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Nigel Turner
Hilary Minster

Not Rated.

Standard 1.33:1
2-Disc set
English Dolby Surround 2.0

Runtime: 300 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 2/26/2002

• Timeline of Critical Events


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The Men Who Killed Kennedy (1988)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

As one who watches a lot of DVDs, I also see a great deal of marketing hyperbole attached to their cases. However, every once in a while the PR people get it right. Such an example occurs with The Men Who Killed Kennedy, a documentary examination of the November 22, 1963 assassination. On the back cover, it refers to that act as “American history’s most controversial mystery”. I find it hard to disagree with that notion; almost 40 years after the fact, the issue continues to fascinate many people.

However, I do need to argue with one other part of the DVD’s blurb. The statement quoted above refers to Kennedy as the “definitive account” of the tale. While an interesting and frequently compelling look at some of the conspiracy theories aimed at the assassination, it remains exceedingly far from “definitive”.

For the most part, Kennedy consists of a 1988 BBC documentary; five of the six parts come from that production. For the sixth segment - “The Truth Shall Set You Free” - we find a 1995 extension of the original program. All six episodes are hosted by Hilary Minister and are produced and directed by Nigel Turner. Despite its later vintage, “Truth” fits in cleanly with the other five.

As one can easily construe from the title, one won’t find an endorsement of the “lone gunman” theory here - it’s called Men Who Killed Kennedy for a reason. However, the program never remotely attempts to pin down the ultimate blame. It tosses about a variety of different theories and doesn’t really weight any of them. As a piece of historical assessment, it lacks coherence, for it doesn’t try to evaluate the validity of the mix of ideas; it appears to take all as equally likely.

Kennedy mainly features the standard combination of archival footage and interviews with a mix of figures. It includes too many participants for me to cover all of them, but we get some interesting people. Some were actively connected to the actual events. For example, we hear from former Texas governor John Connolly - who sat in front of Kennedy and also was shot - as well as Marina Oswald, doctors who examined Kennedy’s body, and witnesses on the parade route. In addition, the program provides comments from historians and conspiracy theorists.

The variety of sources is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I truly enjoyed the material from Connolly and other directly involved participants; it’s fascinating to hear the statements of someone so insanely involved in the events. We also get some great archival footage; I particularly liked the radio and TV footage of Oswald.

However, the scattershot approach the program takes to the subject means that every crackpot gets equal time. For every worthwhile source, we find many more who clearly want their time in the sun.

I know a little about the Kennedy assassination and will admit that I lean against the conspiracy theories. One problem with Kennedy stems from the age of much of the material. Much new information has come to light since 1988, and quite a few of the sources and theories propounded here have been discounted in the meantime. This detracts from the credibility of the piece as a whole. For instance, the program claims the “three tramps” were never identified, but that’s no longer true.

Worst of the different ideas has to be the discussion of European contract killers. This concept gets a great deal of attention during one episode, though it’s totally absurd and has since been shown to be impossible; some of the alleged participants were in jail at the time! I also found the “Badge Man” segment to offer the worst kind of stretches. It’s absolutely ridiculous the manner in which the conspiracy theorists manipulate the information at hand. They take an exceedingly fuzzy picture and superimpose their own wishes onto it. In true Rorschach fashion, they try to make us believe what they want to see, but it’s extremely unconvincing and silly.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about Kennedy stems from its absolute lack of balance. It tries so hard to convince us of a conspiracy that it never lets the other side have its say. In that vein, it reminds me a lot of Oliver Stone’s JFK; the piece is so invested in Oswald’s lack of guilt that it never examines the arguments against him. Heck, the real-life protagonist of JFK - former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison - even pops up during the episode called “The Patsy” to refer to Oswald as a hero!

At least JFK attempted to provide one definite theory, however. As I mentioned, Kennedy tosses in almost every concept under the sun and makes no attempt to balance them. Frankly, the show borders on incoherence at times. It flits from topic to topic with rapidity and never goes much of anywhere.

