TOPICS > Politics

Image of Assassination: The Zapruder Film

July 14, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now the Zapruder film that captured the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. A new enhanced version of the 26 second film goes on sale nationwide this week. In this home video version each frame, including between the original film’s sprocket holes, was digitized to allow a wider field of view and different perspectives.

Some thoughts now about all this from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Waleed Ali, president of MPI Home Video, the company releasing the Zapruder film.

Mr. Ali, first, what was the motivation for making this film available on videotape?

WALEED ALI: Well, we thought that the story of the film, the actual history of the Zapruder film, was fascinating enough back in 1991 when we were working on a documentary on the assassination of JFK. We licensed the footage for that documentary, and at that point I had asked the Zapruder organization if we could create a documentary that basically told the biography of this fascinating piece of film, probably the most fascinating piece of film that was ever shot in the 20th century. And for seven years the answer was no. We finally made an agreement a year ago.

JIM LEHRER: And now you’re making, what, a quarter of a million copies, is that right, available?

WALEED ALI: We expect to. We didn’t expect to when we were producing the documentary. We expect to now.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. And they sell for $20 or so, right?

WALEED ALI: Yes. $19.95.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Now, Frank Mankelwitz, who was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, called this degrading. He said, “Just when you think U.S. culture cannot be degraded any further, something like this comes along.” He’s talking about selling the Zapruder film. What’s your reaction to that, sir?

WALEED ALI: I know that there’s no avoiding offending various tastes when we put something like this out. Our business is documenting history, archiving history, and distributing it. I think it’s perhaps because we are a distributor in this format-in home video-that some people are taking offense. The fact is it hasn’t been a pretty century, and this is probably one of the ugliest moments of the 20th century. But sooner or later it was going to become available to the American people. It was just a question of time. It’s the format, I think, that actually upsets people the most.

JIM LEHRER: The home-the fact that you can buy it and show it on your home video at home.


JIM LEHRER: Haynes, how do you feel about just the fact that this is-that-what Mr. Ali and his colleagues are doing?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, he’s certainly right. It was inevitable in the age in which people live-Jim, it was going to be made available–somebody, somewhere, for a price. There’s a lack of dignity and taste involved in this to me. I watched this, and we’ve all grown up watching the Kennedy assassination over and over again. I must say watching those 26 seconds I again was appalled and shocked and horrified and mesmerized, and the final scene when the head comes off-not to be too vivid here-

JIM LEHRER: We did not show that.

HAYNES JOHNSON: I know, and I’m glad you didn’t-but it is one of the most gruesome things you’ve ever seen, and then of course, the tragic moment when Jacqueline Kennedy in that pink dress climbing onto the back of that limousine reaching for her husband’s skull-is so heartbreaking that I-after all these years-35 years later-I had this sense of-just like that-watching it to me. It is a piece of history. There’s no question about that. There’s something demeaning about selling tragedy, trading in tragedy to me. That’s my feeling about it.


WALEED ALI: Well, again, he’s referring to the format of distribution. If this were run even on PBS as a special or as a “Prime Time Live” segment, you could have cut away to a commercial and there wouldn’t have been any real reaction like there is now. It’s-I think it’s because the format of home video has been considered a stepsister to all other media. It is being considered something that has been really adopted by Hollywood for movies and workout tapes. And it’s not really given its credit as an honest disseminator of news and information.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Michael, let’s move on just to what Mr. Ali said and many people have said, that this piece of film is as a piece of history a most remarkable thing, is it not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is. It’s the way we remember the Kennedy assassination and if it didn’t exist, we not only would remember that event in a different way. We might even remember it a little bit less because if you didn’t have those 22 seconds recorded on that color film with the almost too-pink pink of Mrs. Kennedy’s dress, as Haynes mentioned, and that very green lawn just beyond the midnight blue car, and this horrible 22 seconds, what we would have to record the Kennedy assassination would be some blurry black and white photos, almost before and after the event, don’t show very much, so the result is that what we remember of this event is really the image, just as we remember Iwo Jima from the raising of the American flag on motion picture film and in stills and George Washington crossing the Delaware from that famous painting. That’s what really sort of lodges in our mind. The other thing that’s important is that this provides us with a body of agreed-upon facts on the Kennedy assassination; because those 22 seconds exist, we all know that the car was in a certain place at a certain time, that other things and people in those frames were in certain positions, in certain moments, and for an event about which there is so much still mystery and so much controversy and hip people disagree so much, at least there are a few things where we can say we’ve got an exact record, and at least these things you can’t really question.

JIM LEHRER: And that is rare for an historical event of this magnitude, to have that kind of documentation, is what you’re saying?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is rare, and we’re lucky that Mr. Zapruder was there. It also creates some controversy. One example is when you see a president’s head move back at the time of the second shot, that has actually led to a lot of question of whether there was a second shot that came from the front or the side. Well, oddly enough, this has not only resolved some controversies but also created some.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, where would you rate this just in terms of a piece of history?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, there’s no question that the film itself is a piece of history and that the enhanced version of it may contribute to history, but I don’t see any historical value in its mass marketing to the public as a whole. In fact, I find it really troubling that for the collective mind of so many people who may see this enhanced version it will wipe out-it is so powerful-the other images that we tend to hold of the Kennedys.

