Monday, December 19, 2016

A Look at How Cinema Has Made John F. Kennedy the "Absent President"

Scene from Forrest Gump
What do we mean when we talk about President John F. Kennedy in film? Had the answer applied to any other leader of the free world, the answer would be simple. These were men who lead the country through historical periods and should be honored with a noble retelling of their legacy. But over the past 25 years especially, has there been a president more undermined by cinema's potential than Kennedy? With the recent release of director Pablo Larrain's Jackie, it feels like an important time to analyze why one of the most revered presidents of the late 20th century is largely absent, even in his own filmography. It's not likely because he didn't mean anything, but that he has become symbolic of something greater than his career.

For those thinking that this topic is empty, consider one thing. Who was the last iconic performance of Kennedy? The question becomes difficult when one assesses how cinematic and familiar other presidents are. Arguably cinema's first president, Abraham Lincoln was long depicted as the American superhero with an unwavering spirit from The Birth of a Nation to Henry Fonda's comical Young Mr. Lincoln to a rawer and more earnest depiction by Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln (the only presidential performance to win an Oscar). On the other end of the spectrum is cinema's villain Richard M. Nixon, whose work was so powerful that one of his best films doesn't even feature him (All the President's Men). Even then, you had actors like Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) showing up with compelling and layered performances. These two may have held office decades apart, but both are cinematic mainstays because of their cultural impact.

One could ask where the films about Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are and hold a valid argument. However, there is something more crucial to Kennedy that seems to be ignored. He was a president for the people and whose struggles to be taken seriously as an Irish Catholic politician creates its own fascinating look at cultural shifts. The fact that Frank Sinatra even altered the song "High Hopes" to be a Pro-Kennedy election song suggests something that is extremely modern. It could be that his term was cut short, but his achievements while in office has constantly made many speculate just how good of a president he actually was. Considering that most of what Kennedy set into place was continued by Lyndon B. Johnson (who has a significant role in the 2014 film Selma), it does seem like he was on the right track.

Scene from PT-109
Knowing that Kennedy is significant, one must ask themselves why his cinematic output suggests otherwise? While earlier films like PT-109 show a side of the president that is helpful to contextualizing him as a hero, the later years were mired in the events of November 11, 1963 in which he was assassinated. Sure there were films like Thirteen Days and The Butler that would depict him actually working, but this simple action has fueled the predominant interpretation of Kennedy for cinematic generations to come. It makes sense that this is the case, especially as a whole generation's faith in government began to shift off its axis. It was a question that many are still trying to answer (who shot Kennedy), but few have been able to find peace in their answers.

It makes sense then why the contemporary depiction of Kennedy is one who died before his time. It is true that he achieved some things in his short time in office, but to assess a post-1990 representation is to almost suggest that the man didn't even exist. The Oliver Stone film JFK was all about Kevin Costner trying to figure out who the lone gunman was. While Kennedy is present in the film, it is in a mere opening montage (narrated by Martin Sheen - who also played Kennedy in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy). The rest of the film is more the aftermath in which society tries to come to terms with this terrible loss. With many accusing the film of also being inaccurate, it's a story that should be read more as a tone poem; a study of the psychological mindset of America in the wake of Kennedy's death. If read that way, Stone's work set the bar for every film to come since.

It was seen time and again to be as prominent as the Chekhov's Gun principle: if you introduce Kennedy in the first act, he has to be dead by the third. Even as a bit character in Forrest Gump, he is seem comically shaking protagonist Forrest Gump's (Tom Hanks) hands before saying "I believe he said he has to go pee." While this moment is fine within itself, it was followed by Gump commenting on Kennedy's death. The film may focus on the culture surrounding Kennedy's time in office, but rarely is he addressed personally. It's an issue so prescient that even author Stephen King wrote an entire novel about travelling through time to stop the assassination called "11/22/63." While Kennedy is seen, he is largely seen through the gaze of trying to stop the familiar tragedy.

It is strange that it is so difficult to discuss Kennedy's achievements when Nixon's legacy has countless dramatizations that could be seen as demeaning. Modern generations probably couldn't understand Kennedy's impact through film because they aren't there. Culture is so focused on his death that even the films that show some form of his career - specifically The Butler - only do it in broad strokes and have to feature his death. It's not wrong to ignore factual information, but it feels wrong to only focus on the man's tragic days in a larger conversation. Even in Jackie, the conversation surrounding how death turns people into mythic heroes feels strained. While the story is about Mr. Kennedy's wife Jacqueline Kennedy, he's still largely absent and has almost no speaking role. This is the Kennedy we know. He is the one who is great without context; something of which Jackie fails to do even for the grieving wife, instead turning it into a more universal story of loss.

Is there value in making films about a man who is destined to always be dead? For Kennedy, it's inevitable, especially as one of America's unsolvable mysteries. However, it is through Jackie that the symbolism is explained in ways that has been present over the past 25 years. He was an important man. He may have been flawed, but he lead the country with nobility. There wasn't much time to know him, but we still respected his achievements. True, cinema ignores the noble stories about Kennedy that they could tell, such as his PT-109 days or the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's so much that could be explored, but Kennedy almost seems best remembered as a great president shot down in his prime. Is it a good story to tell? Not exactly, but it's one of the few unifying moments in late-20th century American history that still impact everyone. The only event that comes close is the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Scene from Jackie
So what do we talk about when we talk about John F. Kennedy? He has become a cypher for a deeper emotional exploration that this country faces. As seen in JFK, it's a moment of divide for many. As Jackie shows, it's a moment of uncertain dread. These are the essences of drama, and something that feels stranger than fiction in Kennedy's instance. We see these dour emotional responses, but there's also the hope to move on strongly against the bad days. They may be tough and in some cases impossible to ever truly cope with. Yet it's what Kennedy symbolized to begin with. He wanted to move into a prosperous future where America was as bright and optimistic as it could be. To think of Kennedy on screen is to think of ourselves. True, it may make it greatly difficult to properly judge the man for his strengths and weaknesses, but it's a story that everyone shares. So while it may seem offensive or redundant to keep killing off Kennedy in film, it is the only way to understand the country's shifting ideals. 

Maybe there will come a day when Kennedy's assassination doesn't carry the emotional weight necessary to make films like Jackie work. It could one day be replaced by stories of the presidents since, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, that explain their own unifying themes of tolerance or economic shifts. While Obama has surprisingly had two biopics this year (Southside With You and Barry), his conversation still feels unformed on film. Time will tell what his tropes will be; much like Lincoln's nobility or Nixon's paranoia. These figures become traditional dramatic function for 4-8 years of their lives, and history will remember them as such. It's probably why Kennedy's trope is uncertainty and absenteeism. His work still stands for itself, but drama thrives on conclusiveness. Kennedy doesn't have that. It's the cliffhanger that society wants answered, and in doing so forces everyone to look at themselves for the answer of who will give it their all. 

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