Some time ago, I was doing research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I found myself on an elevator in the stacks with a white-coated staffer He was pushing a cart loaded with archival material. Casually, I read the labels on the boxes— and suddenly found myself unable to take a breath. They were the original tapes of Lee Harvey Oswald’s jailhouse interrogations, recorded in the two days after he was arrested for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The door to the elevator opened, the staffer rolled his cart away, and I stood there like I’d been smacked in the face. Though the material on those tapes had long since been digitized, it was overwhelming, even terrifying, to be in the presence of the originals. Those who remember that day can probably relate.
Now a new book takes a compelling look at an even more notorious recording, the film of Kennedy’s actual death. It’s written by Alexandra Zapruder. If her last name is familiar, that’s because she is the granddaughter of Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas businessman who on November 22, 1963, proudly took his new 8 millimeter movie camera out to film Kennedy’s visit to the city— and captured the killing of a president.
Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film is Alexandra Zapruder’s account of that most remarkable day in her grandfather’s life. But even more so, it is the story of the long afterlife of this 26-second film. In her voice, the Zapruder film becomes something both intimate and epic. Intimate because the film would come to identify the Zapruder family, sometimes even to itself; epic, because the film became the defining visual emblem of the violent America we live in today.
Ms. Zapruder traces the film from her grandfather, to Life magazine, through a series of courtrooms, into bootleg circulation, then onto television, back to the Zapruder family, and finally, to the National Archives, which now owns the film and its rights. She makes the film the center of a series of ethical dilemmas for her family, and for her nation. Should such a document belong to any one person? Should it ever be shown, and if so, to whom, and how? And, how much is the image of the killing of a president worth in monetary terms?
Since the Zapruder film was first shown to a nationwide television audience in 1975, only the images of the fall of the World Trade Center on 9/11 have had the same sustained power to break our collective hearts. And nothing has had the Zapruder film’s impact in popular culture. It is our most tragic shared media memory.
“Twenty-Six Seconds” is written by Alexandra Zapruder. It’s published by Twelve and was released in November 2016.
Reviewer Kevin Hagopian is a film historian and teaches documentary film studies in Penn State’s College of Communications.