At this point in time, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to produce an objective look at the Kennedy assassination. The question of lone gunman vs. conspiracy remains so heated that virtually every examination of the events becomes tainted by bias. Whether one thinks Oswald acted alone, worked with others, or had no involvement at all, one still comes from a certain point of view, and the material produced will reflect that.

The Men Who Killed Kennedy clearly comes from parties who believe in a conspiracy - they just can’t figure out which one. Does some credible information appear via this program? Sure, but it becomes buried under the mass of absurdity. It grabs bits and pieces of different ideas, adds some pseudo-science, and proves… not much of anything. While Kennedy includes some good moments, as a whole it lacks coherence and falls far short of its goal to offer a “definitive” look at the events of November 22, 1963. Interested parties should stick with texts that cover the subject; they have their weaknesses as well, but they seem much more useful than this badly flawed documentary.

The DVD Grades: Picture D+ / Audio C+ / Bonus D-

The Men Who Killed Kennedy appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Erratic as a whole, the picture remained consistently watchable, but it could come across as pretty bland and unattractive much of the time.

Because Kennedy included a lot of archival footage that varied in quality, I only considered the modern material when I assessed my grade. I also will discuss the 1988 episodes initially and cover the differences found in the more recent show after that.

For the older programs, sharpness looked decent as a whole. The shots seemed reasonably accurate and well defined, though they could be a bit soft at times. Those concerns never became major, but some images lacked much clarity and distinctiveness. Moiré effects and jagged edges cropped up on occasion, but they didn’t cause any serious problems.

However, source flaws were a major concern. Throughout the first five episodes, I noticed quite a lot of nicks, marks, specks, grit, and debris. The image often seemed rather grainy. The picture showed far too many defects for such a recent production.

Colors seemed bland but acceptable. They maintained a drab presence that appeared flat and lifeless. Black levels seemed similar, in that they were decent for the most part but still fairly muddy and murky. Shadow detail looked a bit too heavy, and it suffered from the drab qualities that affected the blacks.

As for “The Truth Shall Set You Free”, it looked noticeably cleaner than the prior five shows, and it also displayed slightly stronger colors and blacks. However, it also featured some noticeable edge enhancement much of the time. That reduced the sharpness of the program, as it looked moderately blurry for the most part. Frankly, I minded the edge enhancement less than I did the print flaws, but it remained a problematic production. Overall, Kennedy was a fairly unattractive presentation.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of The Men Who Killed Kennedy fared better, but it still wasn’t anything special. Frankly, the audio for the first five episodes seemed monaural. I detected no evidence of any material outside of the center channel for those shows. “Truth” broadened the aural horizons noticeably, however, as it offered stereo music. I noticed no effects from the sides, however, and I never heard any signs of sound from the surrounds. This was a very modest soundfield that largely remained anchored to the front center speaker.

Within that limited realm, audio quality seemed good. Dialogue appeared reasonably natural and distinct, and I discerned no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects lacked much heft or range, but they seemed fairly clean and accurate, without any significant distortion. Music actually showed decent dynamics; bass response wasn’t terribly deep, but the low-end seemed okay, and highs were acceptably clear and bright. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Kennedy worked fine for the material, but it was never any better than average.

The Men Who Killed Kennedy offers only one exceedingly minor extra. We find a Timeline of Critical Events. It starts with Kennedy’s birth and goes through the publication of the Warren Commission report. It provides very basic facts and doesn’t give us much of interest.

While the Kennedy assassination remains a fascinating subject, The Men Who Killed Kennedy is a sloppy and scattershot examination of the subject. It never separates the crackpots from the worthwhile subjects as it tosses scads of theories into the hopper. Some of the material may have validity, but those elements get buried beneath the junk. The DVD offers muddy and flat picture with mediocre sound and almost no extras. Those interested in the subject should stick with books or go for Oliver Stone’s JFK; that film’s no more ludicrous than the information on display here, and at least it’s entertaining.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3448 Stars Number of Votes: 58
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