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States of the Union, Part 1: The High Hopes (and Eventual Dread) of Kennedy-Era Filmmaking

After John F. Kennedy emerged in the late ’50s, cinematic heroes made in his mold—Atticus Finch of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Ranse Stoddard of ‘Who Shot Liberty Valance’—followed, while the president’s assassination shook the nation and opened the door for Alfred Hitchcock’s birds

Ringer illustration

In 2016, the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I’m introducing a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliff-hanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured funhouse mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.

1960-1963: High Hopes

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In Robert Drew’s 1960 documentary Primary, which tracks the 1960 Democratic primary, John F. Kennedy is shown arriving to a rally to the sounds of his campaign song “High Hopes,” an upbeat radio hit on loan from pal Frank Sinatra, a flex of Kennedy’s Rat Pack cred.

Nearly 60 years later, the staffers for another Democratic presidential hopeful, Pete Buttigieg, would adopt a top-40 hit with the same title. But in trying to turn Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” into their man’s anthem—complete with dorky dance moves —they ended up in the no-man’s-land between viral sensation and dank meme, a footnote to a campaign that was itself doomed to be a footnote.

To say that there’s as much distance between Frank Sinatra and Panic! At the Disco as there is between mayor Pete and JFK is a matter of personal taste, an “OK, Boomer” joke waiting to happen. Buttigieg’s attempt to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination—and its grave invitation to debate and ideally defeat Donald Trump on the country’s biggest stage—seemed more dependent on a stage-managed media persona than any of his older and more experienced competitors. That matches the sort of political mythmaking displayed in Primary. Drew’s film stands as a paradigm-shifting example of how the camera could capture not only a candidate’s charisma, but simultaneously help to construct and consolidate it—the same larger-than-life alchemy already practiced and perfected for decades in Hollywood.

The studio system that churned out movie stars and custom-tuned showcases with assembly-line efficiency was still functioning according to its original blueprint in the 1950s, albeit creaking a bit under the weight of producing spectacles flashy enough to combat the emerging appeal of television. That fear of some new creeping multimedia regime helps to account for the paranoid tone of Elia Kazan’s 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd, which allegorizes the shift from radio to TV—and the enlarged fascistic potential of the latter—through the fable of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter turned entertainer whose self-styled (and self-serving) populism overtakes the airwaves until, in a poetic twist, the camera catches him inadvertently condescending to his constituency. (When a teleprompter-reading Ron Burgundy told San Diego to go fuck itself, it was an homage to Kazan’s classic.)

Although ostensibly a cautionary tale about television’s power, A Face in the Crowd is, finally, a movie awash in optimism about the new medium: TV may have made Lonesome into a messiah, but it also exposes him as a fraud. The cold, brilliance of Kazan’s movie—which was cited many times during Trump’s candidacy and election, including by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh—is offset by its conviction that, if given half a chance, the public will see through false prophets, thus implying that if somebody legitimately heroic were to be placed in front of the camera, the technology would amplify their better qualities. In the end, the problem in A Face in the Crowd isn’t so much the conditions that create a cult of personality, but the fact that its antihero is, simply, the wrong personality. As the film ends, America is still waiting patiently in its collective living room for somebody worthy of their worship to emerge.

The legend of John F. Kennedy didn’t start with Primary. JFK was heir to a political dynasty originally organized around the fortunes of his older brother, Joe, and he emerged in 1945 after World War II—the conflict that claimed Joe’s life—as a decorated war hero groomed for public service. JFK was a telegenic shoo-in to become a state senator and presidential hopeful. In theory, Primary was meant to be a study of the contrasts between Kennedy and his opponent Hubert Humphrey, a man of experience and conviction. But as Drew and his crew spent more time on the ground, they found themselves swept up—at times literally—in the enthusiasm for JFK, which was rooted less in his rigorous politics and more in the glamorous surface sheen of his family members and entourage. Kennedy’s youth and potency were mirrored perfectly in the film’s agile camerawork, which took advantage of the technological breakthroughs of television journalism to present a probing, real-time documentary style. It’s telling that the films that most directly copied Primary in years to come were studies of pop icons like the Canadian doc Lonely Boy, about Paul Anka, or A Hard Day’s Night, which used faux-vérité aesthetics to enshrine Beatlemania.