I think most of us-though we obviously knew he died-we had that blurry image, which was crowded out before by images of him smiling, talking at Berlin to tens of thousands of people, holding that buttercup in front of little John, next to Caroline on the pony.

Those were the images that stayed with us and the blurry image was a piece of it but not so overwhelming. I’ll be forever grateful to the 15-year-old friend of my son’s, who when he discovered that our Golden Retriever had been killed in front of our house, when we were at the movies, carried that body away so that we could hold forever in our mind the image of this live, lively dog. He knew somehow instinctively at 15 we wouldn’t want that as a final image.

I don’t want the American people to have this so powerful image in their head that it wipes out the rest of what we remembered about the Kennedys, and the only reason for it being a mass market video is to make money on it. The historic value of the film is still there. We could still have had conspiracy theorists and all the archivists who wanted to look at it look at it, but I just don’t understand what value there’s going to be in having us see it.

JIM LEHRER: The public should not be allowed to see this?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, one can never say the public should not be allowed. It’s a free country. It’s a free market. And there’s no way one’s going to prevent that. I just hope that too many people, if they absorb this, don’t get some sort of ghoulish fascination with that moment of death and let it undo everything else.

WALEED ALI: Forgive me.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ali, yes.

WALEED ALI: I think we ought to give more credit to the American people in that this was a tragic moment in American history. It’s an ugly moment, lady. There’s nothing that you can do to change it. And the fact that it’s being distributed in home video is the only way to get it-to make it available to the home video marketplace. Why do you want to keep this in the realm-in the domain of producers and conspiracy theorists? It really does belong and should be accessible to the home video marketplace, and I can tell you also that the main reason we did this was not to make money. We weren’t absolutely sure that we were going to even have any return on our investment when we did this.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes, how do you feel about the public’s right to see this?

HAYNES JOHNSON: They have a right to see it, Jim. You cannot blink that away. I mean, we’re all in the business of disseminating information and news and the rest. But there is something, again, to me-just I cringe at the idea of going into your video mass market store and there you have How to Lose Weight, How to Make Money, How to Make Love, and then How to Kill a President. There’s something about this-in classes, in study-this is, as Michael said, as we’ve all said-this is a piece of history. There is no question. The fact that it is in clear and in color, it’s not black and white, we see it all-that last scene, though, just-horrifies me.

JIM LEHRER: Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Haynes is so right. And you know I remember, Jim, that in the weeks after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy, the President’s widow, had nightmares that her husband’s bloody clothes would be displayed in some future day at a county fair in a tent or at some carnival or in some gaudy way, and this isn’t quite that. But to imagine this in a video store to some extent I think carries out our worst fears.

WALEED ALI: I’m confused. Where do you think this actually does belong, on television, the way it has for the last 23 years-in movies like JFK? Is it the idea that this document of history is being made available through the so-called video store that bothers you the most, is that it? How else can you get this out to the American people if they wish to see it? Nobody’s putting a gun to anybody’s head and saying you got to watch this.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead, Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it should be in the national archives and available to scholars and when it is used, framed in the scholarly sense that gives due seriousness to the tragedy and the importance of this event.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, what would you do with this film? You object to what Mr. Ali is doing? What should have been done to it?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, there’s no question that the moment it captures is an historic moment, and he’s right about that. The archduke assassination, the landing of the troops on D-Day, the moon landing, all of those are comparable to this kind of moment. It changed our history, but I don’t see what the value of making that moment so vivid that we can’t get it out of our heads once we’ve seen it. I was stunned to see it. I had never seen it in that way before, and all that-

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you’ve seen a copy of Mr. Ali’s tape, right?


JIM LEHRER: That we asked you to look at before doing this.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: With some complication because my husband, who worked for John Kennedy, was unable to look at it he was so upset by the thought of it even-that I had to put it on my own video machine without any technical knowledge, so it kept falling apart. I had to bring him back in without looking to put it on. But I just found it so overwhelming-I agree-I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be out there, that we can’t do it-all I’m expressing is my sadness that it’s there. I wish it had been done a different way. I wish they had put it in the national archives, as it’s been for these last 20 years, that somehow it had been made more available to scholars who wanted to see it, more available to anyone who wanted to go there.

WALEED ALI: It’s the height of elitism. It’s been available to scholars. It’s been available to producers and news people. Why can’t it be made available to the average American guy?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Nobody is saying-nobody is saying that you cannot make it-all we’re expressing-at least I am-is sadness that our standards are such now that such violence might become something popular and this might become mass marketed. I’m not saying you can’t do it. I’m just expressing sadness that it’s happening. And you may be very successful. It may work because there will be a ghoulish fascination; there’ll be people who will want to see somebody at the moment of a death. It’s the mystery that we’re all confronting with ourselves. I’m not denying it. It may be out there, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have some standard and feel bad about it.

WALEED ALI: I mean, we got all kinds of history that we do distribute. We got the history of fashion. We’ve got the history of World War II, World War I, all kinds of tragedies that have taken place. The great TV news stories that we distribute-this one just happens to be the noisiest of it all.

JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Doris, gentlemen, thank you.

WALEED ALI: Thank you.