Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
As one who watches a lot of DVDs, I also see a great deal of marketing hyperbole attached to their cases. However, every once in a while the PR people get it right. Such an example occurs with The Men Who Killed Kennedy, a documentary examination of the November 22, 1963 assassination. On the back cover, it refers to that act as “American history’s most controversial mystery”. I find it hard to disagree with that notion; almost 40 years after the fact, the issue continues to fascinate many people.
However, I do need to argue with one other part of the DVD’s blurb. The statement quoted above refers to Kennedy as the “definitive account” of the tale. While an interesting and frequently compelling look at some of the conspiracy theories aimed at the assassination, it remains exceedingly far from “definitive”.
For the most part, Kennedy consists of a 1988 BBC documentary; five of the six parts come from that production. For the sixth segment - “The Truth Shall Set You Free” - we find a 1995 extension of the original program. All six episodes are hosted by Hilary Minister and are produced and directed by Nigel Turner. Despite its later vintage, “Truth” fits in cleanly with the other five.
As one can easily construe from the title, one won’t find an endorsement of the “lone gunman” theory here - it’s called Men Who Killed Kennedy for a reason. However, the program never remotely attempts to pin down the ultimate blame. It tosses about a variety of different theories and doesn’t really weight any of them. As a piece of historical assessment, it lacks coherence, for it doesn’t try to evaluate the validity of the mix of ideas; it appears to take all as equally likely.
Kennedy mainly features the standard combination of archival footage and interviews with a mix of figures. It includes too many participants for me to cover all of them, but we get some interesting people. Some were actively connected to the actual events. For example, we hear from former Texas governor John Connolly - who sat in front of Kennedy and also was shot - as well as Marina Oswald, doctors who examined Kennedy’s body, and witnesses on the parade route. In addition, the program provides comments from historians and conspiracy theorists.
The variety of sources is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I truly enjoyed the material from Connolly and other directly involved participants; it’s fascinating to hear the statements of someone so insanely involved in the events. We also get some great archival footage; I particularly liked the radio and TV footage of Oswald.
However, the scattershot approach the program takes to the subject means that every crackpot gets equal time. For every worthwhile source, we find many more who clearly want their time in the sun.
I know a little about the Kennedy assassination and will admit that I lean against the conspiracy theories. One problem with Kennedy stems from the age of much of the material. Much new information has come to light since 1988, and quite a few of the sources and theories propounded here have been discounted in the meantime. This detracts from the credibility of the piece as a whole. For instance, the program claims the “three tramps” were never identified, but that’s no longer true.
Worst of the different ideas has to be the discussion of European contract killers. This concept gets a great deal of attention during one episode, though it’s totally absurd and has since been shown to be impossible; some of the alleged participants were in jail at the time! I also found the “Badge Man” segment to offer the worst kind of stretches. It’s absolutely ridiculous the manner in which the conspiracy theorists manipulate the information at hand. They take an exceedingly fuzzy picture and superimpose their own wishes onto it. In true Rorschach fashion, they try to make us believe what they want to see, but it’s extremely unconvincing and silly.
Perhaps my biggest complaint about Kennedy stems from its absolute lack of balance. It tries so hard to convince us of a conspiracy that it never lets the other side have its say. In that vein, it reminds me a lot of Oliver Stone’s JFK; the piece is so invested in Oswald’s lack of guilt that it never examines the arguments against him. Heck, the real-life protagonist of JFK - former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison - even pops up during the episode called “The Patsy” to refer to Oswald as a hero!
At least JFK attempted to provide one definite theory, however. As I mentioned, Kennedy tosses in almost every concept under the sun and makes no attempt to balance them. Frankly, the show borders on incoherence at times. It flits from topic to topic with rapidity and never goes much of anywhere.
At this point in time, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to produce an objective look at the Kennedy assassination. The question of lone gunman vs. conspiracy remains so heated that virtually every examination of the events becomes tainted by bias. Whether one thinks Oswald acted alone, worked with others, or had no involvement at all, one still comes from a certain point of view, and the material produced will reflect that.
The Men Who Killed Kennedy clearly comes from parties who believe in a conspiracy - they just can’t figure out which one. Does some credible information appear via this program? Sure, but it becomes buried under the mass of absurdity. It grabs bits and pieces of different ideas, adds some pseudo-science, and proves… not much of anything. While Kennedy includes some good moments, as a whole it lacks coherence and falls far short of its goal to offer a “definitive” look at the events of November 22, 1963. Interested parties should stick with texts that cover the subject; they have their weaknesses as well, but they seem much more useful than this badly flawed documentary.