The granularity of the JFK assassination has for decades been its defining feature, perhaps the majority of the files of fed flotsam through which the narrator of Don DeLillo’s Libra must sift. And it’s true: the forensics and Dealey Plaza witness statements and meat-and-potatoes crime are compelling details on their own. When Geraldo Rivera aired Robert Groden’s copy of the famed Zapruder film on “Good Night America” in 1975, millions of Americans for the first time saw what DeLillo himself later described to The Paris Review as a kind of civic-religious experience:
Kennedy was shot on film, Oswald was shot on TV. Does this mean anything? Maybe only that Oswald’s death became instantly repeatable. It belonged to everyone. The Zapruder film, the film of Kennedy’s death, was sold and hoarded and doled out very selectively. It was exclusive footage. So that the social differences continued to pertain, the hierarchy held fast—you could watch Oswald die while you ate a TV dinner, and he was still dying by the time you went to bed, but if you wanted to see the Zapruder film you had to be very important or you had to wait until the 1970s when I believe it was shown once on television, or you had to pay somebody thirty thousand dollars to look at it—I think that’s the going rate.
The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis—not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs—will finally tell us precisely what happened.
DeLillo’s faith in technology circa 1993 was half-correct. Josiah “Tink” Thompson, a private investigator who was hired by LIFE magazine as part of its team covering the event, published a 1967 bestseller considered among the most persuasive of its time called Six Seconds in Dallas. (Although I missed his talk this weekend, he was present at one of the conferences) In 2021 he published an update, Last Second in Dallas, which describes a painstaking forensic audio investigation of a Dallas motorcycle cop’s hot mic, additional windshield glares, and other physical details that indicate the presence of multiple shooters.