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'NOVA' Program Highlights Forensics Investigation Of Kennedy Assassination

Wed, 2013-11-13 17:03 -- ssuchy
Nov 13 2013 - 4:45pm
By: Chris Gorski, Senior Editor, Inside Science
The Eternal Flame at President Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery | http://bit.ly/c34Awz

In the first few seconds of "Cold Case JFK," an episode of PBS's "NOVA "that premieres on November 13, viewers see footage of the infamous assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, including the famous Zapruder film taken in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Even 50 years later it remains startling, shocking, to see multiple shots strike Kennedy. The actual impact of those shots, shown as the program begins, is an upsetting opening to an often insightful but unavoidably gruesome hour that uses modern forensics techniques to examine the facts and myths of the assassination.

The program shows forensic scientists, Lucien and Michael Haag, a father and son, researching the gun Oswald used, an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. They perform a battery of tests using the same type of rifle and bullets as Oswald.

They examine how the bullet deforms when it strikes different materials. They investigate the elliptical shape of Texas governor John Connally's gunshot wounds, who sat in front of Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas.

Other experts use 3-D laser scanners to study the shockwaves produced when a rifle is fired, investigate bullet trajectories and inspect skull fracture patterns.

The film is a study of an assassination, a myth-busting forensic drama: Could a bullet travel from a sixth-story window, through a man's body, and then create five other separate wounds in another man seated in the same car? Why did Kennedy's body jerk back and to the left when shot if the shot came from behind him, from Oswald's location in the Texas School Book Depository? Experts also explore the likelihood that a second gunman fired shots from the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza.

The forensic science in the program is well-presented. But seeing this assassination, of Kennedy, over and over has a considerable effect on the viewer.

Viewers see what happens when a bullet strikes not a head, but Kennedy's head. The same shot, shown multiple times. Viewers know him and his family's story -- the brother who died in World War II, the brother assassinated in 1968, the son who died in a 1999 plane crash. The relationship between the viewer and this footage is unavoidably intimate.

And that's precisely what is discomfiting about watching this program. Kennedy becomes an object, a collection of textures through which a bullet passes. What happened to his body, perhaps necessarily, is just one more piece of a puzzle, one part of an elaborate science project involving the study of firearms, anatomy, acoustics and more. On screen, the Zapruder footage and other footage of the shooting are treated clinically, as facts, the same as shots of firing bullets into different test materials. The treatment feels strangely cold.

You will see computer animations of the assassination. You will see computerized reconstruction of Kennedy's skull fragments. You will see several photographs from his autopsy, multiple times.

The analytical treatment brings the puzzling details of the assassination into sharper focus.

But then again, this is the purpose of this documentary -- it's about reconstructing a single event with scientific testing. What are the particular properties of the Carcano rifle that Oswald fired? What happens to the bullets fired from that gun, what markings and deformation do they acquire when traveling through materials that simulate human flesh?

Those answers are in the program, and they are interesting, and presented well. But, in "Cold Case JFK," the death is beside the point. It's not about the people involved. It's really about whether one gunman could have acted alone, and whether the evidence supports that conclusion. (I will leave the conclusion out of this review, but it is reported here, by CBS News.)

What remains is a dead president. And we, the viewers, citizens of his country, are left searching for answers. The human drama of Kennedy's death, the later murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, the trauma and impact of these events on others, are mentioned, but the sheer power of the footage overshadows them.

Somehow, despite this jarring juxtaposition, a straightforward science film investigates an inconceivable event and, in the process, reveals the remarkable power of television.

The Zapruder footage is shown at least eight times; at least once it is magnified to emphasize the result of the fatal gunshot. As with other film shot that day, it's in the program to illustrate the science. But for me, as with others born long after the real event, repetition does not reduce the impact of the footage.

It's stomach-turning to watch a murder over and over again. But to understand it, the repetition may be necessary. It's not just this film. We fill our bookshelves and TV screens with one examination after another of the Kennedy assassination's particular facts, as if tackling them one more time would make it easier to comprehend what happened.

Recall that less than 20 years later another president, Ronald Reagan, was shot as he exited a hotel, by a man who thought doing it would impress the actress Jodie Foster. Trying to explain acts of violence can be like trying to explain why a tornado might topple one house, but leave the neighboring homes unscathed.

There's purpose in the search for answers, but why do we think everything should make sense? 

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