There are a few days in American history when the world just seemed to stop. November 22, 1963 is one of those days. The assassination of John F. Kennedy has been studied in just about every possible way over the past 50 years, and in some quarters at least, questions still linger. Ever since the Oliver Stone film JFK (1991), it seems that most programs about the assassination focus on the many conspiracy theories surrounding it.
This is not the case with the new Smithsonian Channel documentary The Day Kennedy Died (2013) though. The 90-minute program has no ideological axe to grind; it simply presents the events as they happened through the eyes of the people who were there.
This is powerful stuff. Rather than interviewing people with an ideological axe to grind, the producers have found people who were just there to see the Presidential parade. They had no idea that the world would change right before their eyes, and many are still visibly shaken by the experience.
One of these is a man named Buell Frazier. He and Lee Harvey Oswald rode to their jobs at the Dallas Book Depository together, and did so that morning. Frazier describes a large case that Oswald had with him, but nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. He says that he and Oswald watched the parade from different floors in the building, and saw nothing else. He also still very disturbed by the situation.
One of the most intriguing segments of the movie comes during the interviews with the Newman family. The young family of four were interviewed by Earl Jay Watson of the Dallas television station WFAA just after the shooting, and are stunned.
David Newman is the father, and he is having a hard time keeping his kids and his wife together, let alone talking on camera about what they had just seen. The children looked to be around ten and six at the time, and the producers of The Day Kennedy Died have found them to get their thoughts 50 years later. Taken together, these pieces are riveting.
Another notable aspect of the show is that it is about the events of the full day, because there were a lot of things that happened. The shooting is over after the first half hour, but a great more went on that day. The producers have again found some fascinating material to use in describing such later events as Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on the plane before it left Dallas, and Ladybird Johnson consoling Jaqueline Kennedy. It seems that Ladybird kept an audio diary, and we hear excerpts of these events in her own voice.
As narrator Kevin Spacey explains towards the end of the movie, “The story of the day Kennedy died did not end on Friday, November 22, 1963. There was another shocking conclusion just 35 hours later in Dallas on Sunday, November 24.” We then see Lee Harvey Oswald being walked in to the hallway of the jail he was being held in and Jack Ruby shooting him. What I never realized before was that Ruby shot Oswald just as Kennedy’s funeral procession was leaving the White House.
I was six months old when all of this happened, and everyone my age and younger only know the Kennedy assassination from what we have seen and read. As I mentioned earlier, most of this material is skewed towards the many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.
The Day Kennedy Died avoids that trap, and this makes it much stronger in my opinion. This is an excellent documentary about one of the darkest days in American history.