The Kennedy Detail--Soon to be a Minor Motion Picture
When I read in the trades that my old friend Steve had gotten the gig to write the screenplay and direct the dramatic film version of The Kennedy Detail, ex-Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine's personal and supposedly factual account of the president's assassination in Dallas published in 2010, I promptly went out and got the book with the idea of reviewing it for its literary merits. I needn't have bothered. Blaine's book—which was written with the assistance of a junior journalist named Lisa McCubbin—is oh so terrible, filled with deception, emotional manipulation, and bad, bad writing.
What, for example, are we to make of this clause on the very first page: “...subconsciously his elbow pressed loosely on the handle of the snubnose .38-caliber revolver strapped to his hip.” An elbow with a subconscious! Or this clause in the chapter that recounts the shooting of the president: “...Paul Landis sucked in his breath as the horrific image became forever etched in his soul.” Or in the same chapter: “The triangular canyon of buildings created an echo chamber that masqueraded the sound...” and “Just as Clint's system rejected the sound of the second shot...” Masqueraded? Rejected? Where were the vaunted editors of Simon & Schuster when this manuscript was submitted for publication?
To say that The Kennedy Detail is execrably written and shamefully underedited is not enough. One has to come to the conclusion that this book clearly was written not for a serious readership, but is merely another in the long line of more or less successful attempts to capitalize on the Kennedy name, now more than ever as the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination approaches. Of course there's no denying that most of the authors of this kind of book are desperately grabbing for the brass ring—a lucrative movie option. Well, fortunately for Blaine, he got one.
All of the preceding of course inevitably asks the question, What kind of film could be made of such a substandard book? To answer that, one need look no further than the person who has been hired for the task of not only directing the film, but writing the adaptation as well. Frankly, I'm amazed that a man like Stephen, a self-styled “indie” filmmaker and equally self-styled political progressive, would have anything to do with a book that espouses such negative views not only of John F. Kennedy but his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, both of whom were progressive Democrats.
Also puzzling is the producers' decision to hire Stephen in the first place. The scathing reviews of his latest film, his first feature in fourteen years,Grassroots—based on the true story of a failed run for a Seattle city council seat in 2001 which he himself optioned, co-adapted, and directed—don't do much to inspire confidence in his ability to adapt and direct historical accounts for the screen, particularly when they deal with deeply emotional or controversial events in America's history. Not only did Seattle's own alternative weekly write that Grassroots contained “the worst movie conclusion in recent memory, a nightmare of pacing and performance...” but NPR, that bastion of liberal attitudes, chimed in with: “[Gyllenhaal's] interests aren't particularly cinematic... Grassroots is a movie where bad ideas, because they're the ones championed by the 'correct' side, are king.” On the other side of the Atlantic, reviewer Patrick Gamble called Grassroots “a film that fails so dramatically that its very presence at this year's London Film Festival is utterly perplexing. ...Featuring some hideous moral ideology and heavily manipulative techniques, Grassroots' use of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is deeply deplorable, using the emotional effects of this travesty in an incredibly manipulative manner... ...There's also a heavy handed stab at reverse racism within politics... ...the film lacks the intelligence and political clout to deal with such a sensitive subject with any sense of decency or aptitude.”
The words decency and aptitude stand out especially when you consider that the real theme of The Kennedy Detail is the emotional burden the agents of this eponymous group had to bear after they failed, spectacularly failed, in their sole duty to protect the President of the United States. Although Blaine was not present in the Dallas motorcade that was fired upon—he had been sent ahead that morning to nearby Austin to prepare for the president's next scheduled appearance—Clint Hill, the main focus of Blaine's book, was there, a scant few feet away from the Kennedy limousine. Hill is the agent you see in the Zapruder film climbing onto the president's car to aid Mrs. Kennedy after the first shots hit her husband, and the scenes in the book that relate his everlasting guilt and grief at not being “fast enough” to leap in front of the president and take the fatal bullet himself are extremely painful to read. How in thc name of God could a demonstratably hamfisted filmmaker like Stephen be able to portray with any kind of truth or delicacy these painful scenes on film?