In recognizing and reporting on Kennedy’s unique of-the-moment appeal, Drew and his collaborators, who included a future holy trinity of cinema-vérité auteurs—Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker (whose 1967 Dylan profile Dont Look Back is like a B-side to Primary)—laid the groundwork for his triumph in a series of televised debates with Richard Nixon, a holdover of the Eisenhower administration whose relationship to the camera was considerably less romantic. Overmatched in the image department, he dropped a close election and vowed to disappear from political life before reemerging in 1968 (not uncoincidentally a peak year for malevolent living-dead zombies heralding their own form of silent majority). Without necessarily dissipating the anxieties of the Cold War—or convincing conservative hard-liners that he had what it took to go head-to-head with the communists—Kennedy’s election was framed as an authentic popular phenomenon, less a rebuke to the prosperity of the postwar era than a promise to extend it on even more generous terms.

The only official Kennedy biopic to be released during his lifetime was 1963’s PT109, a hagiographic war film starring Cliff Robertson as JFK at the helm of a motor boat in the Pacific Theater circa 1963. But the movies of the period did not lack for Kennedy-esque figures, even when they were disguised in their dramatic or artistic contexts. It’s hard to read Gregory Peck’s towering performance as small-town attorney Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird—an adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved autobiographical novel about growing up in the Deep South—as anything but a Kennedy stand-in, if not in look or manner (gruff and stentorian rather than hip and liberal) then in a baseline decency tantamount to holiness.

Atticus, a widower with emotional intelligence and endurance who is raising two kids alone, is also an ethical powerhouse as a lawyer and a crackshot sniper. With the guts and the empathy to shoot down a rabid dog in the streets, he is an avatar of protectiveness. His ultimately futile effort to acquit a local African American man of the rape of a white woman manifests as one of cinema’s all-time moral victories, summed up in a tender command to his daughter, Scout (Mary Badham), and son, Jem (Phillip Alford), who are seated with a group of sympathetic black observers: “Stand up, children—your father’s passing.”

To Kill a Mockingbird’s mix of nostalgia and despair for its Depression-era setting is powerful stuff; even as Atticus is depicted as an old-school patriarch, his repudiation of racism and compassion for local oddball Boo Radley (Robert Duvall)—an awkward outsider standing in further for socially marginalized groups—makes him inexorably progressive at the same time, a complex figure trying to bridge the past and the future.

Another vintage period piece from the same year manifests Kennedy by splitting him in two. Although the title of John Ford’s elegiac Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance refers to a single person, in reality it takes a matched set of heroes to defeat the eponymous outlaw. If the Western genre is fundamentally about the relationship between the individual and society—advancing the thesis that America’s history and rituals were forged by alpha males on either side of the law—then Ford’s masterpiece examines those dynamics with wary detachment rather than blind idealism.

Six years after his deceptively subversive work in The Searchers as a racist white savior whose hatred of the Comanche rendered him spiritually broken, John Wayne added another finely shaded role to his repertoire as Tom Doniphon, a roughneck in a frontier town who becomes friends and romantic rivals with James Stewart’s out-of-town attorney Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard. Ranse’s belief in the rule of law inflames the rustler Liberty Valance, whose first name symbolizes personal freedom at its most malevolent. Valance, played by Lee Marvin, is a bullying monster who, as Tom contends, responds to and respects only brute force.

Pushed to his ethical limits, Ranse ends up shooting Liberty to death during a duel, becoming a hero and later a senator—shades of Kennedy’s glad-handing trajectory. Yet as a flashback reveals, it was Tom who had his friend’s back and fired from the shadows, preserving the illusion of good over evil without getting the credit—and keeping Ranse’s hands clean. After so many movies in which Wayne’s triumphs over evil existed in the foreground, Ford strategically reduces him to a footnote in history, and a character who makes no protest about his efforts being kept off the record. Even after Ranse confesses about the lack of actual blood on his hands to a journalist, the reporter famously resolves to “print the legend,” recognizing the sustaining symbolic importance of “the man who shot Liberty Valance.” In a year when Kennedy was tasked with an impossible balancing act—between being willing to go to war and staving off the possible apocalypse with diplomatic finesse—the mournful dichotomy of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had extra metaphorical heft, gesturing toward certain enduring American virtues while hinting at their malleability as the country moved further away from its roots.

The maxim “print the legend” also comes into play at the end of 1962’s greatest American film, The Manchurian Candidate—a delirious bipartisan satire that incorporates the vérité aesthetics of Primary into its prologue even as it anticipates Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove with its broad verging-on-surrealist sense of humor. As in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it’s a Kennedy movie that splits the commander-in-chief in two. He’s present in the form of both Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War veteran turned celebrity after single-handedly rescuing his platoon, and his combat buddy Ben Marco, played by friend-of-the-prez Frank Sinatra. Raymond is miserable as a media darling while Ben is haunted by dreams of capture and imprisonment by Soviet and Chinese scientists—nightmares that turn out to be repressed memories. It turns out Raymond was programmed to be an assassin, and his ultimate target is a leading presidential candidate, whose death during a widely televised primary will catalyze unprecedented chaos and opportunity for America’s enemies.

