What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris deconstructs the most famous 26 seconds in film history
It’s been called the most important 26 seconds of film in history: The 486 frames of 8-millimeter Bell + Howell home movie footage shot in the midday sun of Dallas on November 22, 1963, by a dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder. Twenty-six seconds that included a historic, horrific, all-too-clear vision of a presidential assassination.
Most people vaguely know about the Zapruder film, but it will soon become omnipresent as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches. What is not well known, however, is that a single frame of it was kept largely secret from public view for 12 years after the assassination.
Frame 313. The frame that gave Abraham Zapruder nightmares, the frame he insisted be withheld from the public—a single frame of film that can be said to have changed American history and culture.
“We like to feel that the world is safe,” Errol Morris tells me. “Safe at least in the sense that we can know about it. The Kennedy assassination is very much an essay on the unsafety of the world. If a man that powerful, that young, that rich, that successful, can just be wiped off the face of the earth in an instant, what does it say about the rest of us?”
That instant is one we can all now watch on YouTube. In fact, there is a YouTube compilation that includes no fewer than five versions of the Zapruder film—slow-motion, zoomed-in, close-ups. Once you’ve seen the unspeakable act it captures, Morris says, your sense of stability and safety, your sense of the rationality of the world, has been forever lost. It’s “endlessly haunting and disturbing,” he says.
I wanted to talk to Morris about the Zapruder film because as a documentary filmmaker he’s focused on mysteries (he freed an innocent man from death row with The Thin Blue Line); he’s re-examined secret history (he won an Oscar for cross-examining the enigmatic Robert McNamara in The Fog of War). As a writer, he’s questioned the way that photographic images can document the nature of truth (in his recent book Believing Is Seeing).
In addition to all this, two years ago Morris made a six-minute documentary about the Zapruder film for the New York Times, focusing on one shadowy figure in it: the so-called “Umbrella Man.” And then, in the recurrent irony of conspiracy theory pathology, Morris himself became the subject of JFK conspiracy coverup fantasy.
So one recent morning over breakfast in the dining room of the hotel in New York’s SoHo where Morris was staying, I sat down in front of his computer to watch the Zapruder film with him.
The Zapruder film, silent but in color, shows a motorcade led by two open-top limousines proceeding at a stately pace through a street lined with people. We see the black Lincoln Continental with JFK and his wife, Jackie, in a pink skirt-and-jacket suit. We see them all waving to onlookers as the motorcade heads for what was known locally as “the triple underpass,” an aptly metaphoric name for the tangle we will soon enter.
As the motorcade approaches, we see JFK’s car emerge from behind a sign that had been temporarily blocking the view. Suddenly, we see JFK clutch his throat. Jackie leans over to attend to him. An instant later, in Frame 313, it looks like a lightning bolt strikes JFK’s head. We see it blown up and thrown back. Jackie frantically crawls over the rear seat of the open car and climbs onto its rear deck grasping at something that has been described as a piece of her husband’s shattered skull. If Frame 313 is the forensic peak of the Zapruder film, this sight is the almost-unbearable emotional heart of it.
Rewind to Frame 313: The visceral impression that the blast came from in front of JFK and blew his head backward is powerful. There have been arguments that this is a kind of optical illusion—the most convincing to me being that JFK had been hit from behind after the previous frame, 312, slamming his chin forward to his chest, and his head was rebounding backward in Frame 313.
And it would be so much easier to dismiss the impression of a frontal shot as an illusion, because otherwise you’d have to doubt the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Lee Harvey Oswald, who was positioned behind the president, was the lone gunman.
But it would be a dozen years before most of the world would see Frame 313.
The odyssey of that small rectangle of sprocket-pocked celluloid is fascinating. Knowing that his home movie would have both historic and forensic value, Abraham Zapruder had three copies of his original film made for government investigators. He sold the rights to the original to Life magazine for a reported $150,000. Zapruder made clear Frame 313 gave him nightmares and he didn’t want to be the one to inflict them on the rest of America. Ultimately Life decided to withhold Frame 313.
Nevertheless, bootleg copies circulated, helping to generate the first wave of assassination conspiracy theories and Warren Commission critics. Still, it was not until 1975 that Geraldo—yes, that Geraldo, Geraldo Rivera got hold of a copy of the uncut Zapruder film and played it for a national audience on his show, “Good Night America.” Which resulted in a kind of collective national gasp as millions of Americans simultaneously saw something that they had previously only read about.
The Zapruder shock and other doubts raised about the underside of recent American history such as Watergate helped impel the creation in 1976 of the Senate’s Church Committee (named after Sen. Frank Church of Idaho). It turned over the rock that was the CIA at the time, and discovered, among other scandals wriggling underneath, the CIA/Mafia assassination plots against Cuban President Fidel Castro, some of them fostered during the Kennedy administration—plots that would provide possible assassination motives for Castro, for anti-Castro forces, for the CIA, for the Mafia, or some unholy alliance of more than one of these.
