheming journalists were involved in the crime, only to discover in the end—spoiler alert—that his billionaire tycoon father (a vile pastiche of Joseph Kennedy, Sr.), who built his fortune by manipulating elected officials, had his eldest son murdered to protect his own power and riches.

A scene from Winter Kills

A third example is Three Days of the Condor, a 1975 political thriller directed by Sydney Pollack. The film’s protagonist, Joe Turner, is a bookish CIA analyst who works in a fake historical society collecting information for the Agency. He returns from lunch one day to find all of his co-workers murdered. On the run to save his life, Turner slowly discovers that this was not the work of a foreign enemy, but of a “CIA inside the CIA”—a secret group that operates without the knowledge of the federal government, that murders witnesses with impunity, sets up scapegoats, and can prevent the media from publishing the writings of whistleblowers. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, the intelligence community in Three Days of the Condor hides many Machiavellian sub-groups that not even its own agents are aware of, and whose sinister core is never fully revealed.

A scene from Three Days of the Condor

But by far the most paranoid of these dark thrillers is The Parallax View, a 1974 psychological thriller by Alan J. Pakula—whom some might call an Oliver Stone before Oliver Stone (whom we’ll discuss in our next episode). The Parallax View offers its viewers an allegory of the JFK and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, both killed—allegedly—by angry lone nuts. These men, who die suspiciously before they can face trial, turn out to be recruits of a secret mind-control program conducted by a mysterious corporation that brainwashes antisocial outcasts to turn them into programmed assassins—a theme that has by now become a tired Hollywood cliché. Like other most films of the Seventies “paranoid noir”, the protagonist of the Parallax View—a lone wolf journalist called Joe Frady, who trusts no one and snubs his nose at all authorities—falls victim in the end to the all-too-powerful establishment before he can expose this conspiracy to the wider world.

A scene from The Parallax View

The Parallax View,” writes Professor Knight, “deliberately refuses its viewers the safe haven of omniscient knowledge,” and like JFK researchers obsessing over the Zapruder film, “immers[es] them in the same state of doubt as the protagonists, unsure [of] what they have seen…” (Knight, p.153)

“The pervasive atmosphere of these conspiracy films,” he goes on, “is one of pessimism, failure, and unrelenting paranoia in which the full scale of the conspiracy is never disclosed.” (Knight, p.152) “In varying degrees [these films] all refer to the Kennedy assassination and its investigations, with their focus on ever-more detailed analysis of accidental audio and visual evidence that might provide clues to a major conspiracy.” (Knight, p.155) “Unlike the earlier films noir of the 1930s to 1950s that had pioneered […] a world-weary sense of cynicism about individual corruption and crime, the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s located the source of corruption in larger government and corporate organizations. […And] unlike classic detective thrillers, the ending of these conspiracy films conspicuously fail to provide comforting resolutions […]. The suggestion is often that the conspiracy is ongoing and perhaps even unstoppable in its unfathomable scale.” (Knight, p.152)

A scene from The Parallax View

Hollywood loves to mythologize the past. Even more than superheroes, savvy detectives, renegade cowboys, and space vigilantes, crowds love epic films about famous historical figures: Spartacus, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, William Wallace, Joan of Ark, and of course Moses and Jesus. Such films have generated millions of dollars, numerous Academy Awards, memorable scenes, photographs and posters. All of these serve as powerful filters that help us “remember” the past—and I’m using air quotes here—as it allegedly happened, no matter how inaccurate the historical content of such films really are.

But you don’t need to travel to the Ancient and Medieval worlds to see this freehand rewriting of history at work. More recent historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Lawrence of Arabia to Marilyn Monroe, have been coopted by Hollywood to produce powerful historically-based narratives that reframe the past in a way that satisfies the expectations of those who consume historical entertainment without much care for historical accuracy. This is not—as far as I know—the result of some devious conspiracy. Everyone reimagines the past in a way that satisfies their ego, exaggerating the flaws of perceived enemies and the moral greatness of heroes, in a way that legitimizes their values and assumptions. But unlike the Hollywood movie complex, most of us don’t dispose of billions of dollars to rewrite the past and project it on millions of screens.

President Kennedy is one of those historical figures who has been subjected to numerous interpretations of his life on screen—maybe more than any other modern historical figure. He has become, in a sense, one of America’s greatest myths.

A myth, contrary to popular usage, is not a false story. At least, not necessarily. It is something more subtle than that. A myth is a story based on historical claims which are believed to be true despite missing or contradictory evidence. What makes a myth true in the eyes of its believers is not how strongly the evidence proves that the story happened as it is told, but its explanatory power. By this I mean that the story is compelling because it helps the believer find his or her place in the world, it clearly identifies sources of good and evil that resonate with the feelings of the audience, and offers a coherent explanation—even if totally false—for why this evil and suffering endure.

