Every year on November 22, the nation comes together to reflect on the anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In the past 50 years, dozens of films have explored his life, his legacy, and the controversy surrounding his death. In no particular order, here are 10 movies that tell the story of this unforgettable president’s short life.
1. PT 109 (1963)
Most people know Kennedy as the 35th president of the United States, but he was also a decorated World War II Navy veteran. PT 109 is one of the only movies made about the former president that delves into his military career. It tells the true story of one of the torpedo boats he commanded and the heroic actions Kennedy took to rescue his crew after it sank. PT 109 is the first film ever made about Kennedy, and it was released in theaters just five months before he died.
2. Kennedy (1983)
Martin Sheen is known for his turn as the fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on NBC’s The West Wing, but he also played another president in the 1983 Kennedy miniseries. The five-hour film followed Kennedy from his childhood through his political career and right before his assassination. Though it first aired 30 years ago, Kennedy stands the test of time as a work that still provides a compelling look at of one of America’s most intriguing public figures. Kennedy was a commercial and critical success, and to this day, Sheen’s impressive performance is considered one of the best portrayals of JFK.
3. JFK (1991)
Kennedy is sadly remembered not only for how he lived but for how he died. For decades, conspiracy theorists and historians have debated the findings of the Warren Commission, which investigated his assassination. Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK tells the true story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s quest to discover the truth about the president’s death. Whether you believe there was another shooter on a grassy knoll or think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, JFK is a gripping film about the way Kennedy’s death changed America.
4. Thirteen Days (2000)
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was one of JFK’s defining moments as commander in chief. Thirteen Days is a film that takes us inside the White House as Kennedy, his brother Robert, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff decide whether to declare war against Cuba after an American pilot was shot down in Cuban territory. Director Roger Donaldson manages to build suspense despite the obvious outcome of the film. But more importantly, he allows us a rare glimpse at the important role Kennedy and his most trusted advisers played in shaping American history.
5. The Kennedys (2011)
One of the most abiding pieces of lore about Kennedy and his loved ones is that they suffer a “Kennedy curse.” It’s hard to deny that this prominent family has endured more than its fair share of tragedy. In 2011, The Kennedys miniseries aired for the first time amid controversy over its portrayal of the president and its historical accuracy. While the miniseries is far from perfect, it does provide a glimpse into the lives of JFK; his father, Joseph; wife, Jackie; and brother Robert as they ascend the political landscape of a changing America and experience the fall of their so-called Camelot. It may not be a movie, per se, but it definitely deserves a spot on this list.
6. Executive Action (1973)
Much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, Executive Action is a dramatization of how various government and business faction may have conspired to assassinate President Kennedy. Written by famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan, the film was highly controversial when it was released — just 10 years after the assassination. And while Executive Action was not as favorably received by the critics as Stone’s JFK, it shares many similarities, including the hypothesis that Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy for the real conspirators.
7. Parkland (2013)
Written and directed by Peter Landesman, this historical drama takes a look at the Kennedy assassination from the perspective of various ordinary people who were there that fateful day in 1963, including the staff of the Parkland Hospital where JFK was brought and declared dead. Reviews of the film were decidedly mixed, and Parkland currently has a 50% approval rating from the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, who noted that, “Although its decision to look at John F. Kennedy’s assassination through uncommon perspectives is refreshing,Parkland never achieves the narrative cohesion its subject deserves.”
8. Rush to Judgment (1967)
One of the first films to question the findings of the Warren Commission, Rush to Judgment is based on a book of the same name by author Mark Lane. Directed by Emile de Antonio, this documentary film features interviews with actual witnesses to the Kennedy assassination, including Abraham Zapruder, the man who famously captured the event in a video recording. This documentary is perhaps most notable for sparking a wider discussion about Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.
9. Killing Kennedy (2013)
Based on a book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, this telefim premiered on National Geographic Channel in November 2013. Starring Rob Lowe as John F. Kennedy and Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald, this film outlines key events in both men’s lives that led to that fateful day in Dallas. Like many films about the JFK assassination, Killing Kennedy also covers the death of Lee Harvey Oswald, the primary suspect in the assassination who was gunned down by Jack Ruby two days after Kennedy was killed.
10. Zapruder Film
Unfortunately, but without question, the most famous film about John F. Kennedy is the home movie that shows his assassination. Shot by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder, the film became a key piece of evidence in the Warren Commission investigation and was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1994. Endlessly analyzed and debated by conspiracy theorists, the 26 second-long film may be the most well-known and notorious piece of film footage in history.
Additional reporting by Nathanael Arnold
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