Indeed the committee ultimately determined that both the CIA and the FBI had withheld material information about these matters from the Warren Commission.
The Church Committee then begat the only full-scale official government reinvestigation of the Kennedy assassination, the three-year effort (1976-79) by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (which also considered the Martin Luther King Jr. case). What’s forgotten by many is the HSCA’s conclusion: that JFK was killed by a conspiracy. However, this finding was reached based on the last-minute introduction of “acoustic evidence,” a Dictabelt recording made by a motorcycle cop walkie-talkie purportedly positioned so that it seemed to have picked up a fourth shot (and thus a second assassin) fired from the direction of “the grassy knoll” in front of the president. A shot that might be the one we see hit the president in Frame 313.
The Justice Department subsequently asked the National Academy of Sciences to re-examine the Dictabelt evidence and it concluded it was not dispositive, which naturally led to years of debate among forensic acoustic experts. Later tests also put the motorcycle’s positioning in doubt, further undermining the linchpin of the HSCA’s conspiracy conclusion. Back to square one.
The next seismic event in the Zapruder film’s odyssey came in the slam-bang conclusion of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theory film JFK, a reverential account of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s real-world fiasco of an investigation, which climaxed with Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, dramatically showing the jury the Zapruder film, complete with Frame 313. Again the renewed shock of watching it (rather than Stone’s far-fetched military-industrial-complex conspiracy theory) had its effect: Public reaction pushed Congress to pass the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which ordered that the declassification of literally millions of assassination documents be expedited. It’s a process that is still going on, monitored by former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley on his website JFKfacts.org.
Which brings us up to today. After half a century, the latest Gallup poll shows that 59 percent of the American public believes there was a conspiracy in the assassination, despite the best efforts of reporters such as Gerald Posner (Case Closed) and former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy), who have written long, painstaking books meant to be definitive defenses of the “lone assassin” case.
This fall, Tom Hanks will produce another cinematic version of the assassination, a movie called Parkland (after the Dallas hospital), with Paul Giamatti playing our man Abraham Zapruder.
Meanwhile conspiracy theory books continue to pour out, some even claiming the Zapruder film itself was falsified somehow. As Errol Morris puts it, quoting someone he identifies with typical obscure erudition as “the last living inhabitant of the utopian community of Zoar in Ohio” who said on her deathbed, “Think about it, All those religions. They can’t all be right. But they can all be wrong.”
Which brings us back to the dining room of Errol Morris’ hotel and the six-minute film he made about the “Umbrella Man” in the Zapruder film. He was not, he emphasizes, trying to solve the JFK assassination or take on any of its larger questions—he just wanted to nail down one little “factoid,” which had metastasized into a full-blown conspiracy theory of its own, complete with secret KGB-type weaponized rain gear.
Umbrella Man consists of Morris talking with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, one of the first and most respected of Warren Commission critics. Thompson has had an extraordinary, colorful career. I met him when he was my freshman philosophy professor at Yale and he was working on The Lonely Labyrinth, his landmark analysis of the gloomy Danish anti-rationalist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. But after the release of the Warren Commission report, Thompson turned his incisive intellect to the question of ballistics and its relation to the Zapruder film.
“The Zapruder film serves as a clock,” Morris points out. One can measure the time it took for the three assassination shots (one missed) to be fired—which the Warren Commission concluded was slightly under six seconds—and then calculate how long a single shooter would take to shoot, reload, resight, shoot again, reload, resight and shoot again. Thompson concluded that Oswald wouldn’t have had the time to get off all three shots himself and—after working with Life’s copy of the Zapruder film—he published his findings in Six Seconds in Dallas, one of the first strictly forensic books critical of the Warren Commission, a book even Bugliosi speaks respectfully of, though he disagrees with it.
Morris recalled for me the dramatic moment in the course of the nearly seven hours he spent interviewing Thompson on camera when the former professor handed him a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle identical to the one Oswald was alleged to have used, and demonstrated the slow and complicated process of reloading and resighting that Oswald would have had to have undertaken to get off three shots in six seconds.
Thompson eventually became so intrigued by unsolved mysteries that he left a comfy job in academia behind to become a private eye (his memoir is called Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye). He has spent the last 37 years working, often successfully, for defense lawyers in tough cases.
“So here is Tink,” Morris says, taking us back to Thompson’s Life magazine days, “hunkered down over the Zapruder film looking at it frame by frame by frame. And he notices there is a man, a bystander among the crowds waiting for the Kennedy motorcade—and he’s holding an umbrella. And indeed he looks really out of place.”