There have been numerous attempts to use the story of JFK’s death to explain the causes of evil. In films like Jackie, Parkland, and In the Line of Fire, the blame is squarely laid at the feet of an angry sociopath who would rather see the world burn than face his own insecurities and insignificance. Such films reassure us that the heroic dead President lives on in our hearts despite his tragic demise, and that his legacy can help us build a better tomorrow. Yes, his death was a terrible injustice, but we are reassured that the evil is outside us, and will never undo the good that remains in this world.

A scene from Parkland

Other films, like the pessimistic thrillers discussed earlier, take us deep inside the rabbit hole of paranoia, allegedly lifting the veil—if only partly and briefly—that covers a vast machinery of evil that controls our lives. The story on screen is pessimistic and frightening, but it is also comforting to a degree, because no matter how powerful that enemy is, we are assured that we are not guilty for the ills of this world but are victims as well, that our feelings are noble, that our anger is justified, and that by holding on to our mistrust of others, we will resist the lies and the influence of the enemy who not only killed President Kennedy, but still roams freely trying to devour us. And since anger is a more empowering feeling than sorrow—even when it is based on a falsehood—conspiracy films about JFK are likely to remain a popular source of infotainment.

A scene from Executive Action

One can grow dizzy sifting through the vast library of JFK-related films (as I did to prepare for this program). Which of these conflicting narratives about JFK’s life and death—if any—should we accept as true? Should we believe the sorrowful story of the heroic president gunned down by an angry lone nut? Should we reject it in favour of the idea that the governments whom we elect are morally decadent to the point of murdering its best and brightest? Or should we take a step back and ask ourselves whether all these accounts suffer of the same problem: the need to believe in an uplifting story, even if it means sacrificing the truth along the way?

In 1950, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa created one of the most celebrated films in the history of cinema: the psychological Medieval crime thriller Rashomon. This film tells the story of a Japanese couple who gets attacked in a forest by a murderous rapist. But this simple story is recounted from four different perspectives: those of the attacker, of the wife, of the husband, and of an eavesdropping woodcutter. Each account, it turns out, is historically flawed as each witness lies, fabulates, and embellishes the story in a way that will help them protect their honor. In the end, the audience is never told exactly where the truth lies, leaving us to question human nature itself and the selfish motives that shape our pursuit of a convenient truth. Perhaps this is what happened to the Kennedy assassination after being retold by hundreds of different voices, most of which had much to lose by telling the story as truthfully as possible.

A scene from Rashomon

This should give us pause the next time we seek historical truth from a historical source—be it a fictional film or a straight-faced biography—that has too much to gain by telling us what we want to believe.

Michel J. Gagné, 2023.

Documents related to this episode:*

1. Juan José Benítez: Caballo de Troya, tome 1. Planeta Publishing, 1984.

2. The Terminator (Orion Pictures, 1984). Dir. by James Cameron. Featuring Michael Biehn, Linda Hamilton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

3. Back to the Future (Universal Pictures, 1985). Dir. by Robert Zemeckis. Featuring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

4. Looper (TriStar Pictures, 2012). Dir. by Rian Johnson. Featuring Joseph Godon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.

5. Planet of the Apes (20th Century Studios, 1968). Dir. by Franklin J. Shaffner. Featuring Charlton Heston.

6. "Donald Bellisario on Lee Harvey Oswald and Quantum Leap," Television Academy Foundation.

8. Avengers: Endgame (Walt Disney Studios, 2019). Dir. by Anthony and Joe Russo. Featuring Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, and Paul Rudd.

9. Stephen King: 11/22/63. Scribner, 2011.

10. 11.22.63 (TV series, Hulu, 2016). Developed by Bridget Carpenter. Featuring James Franco and Chris Cooper.

11. Apocalypse Now (United Artists, 1979). Dir. by Francis Ford Coppola. Flight of the Valkyries theme music composed by Richard Wagner.

12. Tenet (Warner Bros, 2022). Dir. by Christopher Nolan. Featuring John David Washington and Clémence Poésy.

13. The Lost JFK Tapes: The Assassination (National Geographic, 2009). Dir. by Tom Jennings.

14. Executive Action (National General Pictures, 1973). Dir. by David Miller. Featuring Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster.

15. Winter Kills (AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1979). Dir. by William Richert. Featuring Jeff Bridges and John Huston.

16. Three Days of the Condor (Paramount Pictures, 1975). Dir. by Sydney Pollack. Featuring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson.

17. The Parallax View (Paramount Pictures, 1974). Dir. by Alan J. Pakula. Featuring Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, and William Daniels.

18. Rashomon (Daiei Films,1950). Dir. by Akira Kurosawa.

19. Total Recall (TriStar Pictures, 1990). Dir. by Paul Verhoeven. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, and Roy Brocksmith.

20. Peter Knight: The Kennedy Assassination. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

21. Peter Knight: Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files. Routledge, 2020.

22. Peter Knight and Michael Butter, eds: The Routledge Handbook To Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, 2021.

24. Norman Mailer: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. Random House, 1996.

25. Don DeLillo: Libra. Penguin, 1991.

26. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (EMI Films, 1975). Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Featuring Graham Chapman and Michael Palin.

* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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