Russell Brand may have hogged all the headlines for his guest-edited edition of the New Statesman last month, but among its pages was a characteristically unhinged rant from actor Alec Baldwin.
In it, he drew a sketchy but direct line from the conspiracy-tastic assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the recent NSA spying and Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing.
The details of Baldwin’s theory escape me (and him, it would appear), but it was just one recent example of how contentious the subject remains.
As a man, he wasn’t a very nice guy, and we don’t really know if he would have been a good president
He has since taken to Twitter to challenge anyone who doesn’t believe that Kennedy’s murder was part of a conspiracy to get their heads checked.
First in the chair, then, should be director Peter Landesman, whose new film, Parkland, eschews any speculation at all, focusing instead on a human retelling of the events in Dallas on 22 November 1963 from the vantage point of those involved.
“I think that the conspiracy theories – that nonsense, that fiction – is the thing that overtook the event itself. I wanted to make sure this movie was fucking correct,” Landesman tells me over coffee in a London hotel.
Parkland shows how the event affected a number of lives: the young doctor forced to operate on a dying president (in Parkland Hospital, Dallas – hence the film’s title); the hapless clothing manufacturer who captured the assassination on film; the FBI man who’d had Lee Harvey Oswald in his office a fortnight earlier.
But in reality it affected us all. Landesman isn’t quite 50 yet. But, while he may be too young to remember the assassination, its shadow hung heavily over his – and a generation’s – formative years. Next week’s anniversary reminds us just how much.
“A fire was already lit, but [JFK’s death] was like an accelerant, you know?
“Western society was already shifting, post-War and into the Sixties, which was a total revolution: our bodies, the stuff we listened to and what it all meant,” says Landesman.
One component of that revolution was the growth of access to television. And if it was that which helped build Kennedy’s image, then it was his death that heralded the first major global TV news event.
In the UK alone, it remains the tenth most-viewed broadcast in history, netting only a few hundred thousand fewer than the London 2012 opening ceremony.
Newscasters worldwide relayed information in real time, as stunned as those watching. Every new piece of information prompted ever more questions, laying the ground for the theories that were to follow.
“The idea that ‘our guy was taken away from us’ doesn’t make any sense,” says Landesman. “Especially the idea that he was taken away by a sad, sociopathic little knucklehead.”
It’s worth pointing out that the director is a journalist by trade, an acclaimed investigative reporter, and someone predisposed to questioning the given version of events. But the facts to which he sticks in the documentary-style Parkland reveal stories as fascinating as any conspiracy.
“Everything in the movie is verifiably true. To make sure that was the case I did a lot of work: a lot of research, a lot of interviews, a lot of travel. I treated it like a piece of living history.”
Those of us exiting the UK press screening were amazed at what we never knew: the FBI destroyed files on Lee Harvey Oswald to hide its own incompetence; cold-hearted secret service officials contemplated leaving Jackie Kennedy in Dallas as she was “no longer related to an executive of state”; there was a state vs federal (physical) tussle over JFK’s body.
Landesman recently told Vanity Fair: “Once you remove the murder mystery element, the story of the people to whom this actually happened that weekend was much more profound.”
The discussion moves on to the ‘where-were-you-when’ nature of JFK’s death, and between us we decide that the moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of Diana and 9/11 are the only events to have the same impact in the 50 years since.
“The truth is that these were very simple acts: the hammers through the wall, the car crash in the tunnel, the plane in the tower. But we apply all kinds of mythology and meaning and theory to them.
“We can’t deal with the mundaneness of such events, because life is so arbitrary, and scary that way.”
For a long time, the cult of Kennedy, and that of his death, prevented any serious questions being asked about the man beneath the myth: the man with the dubious connections, the serial philanderer, the pill popper…
“They’re only now saying that he was a bit of a shit. As a man, he wasn’t a very nice guy, and we don’t really know if he would have been a good president. He might have been really mediocre,” says Landesman.
“He had a lot of great ideas, but I don’t know if he was really about to execute them or not. Lyndon B Johnson got a lot done after him, but the jury’s still out on JFK as a president. It’s almost beside the point, though, because what’s interesting is the fairytale.”
Perhaps because of the abrupt ending of the Kennedy fairytale, the liberal-leaning media have been keen to draw another line – slightly clearer than Alec Baldwin’s – between the Democrats’ Sixties wunderkind and Barack Obama.
“The New Kennedy,” he was called, as the return of the political poster boy was debated at length. But were such comparisons warranted? Landesman thinks not.
“When Kennedy was elected, there wasn’t this ethereal thing that Obama had. Obama’s thing was really unique.”
However, the pair are – although separated by half a century – bound by a conviction that they can resolve glaring inequalities in American society, albeit in the face of great opposition.
“I think Obama’s legacy is going to be incredible, actually. Obamacare is a big fucking deal. [Kennedy’s] Civil Rights Bill was reacted to in exactly the same way. People tried to get rid of it, people revolted.”
The comparisons will surely abound as the ‘50 years on’ shoutathon gets louder in the run-up to the anniversary.
Parkland is to Oliver Stone’s JFK as United 93 was to the paranoid Loose Change series. But while our rekindled fascination will certainly boost its box office returns, Landesman’s restrained, unsentimental re-telling makes it a worthy and important addition to the Kennedy canon.
“I think Parkland will have a long life,” Landesman concludes. “There’s so much noise around the subject now, but once the dust settles…”
▪ Parkland is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 22 November