“Because the sun is shining.”
“The sun is shining. As I say to Tink, in my film, ‘it was a beautiful day in the neighborhood,’” Morris says in a wry Mister Rogers imitation.
“And the Umbrella Man became an icon of conspiracy theorists?” I ask. “They believe that when he raised the umbrella it was a signal for the assassins?”
“As in all of these theories, there are multiple versions, there are variants. There’s the version where the umbrella was a signal to the co-conspirators. There’s another version where the Umbrella Man himself is one of the assassins...with the umbrella.”
“A weaponized umbrella?”
“A covert weapon capable of firing—I’m not sure where this word came from but Tink uses it—a fléchette. I don’t even know what a fléchette is.”
“Well, you know, there was a famous assassination in London where a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was supposedly assassinated by the KGB with a poison fléchette triggered by...” I was going to say “by an umbrella” when Morris interrupts impatiently.
“What is a fléchette?”
“It’s like a little metal stabbing thing that can be fired, without a gunshot sound, can lodge itself in the flesh and be fatal.”
In Morris’ film, Thompson discloses something I hadn’t known: that the Umbrella Man had eventually come forward and explained himself. “The Umbrella Man himself showed up to give testimony to the House assassinations committee,” Morris says.
And he reproduced a clip of his appearance before the committee in his Umbrella Man film. His name was Louie Steven Witt and he testified that he brought the umbrella on that sunny day because—wait for it—he wanted to express his displeasure with JFK’s father, Joseph Kennedy.
“Who,” Morris says, “had been ambassador to England in the 1930s and [was] known for his policies of appeasement to the Third Reich.”
“Symbolized,” I say, “by the umbrella that Neville Chamberlain carried back from Munich, after Chamberlain claimed to have brought ‘peace for our time’ by letting Hitler swallow up half of Czechoslovakia, giving Hitler the impetus to launch World War II. The umbrella became the symbol of appeasement in 1938 and here in 1963, this guy carries an umbrella and thinks, ‘Whoa, people are really going to be blown away, this is really going to make a statement!’ And it turns out he becomes a symbol himself. It’s almost like history is a kind of snake swallowing its tail.”
“Part of the problem of rationality and irrationality—and it really is a problem—is how do you separate the two? Where is that line of demarcation between nutso thinking and good thinking?”
Which brings us to the double irony: Morris and Thompson’s attempt to nail down this one tiny factoid ended up getting them linked to the coverup by a conspiracy theorist.
“A filmmaker, Alex Cox, the director of Sid & Nancy, among other movies, just put a reply to my Umbrella Man film on the web,” Morris says. “Criticizing me for dismissing the Umbrella Man as a crackpot [theory].”
“So Cox believes the Umbrella Man had a role in the assassination?”
“He seemingly believes that,” Morris says.
I watched the seven-minute Alex Cox video on YouTube. Looking a bit disheveled, like an aging pedant, shuffling around a cluttered office, Cox shows that an umbrella could have been used as a weapon by using an elaborate schematic diagram of a weaponized umbrella, complete with fléchettes.
And then Cox goes further: He suggests that the man who testified to the House Select Committee on Assassinations was “up to something,” perhaps sent to deceive the committee. He offers no other proof, but just by stating his deception theory Cox seems confident he’s scored an impressive point. He offers no evidence that a weaponized umbrella was fired that day or that a poison fléchette was found in JFK’s flesh.
But somehow he makes Morris and Thompson accomplices, witting or not, in the coverup of the Umbrella Man’s murderous duplicity in Dallas that day.
In trying to understand conspiracy theorists, I used to think that what conspiracy theorists were really doing on some level was grieving, their fantasies a form of displaced love for JFK, but I’ve come to think the love involved is mostly self-love, their self-congratulatory assertion of superiority over mere facts. By the way, yes, I do believe there were some real conspiracies in history—Julius Caesar’s assassination for instance—I just think they need to be proven, fact by fact, not by fantasy and supposition.
I ask Morris about my theory of grief underlying the obsession with the assassination—that we underestimate the shock of it.
“I would agree with that,” replies Morris. “I mean why am I so obsessed with...” He pauses. “You know, I’ll never really know what killed my brother and my father, who died both at a very, very early age. But there’s a mystery about death....”
I was stunned.
“What did they die from?”
“I believe massive heart attacks. One at the age of 40, the other at the age of 43.” (Morris is now 65.)
“And coming up with a conspiracy theory to explain the assassination is at least a way of regaining some control over the world?”
“Conspiracy theories often provide solace,” he says. “They provide a level of comfort that makes sense of a world that seems otherwise beyond our ken, our control.”
