Decoding JFK conspiracy theories for the big screen

Rick Worland, cinema and film professor at SMU's Meadows School of the Arts, talks about decoding JFK conspiracy theories in movies.

By Chris Vognar

Conspiracy theorists, like cultural critics, live to connect the dots. What looks like a coincidence to one person becomes another shard of evidence or thematic through-line to another. The dark corners exist to be explored, the currents of conventional wisdom defied. Interpretation and implication become as vital as hard proof.

So it is for those decoding how the Kennedy assassination reverberated through pop culture. Sure, you’ll find some intriguing movies and stories that address the assassination directly. But to my mind, they’re nowhere near as compelling as the works infused with the fear and the rush of cinematic paranoia, particularly the films of the early 1970s in which no official version of the truth — no explanation for murder — is to be trusted.

Some movies, including 1992’s Love Field and 1993’s In the Line of Fire, explore the sense of mourning and regret stemming from the assassination. The conspiracy movies, including 1974’s The Parallax View and The Conversation and 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, exude suspicion and despair.

Most of these movies don’t directly approach the assassination, though some inch closer to that dark November day than others. Most are more like the stray ricochet that nicked James Tague as he stood under the Triple Underpass. They suggest rather than explain. They embrace the mystery and menace of a new world in which nothing can be taken for granted.

“There are a lot of references to the Kennedy assassination, both direct and indirect, in late ’60s and ’70s movies,” says Rick Worland, a Southern Methodist University professor who teaches a course on ’70s film. “There’s a general sense that nothing is to be trusted anymore, that the power structures — whether it’s corporate, military or government — are just corrupt and dangerous.”...