JFK: 3 Shots that Changed America

If most of what you know of the Kennedy assassination comes from that one episode of Seinfeld and Oliver Stone’s flawed masterwork JFK—in other words, “Back, and to the left…”—this History channel documentary will be eye-opening, to say the least. The landmark three-hour film is divided in two parts of equal length; the first goes beyond the Zapruder footage to give an hour-by-hour account of the 24 hours following the assassination—starting at 9am on Friday, November 22nd with Kennedy’s final speech. It ends with the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, as Kennedy, dead, leaves the White House for the last time to lie in state.

The first section recounts some fascinating in-the-moment spectacles, among them conductor Erich Leinsdorf’s interruption of a concert by the Boston Symphony to announce the assassination. As a mark of respect, he leads the orchestra in a performance of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s 3rd; this is mirrored in the film’s second part when Leonard Bernstein conducts the NY Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s 2nd on live television. The first part ends with some interesting overseas coverage, from BBC and world newspapers, and flicks back and forth between news reports which mostly involve on-site examinations of the book depository and observe a garden of Don Draper-like newsmen hanging idly around waiting for the next tidbit. In an era when there was no 24-hour news cycle, it’s fascinating to see that there was still a relentless, indefatigable appetite for any information at all, no matter how miniscule.

The second half of the film discards the real-time programming and opts for a more traditional approach, though it maintains the knitted-together news-footage angle. Events covered include the trial of Jack Ruby and his later death, from cancer; the assassinations of MLK and RFK; and, after a segue to the Byrds show at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1968, this portion devolves slides into the all-too-familiar procession of late-’60s zeitgeist imagery (Vietnam, etc., etc.) recognisable from countless period fiction films and an inordinate number of documentaries and TV specials. Garrison and Clay Shaw—familiar, no doubt to many, because they were the stuff of Stone’s film—get a look in, as does much more from the ensuring two decades, including a skit from the second season of SNL lampooning Ruby’s murder.

The film, thankfully discarding History’s usual preoccupation with computerised glitz and simplified, easy-to-understand voiceover, is composed entirely of television and some amateur film footage, and still photographs. Much of the footage has been cleaned up a bit, though none appears to have been fully restored.* Due to its lack of a voiceover and montage-like construction (unique among History documentaries), this is easily the least sensationalist, least dumbed-down film the channel has ever produced—and by default, then, one of the most informative and intelligent documentaries about JFK. With 3 Shots that Changed America, History (with a capital H) has truly made this turbulent period in modern American history come to vivid life.

* Typically for a film that combines material of various grades and types, some of the black-and-white footage is marred by a greenish hue while some of the colour footage is similarly at times toned pink.)

A stray thought on media, the recording of past time and the visual regurgitation, over and over, of the past:
There’s something about seeing Lee Harvey Oswald speak that’s hard to believe. His place in history has become mythological—not least because his death has now become fodder for cartoon throwaway gags. Seeing him say things we’ve heard many times before, and seeing events that are so familiar to us via countless other media, is (almost) shocking.

The JFK Collection is out now through Magna Home Entertainment.

The two documentaries are presented as-is, with no special features.