What Does the Zapruder Film Really Tell Us?

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris deconstructs the most famous 26 seconds in film history

One frame of the Zapruder film has long been considered too graphic for public view. (Zapruder Film © 1967 (Renewed 1995) The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza)
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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.”


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