How do you offend a tried and true patriotic man who served in Vietnam and didn’t come out of the experience bitter, homeless or missing a limb? It’s easy if you’re me.

The man, whom I’ll call Donald, and I were discussing writing. He writes for various magazines and is working on a book that’s about five years in the making. In the middle of our conversation he blurted out, “Hey, you write a lot about films. What’s your favorite film with a president — real or fake — in it and why?”
This question was kind of odd if only because I’ve never thought about it before. In order to buy some time I asked him why he wanted to know. It turned out he was working on an article about the depiction of presidents in various Hollywood films and wanted a little insight into what I thought.

“Well,” I said after a moment’s hesitation, “It’s not a Hollywood film, but it is a film with a president in it, so I’m going to count that. I guess it would have to be the Zapruder film.”
”What is that?”
“You know. The one that features the footage of Kennedy being shot. That’s always been a favorite.”
From calm to pissed in exactly three sentences.
I’ll admit that my answer was kind of flip, but there was truth to it. Most of the time when you see a president portrayed in a film it is nothing like any president we’ve ever really had (unless the film in question is a biopic). They are either too heroic, too stoic or too silly to have ever really gotten into office. It’s like writers think nobody will ever believe any presidential character who is based on a real life figurehead, so they don’t try. They just make up something and hope it will fly. The Zapruder film is as honest as it gets, and the film represents a huge turning point in this country.
When Kennedy was shot, everything changed. It was that generation’s 9/11. All bets were off, and the safe world people had woken up in was no longer relevant. Here was a man a good portion of America loved and he was getting his brains blown out in 8mm. If there is a better image of what happened to the American dream I am not privy to it.
The footage of Reagan getting shot had an impact, but it paled compared to the Kennedy film. (I know, however, that many Republicans would like to think Reagan’s moment was more tragic, but let’s be honest about things — Reagan didn’t die.) Kennedy represented what the future of America was supposed to look like. Dallas represented what it was really going to be, and that’s why the footage is my favorite film with an American president in it real or not.
Donald did not agree with my assessment, though he admitted I had a point about the symbolism. His biggest beef, however, was that I was being disrespectful of the man, his legacy, and the highest office in the land.
The truth is, I was being disrespectful to all those things because I don’t respect them. That said, there was still honesty in my answer, and I think that’s what he was calling disrespectful. (People often do that when confronted with something they don’t want to hear.) I wasn’t mocking the assassination. I wasn’t mocking the president. I had done both in the past, but this time I was being serious, and the more we discussed it, the more serious I became.
“Look,” I finally told him, “you can believe that Harrison Ford’s character in ‘Air Force One’ is the be-all end-all of American presidents on film, but we never had a president like that and we never will. Men like that don’t get elected. They are too busy trying to actually make a difference instead of caring about polls and raising money. It’s a fiction, and it will never happen. The Zapruder film, however, is reality. It changed the fabricate of our society. For better or for worse, it had an impact upon everyone’s life, and it still does today. It made people open their eyes to the real world, too … the one that had been festering under the surface of squeaky clean America for far too long. What other presidential film has had that impact?” (I paraphrased all that, but you get the picture.)
He argued that it wasn’t the film that had an impact, but the deed. I disagreed. “Seeing it,” I replied, “made it more real.” And it did. It always does. Humans are visual animals. That’s why porn movies sell more units than porn novels.
By the end of our little conversation we agreed to disagree. He said he was mildly disturbed by my take on the situation and hoped I would never tell anyone else I thought that way because it “may open old wounds.” And that, folks, is where the problem lies.
We are so far removed from that fateful day in Dallas that we have once again lost our way. We believe that America is full of presidents like Harrison Ford, and we like to think nothing bad can ever happen to them. These days a presidential tragedy involves bjs, vomiting or choking on a pretzel. It doesn’t involve losing a portion of your skull as you wave to a crowd that has lined the streets to worship your motorcade. Hell, at this point in our history even the Reagan assassination attempt seems like something that happened on some other planet to some other people. After Kennedy, our presidents didn’t die. They fought terrorists hand to hand and ate nails just like in the movies.
It ain’t like that, though. You can call it disrespectful. You can call it shocking. You can call it evil. It won’t change a thing. The Zapruder film showed it like it is. Here one second, gone the next. There was nothing noble in it, and Kennedy didn’t get shot fighting off a bad guy in his plane. His Secret Service men couldn’t protect him any better than the good spirits of the American people could. And that’s why that particular piece of film is so important. It shows the truth. “Air Force One” will never be the truth … no matter how badly people like Donald want it to be.

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