We’re just two weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and tributes to J.F.K. are already popping up everywhere. I’ve only seen a few so far, but I suspect that the vast majority of documentaries, remembrances, and analyses will focus on the assassination and its immediate aftermath: What happened immediately after Kennedy was assassinated, and the short-term and long-term impact of his death. But I’d like to direct you to a documentary called JFK: The Final Hours, airing on Friday at eight on National Geographic Channel, that takes the opposite track: offering new insights into a busy day of Kennedy’s life that would be fascinating even if he had survived that final trip to Texas.
JFK: The Final Hours is narrated by Bill Paxton, who just eight years old when he saw Kennedy give a speech outside the Hotel Texas just three hours before his death. From there, the film embarks on an exhaustive rundown of the last 24 hours of JFK’s life, cobbled together from photographs and interviews with the people who were there that day. With virtually no time devoted to the assassination itself, JFK: The Final Hours is free to explore many of the lesser-known elements of the story, tracing a route that took him from the Texas Hotel to Brooks Air Force Base to numerous smaller meetings and encounters on the last day of his life.
The list of people interviewed in JFK: The Final Hours includes Clint Hill, one of Kennedy’s Secret Service agents, and Buell Frazier, who drove Lee Harvey Oswald to the Texas Book Depository on the day of the assassination. Both men have interesting stories to tell, though they’re largely made up of the same details that are recounted in many other, similar books and documentaries about the Kennedy assassination: the way Kennedy’s head moved after he was shot, or the wrapped package of “curtain rods” that Oswald carried with him to work that day.
But as fascinating as their insights are, it’s the people who interacted only briefly with the Kennedys that really stand out. There’s something very affecting about the mundanity of the events leading up the assassination, and the way that so many of the people interviewed in the film still treasure their brief encounters with the Kennedys. It’s the tiny details that stick; the young girls who got their hair done like Jackie and waited all morning outside the Hotel Texas for a glimpse of the couple, or the boys’ choir that nervously performed for the Kennedys at what turned out to be their last meal. No matter how small or brief, everyone remembers their interactions with the Kennedys on that day: Corkie Friedman, who was married to the mayor of Fort Worth, describes a moment when J.F.K. casually complimented her earrings that almost made her faint.
There are some unfortunate decisions in the documentary’s production — particularly an ominous countdown clock that pops up every 15 minutes or so, as if Kennedy’s assassination was a plot point in an episode of 24 — but on the whole, JFK: The Final Hours is refreshingly disinterested in hashing over the same assassination story that’s been told so many times before. It’s a portrait of what that day was like before anyone knew anything was going to go wrong and, consequently, a surprisingly intimate portrait of J.F.K. and Jackie on what they assumed would be another political trip.
50 years is both a short time and a long time, and I suspect that JFK: The Final Hours will play differently for those who lived through the Kennedy assassination and those who have only read about it. I’m one of the latter, but it’s clear that the film had an impact on all of us. Corkie Friedman, who spoke after the screening I attended, was visibly emotional after watching the film. “It really brought it back,” she said. She was wearing the earrings.