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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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.


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