“Oh, Jack, what have they done?” screamed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the presidential limousine, her bloodied husband collapsing after getting hit by two rifle shots. “I’m holding your brains in my hand!”
The 92-minute documentary The Day Kennedy Died, written and directed by Emmy-nominated Leslie Woodhead (Children of Beslan) is not your usual Kennedy assassination rehash. Conspiracy theories and alleged killer Lee Harvey Oswald’s USSR past are mentioned only in passing. Instead, what this chilling historical doc concentrates on is the 24 hours leading to Kennedy’s death and its immediate aftermath, all done with a sober tone and the pacing of a top-notch thriller. The Smithsonian Channel will premier the film in recognition of this month marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
Using rare or never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews of key survivors (including Jackie Kennedy’s personal bodyguard at the scene, the medical team that treated the President and the co-worker who drove Oswald to the book depository—who at one point was wrongly accused of being a co-conspirator himself), the movie presents the importance of Kennedy’s Texas visit—for all his immense popularity, his re-election would have been hard unless he could carry the Lone Star state. To make matters worse, heading into Dallas, and amid the euphoric displays of affection by his thousands of supporters, the right-wing’s hostile sentiments could be felt. “Wanted for Treason” read a flyer by those who accused Kennedy of being “soft on Communism,” a message echoed by a full-page newspaper ad published that day in the Dallas Morning News.
Even those who didn’t like Kennedy had trouble hating Jackie, and that’s part of the reason the president insisted on having the limousine’s top down—he wanted people to see her. The First Lady, coming out of a severe depression after having lost a baby months earlier, decided to join her husband on the visit in order to help him win the reelection. She was at her cheerful, classy best and, when tragedy unfolded, she was a rock, the personification of dignity who stoically never left her dead husband’s body for a second.
A little over a month before Kennedy’s death, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson had been attacked in Dallas, after which he had expressed concerns for the president’s safety during his upcoming visit. Still, no extra precautions were taken in spite of the tense atmosphere.
“We’re heading into nut country today,” President Kennedy told Jackie on the way to Dallas. “Last night in Fort Worth would’ve been a hell of a night to assassinate a president.”
The Day Kennedy Died
(narrated by Kevin Spacey)
9pm Sun, Nov 17 (repeated at midnight)
10pm Mon, Nov 18
The Smithsonian Channel
DVD out Nov 19