Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film by Alexandra Zapruder

I didn't have strong opinions about the Zapruder film or the Kennedy assassination before reading this book. and really, I still don't, although obviously that was a super-important event in American history and the film was an amazing capture of the moment before everyone had a camera all the time, and it's an impressive piece of history itself.

If you don't know, Abraham Zapruder is the man who caught on his home movie camera, the entire Kennedy assassination, in the version you've definitely seen. Yes, other people also were there with cameras that day, but his is the definitive one. He immediately went to the police and FBI and they worked with him and Kodak to get it developed and copied right away (both of which were quite hard to do with 8 mm film) and before the end of the weekend, he'd sold the print rights to Time-Life, and soon thereafter also sold them the motion picture rights. Twelve years later, the Zapruder family got the rights back and kept them, dealing with hundreds if not thousands of requests from researchers, students, amateur sleuths, and the mere curious, until 1998 when the movie was finally released on VHS and the government took possession of the original copy of the film.

Alexandra is Abraham's granddaughter. Like me, she wasn't born yet when Kennedy was killed, so her understanding of and experience with the assassination was very different than that of her grandparents and parents. Her grandfather died when she was an infant, and her father also died fairly young, so she started to do interviews and research to piece together, not only the history of this artifact and film, but also of her family and their relationship to this accidental defining moment in their lives, that continues to impact them to this day (after all, they don't exactly have a common name, so they can't escape perpetual questions.)

Ms. Zapruder tried very hard to be objective. I'd say she succeed about 80% of the time. Her family has gotten a lot of criticism over the years, the vast majority of it completely unfounded, so she's a little defensive, if understandably so.

I was curious if a book about an object would be able to hold up over this length (it's over 400 pages) and it totally does. She doesn't get much into the conspiracy theories, aside from people who wrote books about those and tried to use the Zapruder film as proof. And it was shady the way that Oliver Stone got permission to use the film in JFK. (Basically, he set up a separate company and the woman from that company who approached the Zapruders claimed to be a researcher.) It really is a unique piece of history and it's great to have all this context for it.

And a piece of trivia—while I was reading it, a woman who wrote an editorial about the release of the VHS in her local paper was mentioned, and it was my hometown paper, The Tennessean, and I recognized the name which has a slightly unique spelling. I messaged my elementary school friend with the same name and she confirmed that is her! She had no idea that 20 years later, her editorial was excerpted here. Small world.

I got this ARC free at the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall trade show.

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