JFK – A life explored on the big screen
- Credit: Archant
John F Kennedy remains a towering figure in world history and is without doubt Hollywood’s favourite President. He had the looks, the charisma, the speeches and best of all a dramatic exit. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at his story on the big screen
The presence of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, continues to cast a long shadow over world history – but JFK also continues to be an important figure in modern cinema.
From dramas to documentaries, from political thrillers to space race reconstructions, from cold war intrigues to bio-pics JFK continues to be a major player in modern Hollywood.
His distinctive voice and his ability to deliver an inspiring speech puts him on a par with Winston Churchill when it comes to offering up a leader who people still revere and look up to. Not that he was a man without vices. His alleged affair with Marilyn Monroe has not only left his image untarnished but has managed to make him appear more human.
To Americans the office of President is seen to reflect and endorse the high-minded qualities that they love about their nation and principles the nation was founded on, which is why there is such distress when someone like Richard Nixon is seen to betray those ideals.
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But, JFK neatly captures the contradiction that surrounds the office and the man. The American people want someone with the judgement of Soloman and yet they also want someone who is recognizably just like them.
In JFK they got this elusive mix. He set America the challenge to go to the moon, he safely negotiated the world away from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his speeches inspired, and yet even his suspected infidelities leant him some extra Hollywood glamour.
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His charisma and the manner of his death also leant him the sort of timeless mystique that Hollywood loves. He’s become Hollywood’s ideal President. Virtually every film set in the early 60s has echoes of him. He appears in the background on television sets, speeches are played on radios or as narration on the soundtrack.
He is a ghostly President haunting the liberal optimism of the 1960s. As we approach the 55th anniversary of his assassination on November 22 here are JFK’s best moments in cinema.
Executive Action (1973)
Dir: David Miller; starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer
The ultimate conspiracy movie. A look at how the high level covert conspirators in the JFK assassination might have planned and plotted the assassination based on facts known at the time. This was the first film to openly question the veracity of the Warren Commission’s report into the death of Kennedy. It suggests that a covert group of rogue intelligence agents, ultra-conservative politicians, unscrupulously greedy business interests, and free-lance assassins become increasingly alarmed at President Kennedy’s policies, including his views on race relations, winding down the Vietnam War, and ending the oil depletion allowance. They decide to terminate him through an “executive action” utilizing three teams of well-trained snipers during JFK’s visit to Dallas and place the blame on supposed CIA operative Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin.
Dir: Oliver Stone; starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau
President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the crime and subsequently shot by Jack Ruby, supposedly avenging the president’s death. An investigation concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby acted alone in their respective crimes, but Louisiana district attorney Jim Garrison is skeptical. Assembling a trusted group of people, Garrison conducts his own investigation, bringing about backlash from powerful government and political figures. Oliver Stone’s compelling conspiracy theory movie.
Love Field (1992)
Dir: Jonathan Kaplan; starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Dennis Haysbert, Stephanie McFadden
Dallas housewife (Pfeiffer) Lurene Hallett’s life revolves around the doings of Jacqueline Kennedy. She is devastated when President Kennedy is shot a few hours after she sees him arrive at Love Field. Despite her husband Ray’s prohibition, she decides to attend the funeral in Washington D.C. Forced to travel by bus, she befriends Jonell, the young black daughter of Paul Couter. Sensing something wrong, her good intentioned interference leads the mixed race threesome on an increasingly difficult journey to Washington with both the police and Ray looking for them.
In the Line of Fire (1992)
Dir: Wolfgang Petersen; starring: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo
A film which, at first glance, doesn’t appear to be about JFK at all, until you realise that it’s all about the effects of the assassination on the minds of his security detail at Dallas and how it affected them afterwards. Then Kennedy’s ghost looms large across the film. Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) is a secret service agent nearing the end of his career and he still haunted by the events in Dallas. Now, former CIA assassin Mitch Leary is stalking the current President, who is running for re-election. Mitch has spent long hours studying Horrigan, and he taunts Horrigan, telling him of his plans to kill the President. Horrigan has no intention of failing his President this time around, and he’s more than willing to take a bullet if that is what it takes to balance the books.
Thirteen Days (2000)
Dir: Roger Donaldson; Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp
In October, 1962, U-2 surveillance photos reveal that the Soviet Union is in the process of placing nuclear weapons in Cuba. These weapons have the capability of wiping out most of the Eastern and Southern United States in minutes if they become operational. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors must come up with a plan of action against the Soviets. Kennedy is determined to show that he is strong enough to stand up to the threat, and the Pentagon advises U.S. military strikes against Cuba--which could lead the way to another U.S. invasion of the island. However, Kennedy is reluctant to follow through, because a U.S. invasion could cause the Soviets to retaliate in Europe. A nuclear showdown appears to be almost inevitable but behind the scenes people are starting to communicate.
Dir: Peter Landesman; Starring: Zac Efron, Tom Welling, Billy Bob Thornton
Like many films about JFK, this movie recounts the chaotic events that occurred in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, Parkland weaves together the perspectives of a handful of ordinary individuals suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances: the young doctors and nurses at Parkland Hospital; Dallas’ chief of the Secret Service; an unwitting cameraman who captured what became the most watched and examined film in history; the FBI agents who nearly had the gunman within their grasp; the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald, left to deal with his shattered family; and JFK’s security team, witnesses to both the president’s death and Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s rise to power and changing the outlook and naive innocence of a generation..
Dir: Pablo Larraín; starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Richard E Grant
Although, not mentioned in the title, JFK’s presence looms over every frame of this film. Jackie is a portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, then Jacqueline Kennedy. Jackie places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband’s assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a portrait of the First Lady as she fights to establish her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot” that she created and loved so well.