In Movies, Books and TV, a Rabbit Hole of Kennedy Conspiracies


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James Franco in “11.22.63,” adapted from a Stephen King novel.

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Ben Mark Holzberg/Hulu

Presidents’ Day promises the usual array of thematic TV diversions: historical documentaries, basic cable marathons, James Franco traveling through time to stop the Kennedy assassination.

In the Hulu series “11.22.63,” based on the 2011 novel by Stephen King and debuting Feb. 15, Mr. Franco stars as Jake, a teacher who is shown a wormhole to 1960 and uses it to try to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald.

The murder of President John F. Kennedy has captivated artists and audiences for five decades, and it’s easy to see why. It is a narrative gold mine: epoch-defining tragedy, political intrigue, true crime and a motley cast of characters who range from the handsome and heroic leader of the Western world to the runty outcast who (we’re told) killed him in Dallas. One could spend from now until October 2017, when the final remaining records on the assassination are scheduled to be released, wallowing in J.F.K. metafiction and not reach the end.

Here is a small sample of the offerings, most from the ’90s J.F.K.-conspiracy mini-craze, organized loosely by culprit.

AMERICA

“I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’/When after all, it was you and me.”

— The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

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“American Tabloid” by James Ellroy.

‘AMERICAN TABLOID’
James Ellroy’s sprawling historical crime novel, acclaimed upon its release in 1995, posits that the assassination was not the moment America lost its innocence, as the cliché has it, because America was never innocent. As with Mr. Ellroy’s more straightforward crime novels, like “L.A. Confidential,” the story focuses mostly on the mercenary acts of a few behind-the-scenes operators, whose collaborators included, but were not limited to, the Feds, the Kennedy family, the mafia, Jimmy Hoffa and Howard Hughes. Their high-level blackmailing, heroin stealing and Bay of Pigs-militia training amounts to a dark secret history of the mid-20th century. The novel, the first in the author’s “Underworld USA” trilogy, ends as the motorcade roles inexorably into Dealey Plaza. But by then, you’re wondering how J.F.K. lasted as long as he did.

What about Oswald? He’s mostly a non-factor.

LONE GUNMEN

“Oh, Marina, Marina, it’s cold and it’s lonely/When you’re pointing a gun at the president.”

— Cowboy Junkies, “The Truth About Us (The Ballad of Lee And Marina)”

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A scene from the “Lee Harvey Oswald” episode of “Quantum Leap.”

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NBC

‘QUANTUM LEAP’: ‘LEE HARVEY OSWALD’

The series, in which Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) traveled through time by inhabiting other people’s bodies, broke format in its two-part 1992 fifth season premiere by having its hero leap into the body of an actual historical figure: Oswald. After he fails to prevent the assassination, it is revealed that his true mission was to save Jackie Kennedy, which he did by leaping into the body of Clint Hill. (That Secret Service agent famously jumped onto the back of the president’s limousine as it left the scene.) The episode was conceived in response to the more fanciful theories of the film “JFK” (see below) and others. Donald P. Bellisario, who created the show, actually met Oswald when they were in the Marines together, and the episode reflected Mr. Bellisario’s belief that Oswald acted on his own. “It’s more comforting to believe in plots,” Dean Stockwell’s Al says in the episode. “Because if Kennedy could be killed that easily by one sicko, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

What about Oswald? He did it.

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Chris Owens as the Smoking Man in an episode of “The X-Files.”

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Fox

‘THE X-FILES’: ‘MUSINGS OF A CIGARETTE SMOKING MAN’

This 1996 episode posits the show’s über-villain as a bizarro Forrest Gump, helping to orchestrate many of America’s defining catastrophes, including shooting Kennedy from a Dallas sewer. “Life is like a box of chocolates,” the Smoking Man says. “A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for.”

What about Oswald? He is framed for the murder and actually gives the Smoking Man, a nonsmoker before the Kennedy plot, his first cigarettes.

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