The History Channel’s Kennedy Declassified Week starts Sunday. And for Kennedy obsessives, there will be plenty to watch. On Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m., the channel will debut its two-part series “JFK: 3 Shots That Changed America.”
The films are without narrators or experts. Instead, the documentaries let the newsreels tell the tragic story of the only presidential assassination in the television era. The footage is arranged to present a range of conspiracy theories that go far beyond Lee Harvey Oswald. But the judgment is left up to the viewer.
A number of people prominent in public life today show up on screen. There’s Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), then a young, whip-smart Warren Commission attorney. Dan Rather, a cub reporter in Dallas, also makes an appearance. Reporting on Oswald’s killing and reflecting on Kennedy’s assassination, the future “CBS Evening News” anchor nearly tears up on camera, an eerie precursor to his post-Sept. 11 response on “Late Show With David Letterman” almost four decades later.
The documentaries include not only the oft-seen video of the president and first lady (dressed in a pink dress and hat) descending the steps of Air Force One at Love Field but also rare footage of witnesses on the parade route standing on the street, dazed and in shock, hours after the shooting at 12:30 p.m.
Knowing how the story will end, the most achingly painful footage comes before the violence in Dallas. Watching the couple descend from airplane to motorcade, viewers will be tempted to yell at the screen, “Don’t go!” in the vain hope that history might turn out differently.
Laced throughout the film are questions about the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Doubts about the official story sprout up in the immediate aftermath of Oswald’s murder, two days after the Kennedy assassination, to the point that newly minted President Lyndon B. Johnson feels compelled to appoint an investigative commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren.
The conspiracy theme picks up with footage of the killings five years later of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Those who saw Oliver Stone’s “JFK” will find much of the material familiar, particularly the documentary’s section on New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played in the movie by Kevin Costner), who failed in his efforts to implicate a local businessman in the assassination plans.
The Warren Commission operated mostly out of public view, which fed further suspicion about its findings. The film offers a cautionary tale about what happens when government officials leave information gaps that can be too easily filled in by conspiracy theorists — a major problem 45 years ago and one magnified in the Internet age.
For those history buffs and political junkies who think they have seen all the footage out there about the Kennedy assassination, the History Channel offers fresh and insightful, if sad, material.