50 Years Later, 'JFK, Inc.' Still a Thriving Industry

Fifty years after his assassination, JFK still lives on in movies, books and TV.

November 21, 2013, 3:50 PM
PHOTO: Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy on the set of National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy."
Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy on the set of National Geographic Channel's "Killing Kennedy."
Kent Eanes/National Geographic Channel

Nov. 21, 2013— -- Ask someone who was alive on Nov. 22, 1963, and they can probably tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

It was the gun shot heard around the world -- the bullet ricocheting straight into Americans' hearts, ending Camelot and, many believed, taking the country's idealism along with it.

Fast forward 50 years and both the myth and obsession surrounding Kennedy and his death seems as vibrant as ever. That moment in Dallas -- the shock, the heartbreak and the conspiracy theories -- continue to reverberate in books, films, television and even music.

It's all part of the industry that has taken shape around the life and death of the 35th president of the United States. The anniversary of his assassination has brought a new wave of products:

Conspiracy Takes Center Stage

"A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination," a new book by former New York Times reporter Phil Shenon, attempts not to answer the big questions surrounding JFK's death (Was he killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald a mere pawn in a grander conspiracy?), but rather, as he said in a recent interview with CBS News, how so much of the investigation into his death was compromised.

Autopsy reports were thrown in fires, letters were flushed down toilets.

"It is just a big theme of my book is how much vital evidence disappears about the assassination and about Lee Harvey Oswald," Shenon said on "Face the Nation," adding that "both the FBI and CIA were very aware of the threat" Oswald posed and that "the assassination was preventable, perhaps, easily preventable."

Larry Sabato's "The Kennedy Half Century" also digs deep into the mystery surrounding the president's death.

Sabato attempts to build a case against the 1979 House Select Committee's conclusion that JFK died of an unspecified conspiracy, discounting sounds the Committee believed to be a second gunman as mere mechanical sounds from a motorcycle policeman.

The book also digs deeper into the finding of a survey by Peter Hart and Geoff Garin that JFK is the most esteemed president since 1953, detailing a unique appeal that withstands the boundary of ideology and influenced every leader that came after him.

JFK On The Big Screen

The president's boyish charm and Boston accent has been recreated for the screen so many times that there is an entire Wikipedia page just devoted to "Movies about the JFK assassination."

Two new additions to add to the genre, which already includes such films as Oliver Stone's Academy Award winning "JFK," are "Parkland" and "Killing Kennedy."

"Parkland" brings the background characters to the big screen, focusing not so much on Kennedy as on the ordinary people who were forced into extraordinary circumstances by his death, whether they be the doctors who operated on him at Parkland Hospital, the Dallas chief of the Secret Service, or the brother of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Director Peter Landesman told the Los Angeles Times that he believes this shift in focus, choosing humanization over conspiracy theories, is why the film, which stars Billy Bob Thorton, Zac Efron and Marcia Gay Harden, has fared better across the pond.

"European fascination with JFK is as big but different," he said. "Americans remain distractingly obsessed with seeing him through the prism of murder-mystery conspiracy theories. Europeans see him as a celebrity -- a fallen idol."

"Killing Kennedy," based on Bill O' Reilly and Martin Dugard's book "Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot," also about the president's assassination, will air on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 10.


Rob Lowe, who stars in the made-for-television film (talk about a promotion Sam Seaborn), said that Kennedy "feels so current even though it's been fifty years."

"I don't know if it's his youthfulness or the status in which he's so held, but he feels totally current," Lowe said in an interview with Politico. "And yet, his era and what worked and what didn't work -- it might as well have been seven hundred years ago."

"Killing Kennedy" is the first major production to grace the silver screen since the controversial miniseries "The Kennedys," which aired in April 2011.

The History Channel project was the subject of controversy before filming on the network's record $30 million budget began. A number of historians criticized the script's historical inaccuracies, and former JFK speech writer Ted Sorensen called it "character assassination."

The series, directed by well-known conservative Joel Surnow (co-creator of "24"), was eventually dropped by the channel and passed on by Showtime before it found a home on ReelzChannel, performing to dismal reviews.

More successful was the portrayal of the historical moment on AMC's beloved "Man Men" in an episode called "The Grownups."

Focusing not so much on the event itself rather than how it drastically changes the lives of his protagonists, show creator Matthew Weiner told Variety he wanted to depict "the collective shock, the loss of faith in institutions" following Kennedy's death and Oswald's on-air murder.

Conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy's death have made it into punch lines too, mentioned in comedies like "Seinfeld," "Family Guy" and the Ben Stiller-starring "Zoolander."

Listening to History

The lure of JFK continues to resonate through music as well.

In the song "Sleeping In," indie-darling "The Postal Service" sing of a dream "where there was never any mystery of who shot John F. Kennedy / It was just a man with something to prove / Slightly bored and severely confused."

In the music video for "National Anthem" Lana Del Rey dresses up in pearls and pastels as Jackie Kennedy, with rapper A$AP Rocky playing the president, partying "Great Gatsby" style as she sings "money is the anthem, god you're so handsome, money is the anthem, of success."

And then the gun shots ring out, and once again, it all comes to a screeching halt.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events