“In my book about Hitler,” I recall, “I wrote that the inexplicability of horror is equaled by the horror of inexplicability.”
“Conspiracies tell you that there’s a kind of easy way to grasp the idea of evil. It’s those bad guys rubbing their hands together...”
“Twirling their mustaches.”
“Twirling their mustaches, calculating panic, conniving. It gives us a picture of evil that is manageable. Even if we don’t know whether it’s Castro, the KGB, the CIA or a host of other possibilities, we know there’s some kind of deep malefaction at work.”
“While the lone assassin suggests that almost anyone you pass by on the sidewalk could be a ticking time bomb.”
Finally, we watched it. Or, I should say, them. First the original version of the Zapruder film and then, in the words of the YouTube voice-over, “a replay of the standard format version in slow-motion.” Next, a version in which “the images between the sprocket holes can only be seen on the original film.” And then another version, “a replay with the images between the sprocket holes, this time in slow-motion.”
“It’s a much, so much, more an innocent time than ours,” Morris says. “The president in an open motorcade....”
Each time we get to Frame 313, I groan. The shock never wears off. “I don’t know,” I say, “It sure looks like a shot from the front.”
The voice-over continues relentlessly: “This version tracks the limousine and maintains President Kennedy at center frame. This version is only in slow-motion.”
“So we know he’s been hit,” Morris says. “And we know that he is hit in such a way that matter was ejected from the back of his head.”
“So it seems,” I start to say when the voice-over cuts in with the final version:
“This version zooms in on the image as much as possible without causing deterioration. President Kennedy is kept in center frame. This is only in slow-motion.”
It is the ultimate version of the Zapruder film, or at least of Frame 313, and it is agonizing.
“These images are the legacy of one man,” the voice-over concludes as a full-screen photo appears of a dignified balding figure in a dark suit: Abraham Zapruder. “A man who never met John Kennedy but whose name, Zapruder, is inextricably linked to Kennedy’s and to Kennedy’s death. Abraham Zapruder, an unassuming man with an ordinary camera.”
Thinking about the silly Umbrella Man theory, I exclaim, “He did it!” A weaponized camera. Of course. The perfect crime.
“What photography does,” Morris says, as the screen fades to black, “is call our attention to the problem of knowledge, to the problem of epistemology, about how do we know about the world. It would be nice if we could just look at the Zapruder film and say, ‘Aha!’
“Frame 313,” he says now, “will always be at the center of the Zapruder film. So significant, so powerful, so disturbing that for years Zapruder himself did not want it to be shown. Zapruder by all accounts was haunted by Frame 313. There’s an interview with him where he talks about his love of amateur photography, how he took pictures of everything. But after that day in Dallas, he could no longer pick up that camera. By denying that image, Frame 313, I think he was trying to protect himself, protect America.”
“Protect a certain stable view of the world? It’s almost as if the brain exploding is like what it does metaphorically to our mind-set, our worldview.”
“It goes to a kind of simpler version of America,” Morris says. “It truly was the end of the ’50s. The end of a certain kind of innocence that we bought into. World War II seemed to provide a notion of good and evil that we could all embrace. We could build a postwar future on that edifice. And this threw everything up for grabs. It’s incredibly sad, still, looking at it today. And it has produced this epi-stemic war of people battling for reality through these images—trying to wrest control back from chaos.”
Morris prefers to think of it in terms of the philosophical issues about the possibility, or impossibility, of knowledge, the issues raised by Tink Thompson in his book about Kierkegaard, The Lonely Labyrinth.
“My favorite quote in my favorite movie review,” he says, “appeared in a 1941 review of Citizen Kane by [the great Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis] Borges and it contained Borges quoting, as he often did, [British writer G.K.] Chesterton, who said there is nothing more frightening than a labyrinth with no center. The loneliest of all labyrinths. The labyrinth to nowhere. Where there is no Minotaur at the center, there’s just winding corridors, more twists and more turns.”
The implication is that all is uncertainty, that we’ll never know who killed Kennedy or why to any degree of certainty. Is it something specific to the JFK case or is it true more generally about knowability? Morris’ new film, after all, about Donald Rumsfeld—famous for his line about “unknown unknowns”—is called The Unknown Known.
“Can we even have the certainty that all is uncertainty?” I ask.
“Here’s my problem,” Morris replies. “My article of faith is that there’s a real world out there in which things happen. The real world is not indeterminate. I don’t want to hear people misinterpreting the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Something happened. The problem is not about the nature of reality. We know somebody killed Kennedy and there’s an answer to the question of who and why.
“Another thing we know is that we may never learn. And we can never know that we can never learn it. We can never know that we can’t know something. This is the detective’s nightmare. It’s the ultimate detective’s nightmare.”