You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Film that Took Over History: Abraham Zapruder's Amateur Footage of the JFK Assassination

Exclusive Media

Parkland (directed by Peter Landesman)

Abraham Zapruder had gone to work that morning without his Bell & Howell 8mm movie camera. He was 58, the owner of a clothing company, Jennifer Juniors, so he couldn’t remember everything. He was Russian and Jewish, born in Kovel in 1905. Then someone in the office reminded him, “Oh, Mr. Zapruder, you should get your camera.” So he went home and retrieved it, a Zoomric Director Series model, 414PD, a spiffy job for November 22, 1963. 

Sometimes the most casual and fleeting actions can end up dramatic or literary. The brief footage—the Zapruder film—might prove to be the most remarkable movie ever shot, 26.6 seconds that took over history. Mr. Zapruder went out in Dealey Plaza when the time came for the President to pass by. He stood on a pedestal to get a better view, and because he suffered from vertigo, an assistant, Marilyn Sitzman, propped him up; they were like people on a ladder attempting a household repair. Is this mere innocence and chance? Is it anything to be suspicious about?

And now, in Peter Landesman’s movie, Parkland, Zapruder is played by Paul Giamatti, which means: decent, humble, friendly, a little inept—one of us? What I mean by that is that Zapruder is not John Malkovich, Frank Langella, or Steve Buscemi. That casting would make innocence a little tougher to credit—wouldn’t it? But if Zapruder’s one of us, who are we, or who were we on that day in Dallas? 

I do not mean to cast any suspicion on Abraham Zapruder, but a case can be made that he raised doubts and paranoia from which we have not recovered. He used that camera to record 486 frames, and told a friend what he had captured. The friend passed the word on to Forrest Sorrels, local head of the Secret Service. In Parkland, Sorrels is played by Billy Bob Thornton in a hat that closes down on his head and his gaunt face. So Sorrels begins to be a question mark. But Zapruder gave his film to Sorrels and thus its checkered career as a property was set in motion.

The footage was not processed until the evening of the assassination. Copies were sent to Washington for Secret Service analysis. The next day, Zapruder sold all rights to the film to Life magazine for $150,000. (Some of that money was donated by Zapruder to the widow of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas policeman who had apparently been shot by Lee Harvey Oswald not long after the presidential assassination.) But despite the speedy sale, it took time before the public saw these frames in motion. In the meantime, the Warren Commission pored over them in its analysis of the killing and adopted the Zapruder footage as the time-line for its interpretation of what had happened.

Walleye Productions, LLC
James Badge Dale as John F. Kennedy

Probably, we’ve all seen the 26.6 seconds. But recently at the Telluride Film Festival, there was an unusual opportunity to study them. The novelist Don DeLillo read a passage from his novel Underworld—about characters looking at a bootleg copy of Zapruder in the early ’70s—while he played an eleven-minute film version of the 26.6 seconds that employs many repeats, slowed motion, and even close-ups of that frame in which a significant part of John Kennedy’s head is lifted away from the rest of him. The audience was transfixed by the marriage of this shattering material and DeLillo’s grave, non-actorly narration, but some people were wounded anew by the close-up of the horrifying head shot. 

It’s not that we are unaccustomed to such things. In the 50 years since November 23, 1963, a reasonably alert American has likely seen about 50,000 “deaths” on film or television, real or simulated. We have seen so many people shot, we think we know the bodily dynamics. And so with the Kennedy shot, most ordinary viewers would conclude that the bullet came from in front of the car and to its right—from the grassy knoll, the most noir park in our history. Later on, expert analysts were called who said, oh, don’t jump to that conclusion, for in its neurological spasms, the head and the body can move in unlikely directions. This science has never been convincing—but, of course, we resist science in so many ways. Zapruder—if you take my meaning—directed the assassination, without any intention of doing so.

His was not the only film coverage from Dealey Plaza, though the others were incomplete, less clear or from “wrong” vantages. There were still photographs, too, one of which, in blow-up, may detect the notorious “badge man” shooting—was this a Dallas cop? Was it Tippit? Curiously, there was no government coverage and no local TV film of the important Dallas parade. I say “curiously” because the omission surprised me, but for decades we have been ready to read the worst into the most casual of events in Dallas that day. There have been theories that the Zapruder film was interfered with. There is an industry dedicated to the possibility that we were deceived in that assassination, that the rumor of dire conspiracies have greased our loss of confidence since 1963. Ironically, much of that loss comes from an amateur work in a medium, film, that was supposed to present the truth, 24 times a second. 

Parkland is an odd movie, urgent yet pointless, a panorama of lives in Dallas and at the Parkland Hospital that day, but without any sense of mystery. It sometimes seems like documentary, but as well as Thornton it has James Badge Dale as Oswald’s brother and Marcia Gay Harden as a nurse at the hospital. The film cost only $10 million and it’s by a first-time director; I suppose it has been made because this November promises an anniversary reworking of our grief and our loss. Maybe by December 1, the young—those who were not alive in 1963—will cry “No more,” as so many of us do when the old reliables hit the screen: the end of Marilyn Monroe, the trains going to Auschwitz, the bloom of atomic explosions. Such things were indelible and moving once, and yet they have become boring.

I don’t say that from callousness, but is our exhaustion with horror, and our sense of futility related to all the coverage? I have seen the footage of the ice retreating, I have seen the Willie Mays catch, I have seen the dead in Syria, or wherever. And I fear I do not quite care in the way my own rhetoric says I do. Our great modern agony is in the evaporation of grief and anger (and pleasure?), and the feeling that we are conscious of our futility. That could lead us to hell, and as someone who was alive in November 1963, I can’t help feeling that this most up-to-date hell began then, with 26.6 seconds of the most devastating film we have ever seen. 

David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic