JFK 50th anniversary: TV overkill?
On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. I was not alive when this tragedy occurred, and yet it feels like I experienced it all the same, and many, many times over, too, for pop culture has been killing Kennedy for as long as I can remember. Over the past five years alone, we’ve re-lived that damn day in an episode of Mad Men, in the mini-series The Kennedys, in the films Parkland and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and, ironically, in Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the story of a man who travels back in time and stops Lee Harvey Oswald from taking out the 35th president, creating a new if equally complex and difficult history. I became pop-aware and an avid media consumer in the mid-’70s, which is about the time the Baby Boomers seized control of the Hollywood dream factory and began stocking the entertainment marketplace with stories of their nightmarish childhood. Vietnam. Richard Nixon. The painful war for racial justice and equality. So many assassinations. I came of age on another generation’s unresolved despair, and their woeful tale played like a Dark Knight origin story for the present. It goes like this: They were Mermaids and Flamingo Kids once, shaking their tails and chasing tail in the summer of 1963. And then JFK happened, and everything went Full Metal Jacket: “I. AM. In a world. Of s—t!” Such was their Apocalypse Now … and then came The Big Chill. And that is why we have the ironic-corrupt Blue Velvet world we have today, where greed is good, and doing the right thing feels so darn hard. The horror. The horror. Run, Forrest! Run!
The End of Camelot was the opening act of America’s Fall, the story of the ’60s, or so the movies, television shows, and comic books of the ’80s and ’90s taught me. Is it any wonder why today’s pop culture is filled with anti-heroes, reckless supermen, and dark fantasies with deep, twisted conspiracy theory mythology? It’s because the people making that stuff are people like me, who were raised on the post-Kennedy disillusionment, cynicism, and restless “Why?” questing of those who spun the most influential yarns of our youth… and we liked it. I don’t know how different the world would be if we could really make like Stephen King’s 11/22/63. But it’s very possible there would be no Stephen King. Or Oliver Stone. Or Watchmen, or The X-Files, and everything and everyone they influenced. Including me.
It will be 50 years since Kennedy’s assassination come this Friday. You know what that means: Time to “remember.” Just as we did on the 40th, and on the 30th, and on the 20th. Everybody pour a 40 on your homemade Eternal Flame and recognize. Television will do its part, because after all, 50 years is a Golden Anniversary, and there’s gold to be made from such a thing. It already began a couple of weeks ago when the National Geographic Channel aired Killing Kennedy, an adaptation of the Bill O’Reilly/Martin Dugard best-seller starring Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin, and generated record-breaking ratings for itself. It continues Sunday with Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy on TLC and a pair of programs on the Smithsonian Channel, including one about an earlier, failed attempt by a would-be suicide bomber who tried to kill Kennedy in 1960. History will be giving us an entire “Kennedy Week” of programming, plus a “JFK Twitter Takeover” on Friday, an hour by hour account of 11/22/63 as if chronicled on social media. The Today show will broadcast from Dallas all week, CBS will do a prime-time special on Nov. 22, albeit sans their iconic former anchor Dan Rather, who covered the assassination as a reporter. Instead, he’ll be heard narrating some Kennedy-related content on ESPN and spend Friday night on Mark Cuban’s AXS TV recollecting and whatnot. All of this, and more. It reminds us that JFK, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, is an extremely marketable and profitable entertainment franchise.
There will be many who will find the Kennedy Overkill (so to speak) to be rather meaningful. I suspect these people include those who lived through it, who can say, “I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot.” For younger people, like my children, much of this stuff could be educational, especially the documentaries that put Kennedy’s presidency in context, and keeping to a respectful minimum the sensationalistic details — Jackie on the back of the limo; how long she stayed in the gore-splattered dress — and the off-topic bits, like the philanderer-in-chief TMZ stuff. But personally, I can’t get it up for this anniversary. I am exhausted with and exhausted by the Kennedy story. Continually telling it and attending to feeds and perpetuates this aforementioned Boomer-forged mythology of post-modern America, which regardless of its accuracy has become such a cliché and needs to fade, fade away, for the sake of moving forward. Anyway: When do we stop picking at the scabs of history and just let it heal, already?
I don’t need to relive this horror show for the rest of the days. The images of the Zapruder Film — the actual frames or Hollywood recreations of them — are burned into my brain, thanks to pop culture. (“Back, and to the left. Back… and to the left.“) And yet, it will be difficult for me to turn away from the nostalgia spectacle this week. There’s so much of it! And if any of it comes with the headline “Why The Kennedy Assassination Still Matters,” I’ll make sure to give it some attention. I’ll watch it with a critical eye and possibly arms-crossed grumpy skepticism, but I’ll watch it. Me being me, the media angle is really interesting. I want to see a report about the similarities and differences between then and now on how the news covers catastrophes, disasters, and tragedies. This Twitter takeover thing intrigues me, too, as I am a sucker for high-concept storytelling stunts. And I am sure I’ll be watching something on Friday night with my kids. You know: A “teachable moment” and all that. There’s also some nostalgia involved for me, but not necessarily for the Kennedy narrative. I come from a land beyond “Shark Week” — an era before niche marketing, target demo TV, and tribal pop. And so there is something appealing about a cultural event with mass audience potential, contrived as it might be. It rarely happens anymore. It usually takes a Super Bowl, the Oscars, or — ironically — breaking news of the latest calamity or horrific act of violence, usually involving lunatics with alarmingly easy access to guns, to bring us together, virtually, via media. In this regard, “Kennedy Week” strikes me as much a memorial to the days of monolithic media culture as it is to Kennedy himself. It’s like that thing you do when your parents tell you, “It really doesn’t matter what we do, all that matters is being together.”
Or not. It’ll be interesting to see how big the audiences will be for this stuff, not to mention how old and how young. What do Kennedy and Jackie and their Camelot that never really was mean to anyone younger than 30? We’re about to find out.
There’s one other thing I hope to learn from “Kennedy Week.” I am keenly interested to know if we’re still looking to conspiracy theories to explain Kennedy’s assassination, or if people are now more willing to accept that Oswald acted alone. The question popped to mind after watching Killing Kennedy a few weeks ago. It was an admirably reserved if altogether unremarkable TV movie — except for its resolute belief in a Lone Nut scenario. It was provocative for not even entertaining the usual alternatives, like a vengeance scheme perpetrated by agents of Castro or the notion advanced by Stone’s JFK that elements within America’s military industrial complex wanted to rub out a commander-in-chief who was bad for their business. I am agnostic on this issue, but I was surprised at how refreshing the no-conspiracy angle felt. I know conspiracies are possible. See: The Watergate cover-up; Iran-Contra. These very real abuses of power and public trust give us every reason to be wary of “official” reports about anything. We won’t get fooled again! But I also know conspiracies are attractive to not just the paranoid and burned, but to those who can’t deal with unresolved hurt, who can’t fathom massive, mythic wrong without an equally massive, mythic explanation, who can’t accept that sometimes, s—t does happen, or that a single man can actually make an extraordinary difference with far-reaching consequences, for better and worse. I wonder if the storytelling that lies ahead will follow the Killing Kennedy example and give less or no credence to conspiracy theories, and if that might be seen as an indication that we have made some kind of peace with Nov. 22, or at least are now ready to do so. Regardless, let this 50th “anniversary” serve as a once-and-for-all mournful nod. It is time to stop killing Kennedy and lay him to rest for good.
Oh, who am I kidding?
See you at the 60th.