Some years back I read a fascinating article in Cineaste Magazine suggesting most documentaries should not be called just that: rather, they should be labeled “non-fiction narratives,” for most of them were not objective examinations of people, events, or movements. Instead, the majority of documentaries are agenda-driven works masked by headlines and interviews. As such, they don’t seek to document or find truth as much as they hope to shape viewers’ opinions.
No documentary can be 100% objective. That would be dreary and bloodless, the equivalent of watching a reporter standing outside in a blizzard telling us it is snowing. Point of view is important and can make the banal entertaining. Though some ‘documentary films’ may express bias unconsciously, many don’t want to answer a question; instead, they know the answer before they have begun and only wish to cherry pick, take out of context, or crib evidence to bolster that pre-conceived notion.
The most egregious practitioner of this art is Michael Moore who preens as a documentary filmmaker bent on uncovering the truth when he is in reality a propagandist. It’s naturally his right to be what he wishes to be but the pose of fair-minded, muck-raking journalist he strikes is offensive in the extreme. He is the most successful documentarian there has been, and he has ruined the genre, for so many follow his example they have made the field not a pure art but a wasteland of bias and slander.
Why do I mention all of this? Recently, I had the opportunity to review a documentary on DVD titled The Day Kennedy Died, produced by The Smithsonian Channel (as in the Museum). The 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination is this November 22, and there is bound to be much said, written, and filmed about that seminal event in American history. Indeed, the release of The Day Kennedy Died is timed to coincide with the anniversary.
In my youth, I was much drawn to the assassination and all the mystery and potential conspiracy surrounding it. In a perverse kind of way, it is romantic to believe powerful, slimy forces conspired to kill the vibrant and majestic Kennedy. Part of the myth-making around the assassination was always the idea that the climate of right wing hate for JFK in Dallas was responsible for the killing.
I think Liberals and Kennedy admirers are mainly responsible for this. It’s far easier to point the finger at the John Birch Society than admit a Communist and Castro sympathizer like Lee Harvey Oswald, whose ideology was closer to theirs than any conservative’s, was solely responsible (as mentally unstable as he may have been). It’s as intellectually lazy and nakedly political as trying to blame Sarah Palin for the Gabby Giffords shooting.
The Day Kennedy Died bills itself as the “story of JFK’s final hours.” It is narrated by the calm-voiced Kevin Spacey and features interviews with a number of people present at and affected by the shooting. It is well-made, edited, sound-mixed, and on. It is a professional piece of work that is engaging, but of all the things that could have been emphasized in the first ten to fifteen minutes, the producers chose to focus on the “climate of hate” in Dallas for JFK.
Admittedly, it is hard to carve out a unique angle on the assassination. After fifty years, millions of words and images exist on the topic, so to come up with a fresh take is a difficult task. Even so, it is disappointing that the filmmakers of The Day Kennedy Died fall back on the lazy cliché of the climate in Dallas. The Day Kennedy Died is not in Michael Moore territory in terms of dishonesty, but the effect can still be seen. The producers can’t help but turn what is supposed to be an objective piece of work into a comment.
Why did they not begin the film with statements from people about how Oswald was a loner and a Communist-sympathizer of some kind? They do mention this later in the doc, but they clearly chose not to lead with it. Why did they choose to focus on right-wing distaste for Kennedy? The own images they continually show –of smiling, waving, sign-toting, happy to see JFK Dallas residents—contradicts the very assertion that the city hated the President.
Indeed, after any tragic event one can look into the record to find ominous signs. Had JFK come in and out of Dallas unharmed would anyone have ever associated the city as a bastion of anti-Kennedy sentiment?
The Day Kennedy Died could have used its 90 minutes more effectively. One interviewee especially I found compelling. The man who gave Oswald a ride to work that morning was also, for a few days, suspected of involvement in the killing. Indeed, he was arrested and questioned. His moments on camera are very engaging, and I think the work would have been stronger overall if the producers abandoned political posturing and focused more on folks such as him.
This documentary’s willingness to slip into cliché will not cause it to stand out, and as the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches I fear it will be lost in the shuffle. It’s a nice piece of work in many ways, but what distinguishes it in my mind is the effect partisan politics plays –even in these very small ways—in the field of documentary filmmaking today.