• Review: "The Zapruder Film" by David R. Wrone

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    "The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination"
    by David R. Wrone
    Published by the University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
    368 pages with notes, select bibliography and index. ISBN: 0-7006-1291-2

    I was watching "And Now Miguel" (the B&W 1953 version) in the grade school auditorium with my elementary school Unit 1 classmates and my much beloved teacher, Mrs. Nyman (my first teacher crush). This was about the third time we had seen this film, but I liked it anyway. Somehow just being in the dark in a quiet room and looking a big images on a screen was relaxing to me. Around the time where Miguel was writing poetry for school and sneaking it behind his fathers back (a part which always thrilled me), I noticed a disturbance in the auditorium; some sort of murmur was in crowd, primarily amongst the teachers. A few minutes later I noticed Mrs. Nyman was crying which completely ripped me out of the film dream and scared the hell out of me. I mean, she never cried. I was terrified. The film continued until its end (I think) and we were all taken back to our rooms where I was told that someone was killed; someone important. I didn't care about that, I was more interested in Mrs. Nyman. We were sent home early and I walked home from school very nervous and worried. Later that evening I was glued to the TV set because it told me about life and helped me figure out what was going on (my mother and father certainly were little help) and Walter Cronkite explained it all to me. He said that the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, had been shot and killed that day in Dallas, Texas. Then I remember a real nice picture of the president flashed on the screen. I must have thought that John F. Kennedy was Mrs. Nyman's husband or something because I couldn't quite figure out why she was so upset. I promised myself I'd find out what happened and tell Mrs. Nyman about it.

    This review is for you, Mrs. Nyman, wherever you are.

    While I'm not JFK assassination buff, or whatever you call them, from that first night after his death, I've been following the whirling theories surrounding his murder. I don't read every book that comes out, but I try to stay up to date and usually pick one or two a year to read. This year I picked David R. Wrone's book on the Zapruder film because I wanted to know more about that famous film and the man who shot it, Abraham Zapruder. Mr. Wrone is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point and has taught courses on the assassination for many years there. I'd never heard of him before this book, but the world of JFK assassination experts is very large and varied (to say the least) so it's not suprising.

    The Zapruder film is really two books. One of the books I enjoyed a great deal, it followed Abraham Zapruder from when he arrives at his office near Dealy Plaza (he'd forgotten his famous camera and upon the urging of his secretary went back home to pick it up) to when the U.S Goverment decides to purchase the film from Zapruder's heirs (but not the copyright). The story Mr. Wrone tells is fascinating and full of suprises, even to someone who knows a great deal about events surrounding the assassination. However, the second book that Mr. Wrone manages to slip into his Zapruder film history is much less interesting. It is a book about the JFK assassination and who got it right and who got it wrong amongst the theorists and historians. In other words, it's axe grinding and nit picking. To his credit, the author makes case after case against the official Warren Commission report and this is interesting to some degree, but when he shifts into the, "and when Anthony Summers concludes that the coffins were switched on the plane, he erroneously...blah blah blah, Mr. Wrone". I'm sorry, but my eyes glaze over and my mind tries to stay focused on endless balls of detail that are impossible to keep juggling. He should have written his explication of the JFK assassination as a seperate book, which would have cut the Zapruder film book in half and made it much more manageable and easy to follow.

    Now, make no mistake, Mr. Wrone is a very good writer. He does not have any of the stiffness and obtuseness that kill so many books written by academics. Even his complex sections are written as well as you can write this kind of "historiography". But the Zapruder book-within-a-book is the best part and Mr. Wrone makes some telling points about the film as it relates to the assassination and about it's mis-handling.

    Not many people remember that the film was sold to Time-Life within days of the assassination for $50,000 dollars. Time-Life came back to Zapruder a few days later and paid him another $100,000 for the print rights to the film (the second fee was for film rights). One fact I was amazed to discover was that out of fear for an anti-semitic backlash (Zapruder was Jewish), he donated the first payment of $25,000 to the widow of officer Tippet (the Dallas cop Oswald was supposed to have slain). After the assinatation and during the huge confusion that followed, Zapruder was smart enought to keep the film from being taken by thuggish cops who showed up at his business soon after the murder of Kennedy; document the entire process of having the film developed and copied, and make three copies of the film for the authorities (two copies went to Washington). The original film was given to Time-Life and sent to their plant in Illinois where they stopped the presses in order to get the pictures into their next issue. Here is where the history of the film goes kablooey. Apparently, the original film was given to an inexperienced film clerk who broke the film while processing it for duplication. He made a rough splice right at the point where Kennedy goes behind the sign. For years this was part of the "proof" given for the film being tampered with and the whole authenticity of the Zapruder film being called into question. Mr. Wrone puts all of this nonsense to rest with carefully documented evidence that proves the clerk simply made a mistake.

    The author follows the film through it's copies, it's eventual sale back to the Zapruder family for $1 (what a bargain), the huge copyright issues involved, the massive duplication of the film and it's sale on the black market, the first public showing on some sort of Geraldo Rivera show (I had forgotten that bit. Do a google search and you'll come up with this show), the Warren Commission's mis-use of the film to establish when how many shots where fired and when, the digitizing of the film and finally the US Government's purchase of the film for the Kennedy Assassination Archives. The main point Mr. Wrone emphases over and over is that the film is evidence in what was probably the most important murder case of the 20th Century and should not have been allowed to be owned or controlled by a large corporation. He maintains that the U.S. Government should have confiscated the film early in the investigation of Kennedy's murder and have safegarded it for the future. As it was the Warren Commission never got to see the original film, only copies and blow ups. I agree with him, despite the private ownership issues, because this situation is a special case. But because the Warren Commission was really only interested in proving there was only one assassin (they wanted to prevent a possible war with the Soviet Union if it was determined that there was a conspiracy) they "whitewashed" the investigation and didn't consider confiscating the Zapruder film.

    I could go on, but it would spoil this interesting book for you. Suffice to say, this book is not for beginners. There are other, better books for that (try Anthony Summer's book "Conspiracy" (although Mr. Wrone would roll his eyes at this suggestion) and definitely watch two excellent documentary films on the subject:
    Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film" which features the complete process of digitizing the film and of the subsequent versions created with reduced shake and including the image captured betweent he sprockets (don't ask me to explain this). Also, "JFK Assassination Films: The Case for Conspiracty" by Robert J. Groden is a fascinating, if slightly biased, version of not only the Zapruder film but of the many, many other photos and films taken that day. Mr. Wrone's extensive notes and essay-type bibliography are a very well done and, if you are interested, prove to be rewarding if you want to journey around in world of the JFK Assassination History. He lists web pages, videos and many interesting books (some are hard to find and expensive, though). If you buy this book, definitely spend time in back of the book where you can gather the fruits of Mr. Wrone's excellent research.

    In the end, all you can really do is cry like Mrs. Nyman did on that terrible day. We can never really know for sure what happend. But, like David R. Wrone, I believe that the Zapruder film is the best evidence we have for concluding that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy. Mr. Wrone lays it all out for you in this flawed, but provocative work of history.
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