If the most politically evocative movie of the 1950s was Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers—a Cold War parable about U.S. citizens being colonized from within by extraterrestrial seed pods—The Manchurian Candidate repays its conceptual debt by reversing the terms of the allegory. Here, instead of aliens representing communists, we have actual communists seizing power through quasi-science-fiction means. The brilliance of John Frankenheimer’s film lies in how it filters ripped-from-the-headlines ideas and images, including a hilariously McCarthy-esque senator (James Gregory), through the visual language of noir and psychological horror, culminating in the twist that Raymond’s “handler” is his mother (Angela Lansbury); positioning political assassination as an unholy mix of mind control and incestuous obsession. At the time of the film’s release, critics either celebrated or condemned the film’s wildness. But a year later, Kennedy’s death and the welter of conspiracy theories forged in its wake rendered The Manchurian Candidate a bit too prophetic, and it was removed from circulation by its producers (including Sinatra).

What makes The Manchurian Candidate tragic in the shadow of its bitter, cynical, carnivalesque hilarity is the way Raymond ultimately embraces the very heroism that had been stage-managed in his honor. His final act, committed with his Medal of Honor around his neck, is to defend the Republic: In the end, he dies for something. In real life, though, the terrible, arbitrary nature of Kennedy’s death—and the seeming anonymity of his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald—was destabilizing in ways that went beyond even Frankenheimer’s smart-aleck satire. A figure as massive and transformative as Kennedy being taken out by a nobody was difficult to process, and the slivers of ambiguity built into the only true record of the event—Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 footage—would go on to dictate the visual language of the decades later. From it arose paranoid thrillers from Blow-Up to Medium Cool to Z, movies with mandates that could be described as the inverse of the moral of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—not printing the legend but seeking to deconstruct and decode it, in the process revealing the figures in the shadows.

In March 1963, eight months before Kennedy’s assassination, Alfred Hitchcock released his eco-horror movie The Birds, an adaptation of a short story by Daphne du Maurier about a coastal town whose residents are inexplicably menaced by a local avian population mobilized for carnage. The film was a hit, although less critically acclaimed than the director’s earlier Psycho—the through line between them being the stuffed birds adorning the walls of the Bates Motel, framing Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane (a kind of bird) as she’s told by Anthony Perkins’s Norman that she eats (wait for it) “like a bird.” Although not intended on any level as a political film, Psycho’s shocking first-act twist—in which the Hitchcock blonde gets offed before anybody could have reasonably expected it—can be seen retrospectively as a weirdly apt foreshock of the Kennedy assassination. The percussive, gory montage of the shower scene serves as a sick, potentially compelling double bill with the twitchy atrocities of Zapruder film. (As ruthless as Hitchcock was, he knew the audience wouldn’t be ready for Marion’s death in deep-red color; Zapruder, an amateur rather than an artist, ended up inadvertently going further than the master of suspense.)

But back to The Birds, which took Psycho’s setup of randomized, unstoppable violence and enlarged it beyond a single human monster à la Norman Bates to something cosmic. As maternal antagonists go, Mrs. Bates has nothing on Mother Nature. Just as Psycho forges our complicity with a series of flawed characters without ever giving us a compelling, decisive hero to root for, The Birds is fascinating as a movie with a cast made up exclusively of victims. Its characters can’t defeat the birds dive-bombing them at every turn; they can only run and hide through an increasingly barren and depopulated landscape that Hitchcock renders with a terrifying, slightly exaggerated clarity. (Somewhere, George Romero was taking notes for his zombie classics.)

At the end of Psycho, the mystery of Norman’s mental illness is solved, but it doesn’t fix anything: Marion is still dead and true justice will not be served. But The Birds is even bleaker, closing on the unforgettable image of its title characters multiplied into infinity, chirping quietly as the humans tiptoe around them. In the years to come, filmmakers would confront the possibility of nuclear war more directly, and yet The Birds’s coda gets at the uncertainties left in the wake of Kennedy’s rise and fall more poetically than most. It’s a vision of a world perched on the verge of apocalypse, with no cavalry left to come in, no savior waiting in the wings and no high hopes—just the whisper-quiet wish for survival.