Additionally, Blaine has other concerns which Steve will have to consider whether or not to address in his adaptation, as a good twenty percent of The Kennedy Detail consists of the nursing of decades-old grudges. These passages too are painful to read, though for different reasons. After the assassination, not one Secret Service agent was fired or publicly reprimanded—Clint Hill was even cited for bravery—but for years to come the media and academics were unceasing in their inquiries into “what really happened” and who might be to blame. The Warren Commission early on did not spare its reproof: “The procedures relied upon the Secret Service for detecting the presence of an assassin located in a building along a motorcade route were inadequate. The Secret Service...did not investigate, or cause to be checked, any building located along the motorcade route to be taken by the President.” Some years later historian Michael L. Kurtz wrote: “Trained to react instantaneously...the Secret Service agents assigned to protect President Kennedy simply neglected their duty. The reason for their neglect remains one of the most intriguing mysteries of the assassination.” Not to mention the most famous Kennedy historian of all, William Manchester, who famously set down his judgment in Death of a President: “They were supposed to be picked men, honed to a matchless edge. The protection of the Chief Executive...was the profession of Secret Service agents. They existed for no other reason. ...[They] were in a position to take swift evasive action, and for five terrible seconds, they were immobilized.” And then there was JFK, Oliver Stone's infamous but popular movie which implicated the Secret Service in a huge government conspiracy...
Yet rather than tangle with any of these heavyweights—several of whom are still alive and well—Blaine chose instead to focus his indignation on Washington investigative journalist Drew Pearson, who died in 1969. What had Pearson done to deserve Blaine's attention? A week after the president's death he wrote in his syndicated column, “Six Secret service men charged with protecting the President were in the [nearby] Fort Worth Press Club the early morning of Friday, November 22, some of them remaining until nearly 3 o'clock. This was earlier in the day President Kennedy was assassinated. They were drinking. One of them was reported to have been inebriated.” Blaine takes three pages to not only to refute this claim in the lamest terms, but attempts to belittle the memory of the legendary Pearson, calling him a “muckraking journalist so intent on making a name for himself(!) with a new angle to the biggest story of the century that he never bothered to check the claims that would haunt these already broken men for the rest of their lives.”
To accuse that era's most widely-read political newsman of being “intent on making a name for himself” simply by doing his job is barely tolerable to a reader seeking the truth of what really happened that day “beyond any measure of a doubt”, as Blaine himself put it. Later in the book, though, his spleen becomes disheartening and even sinister when he turns on fellow Secret Service agent Abraham Bolden for having made the same accusations: “...he had approached the Warren Commission to provide testimony about derelict behavior of Kennedy Detail agents—which included elaborate sex parties and on-duty drinking at Hyannis Port [the Kennedy home on Martha's Vineyard] that he had witnessed while serving a thirty-day temporary assignment on the White House Detail in the summer of 1961. The insinuation was that the Kennedy Detail agents may have been responsible for the president's death due to a laxness in their duties...” Chicago-based Bolden, who was arrested in May of 1964 on trumped-up charges of attempting to sell agency secrets on the very day he was to give his testimony to the Warren Commission, was convicted and spent six years in an Illinois prison. Evidence which came to light decades later exonerated Bolden. In his field investigation only days before the assassination, he had stumbled onto a Mafia operation that already was a concern of National Security; in order to prevent the Mafia's illegal activities this information had to be kept a secret from the press, the public, and Congress—and Bolden's testimony had to be discredited. This evidence was contained in declassified files that were released in the early 90s. Blaine, who admitted in his book that he became “obsessed” with all the available material concerning the president's assassination, could hardly have been unaware of the information contained in these files.
There is another troubling element to this story: Abraham Bolden is black. He was in fact the first black to be hired by the Secret Service, on the special recommendation of President Kennedy. Bolden not only accused the other agents of laxity in discipline, but of racism as well. It is an allegation which Blaine describes as “ludicrous”. And yet his dismissal of Bolden as an agent with an “attitude”, his reminder that Bolden is after all only a convicted felon, seems to be too summarily dismissive of a man who, after all, was a fellow agent.
One old man's denials and prejudices, another's self-pity, that's all The Kennedy Detail seems to boil down to. Any other interpretation of the material contained in this book would lend itself more to fantasy than to the factual, better suited perhaps to the realm of conspiracy theorists.
And as Steve recently declared to an interviewer who asked him if he intended to steer clear of controversial conspiracy theories in The Kennedy Detail, “Wait and see.” But I know Stephen well enough to be certain that in this project, as in all his other projects, he will steer way clear of controversy. It just doesn't pay.
Or in the words of Robert Parry, a reporter formerly of AP and Newsweek, now an independent journalist: “The people who succeeded and did well were those who didn't stand up, who didn't write the big stories, who looked the other way when history was happening in front of them, and went along either consciously or just by cowardice with the deception of the American people.”
Good luck with your new project, Steve. Let us know what you decide.
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By Jeff Hess