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Craven: JFK and Z

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On the day JFK was killed I had just turned 13. We were in junior high gym class when we heard about the shots in Dallas and I was doubly shocked when a boy standing next to me said he hoped the President would be incapacitated for life.

I’d recently bought a brown and white Indian pony for $75 I’d earned selling bunches of watercress to the local A & P. I’d named him Tomahawk, and hoped he’d impress the 7th and 8th grade girls I liked. But every time I gathered a small group for a ride, Tomahawk would charge into the hills with me hanging on for dear life. By the time I finally got him back to the farm, it was usually dark and everybody else had gone home.

I remember it was cold on the day of the Kennedy shooting and when I saddled up at home that afternoon, ice had hardened on the puddles formed from barn run-off. Tomahawk and I never got out of the paddock. The pony slipped with me in the saddle and we both crashed hard to the ground. I limped for a month.

And somehow that small, private disaster became forever linked in my mind to the unthinkable one that gripped the nation.

When I learned that JFK had gone to boarding school, I worked hard to earn a scholarship to attend one myself. What I viewed as Kennedy’s social vision inspired me to work for civil rights - and against poverty and the Vietnam War. A few years later, while doing some research for the Pentagon Papers Trial, I was startled to learn that certain government agencies and personnel may have undermined Kennedy’s 1962 peace agreement in Laos, acted independently to assassinate South Vietnamese President Diem and contravened JFK’s orders against covert raids into North Vietnam. I began to see his administration as a hot bed of high-stakes drama – as various powers competed for dominance.

In 1969, Costa-Gavras’ political thriller, “Z,” hit the big screen with the story of a handsome, young leader - played by Yves Montand - who was gunned down in Greece. The film drew its inspiration from the assassination of progressive Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis but it seemed especially relevant to many Americans of my generation - still reeling from the assassination of JFK and, later, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

So when the closing words of Z illuminated the screen, we were fired up, as if this European filmmaker were speaking for us, too. The words on screen were simply: “He lives.”

“Z” was the tenth largest grossing film in the U.S. that year - something now hard to imagine for a subtitled picture. And I have no doubt that it spurred many thousands of people my age to swell the ranks of the U.S. anti-war movement. “Z” animated our spirit, captured the moment, and became that cultural rarity - a film that moved and galvanized a generation.