Book Review: An Historic Film for an Historic Investigation

By Stephen Owen, Criminal Justice Chair and Professor, Radford University, E-mail:

A Review of Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film[1]

“Back…and to the left.”[2]  With these five words, Oliver Stone’s blockbuster movie JFK etched into the minds of its viewers a clip of home movie film, taken with an 8-milimeter Bell and Howell camera, showing a murder.  Specifically, the film recorded the third and fatal shot fired by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963,[3] which resulted in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Stone’s JFK focused on the prosecution of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw for acts related to the assassination of the President (Shaw was found not guilty in a widely-criticized trial),[4] with charges brought by Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison. The film was the Zapruder film, and the Shaw trial was its first public showing.

The public had previously seen still images of selected frames, published in Life magazine in 1964,[5] but to the jury and observers in the Shaw trial, it surely must have been unnerving to be among the first to view the full footage.  It was not until 1976, a generation prior to those first seeing the film in JFK, that it was shown to the American public on television.  Geraldo Rivera aired the Zapruder Film on the program Good Night America.  From the outset, the Zapruder film has perhaps been one the most controversial twenty-six seconds of home movie footage in the twentieth century, both hailed by some as incredible evidence in a time before every member of the public had smartphones with video recorders, but also maligned by others as a fabrication covering up a conspiracy, depending on the position to which an individual subscribes.[6]  As the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination came and went, the film’s significance or notoriety (again, depending on one’s perspective) only increased.   

The book Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film provides a fascinating discussion of the Zapruder film, from its very origin to the present day.  As such, the book has significance for criminal justice and criminal investigations by helping to illuminate the sometimes complicated pathway that this key piece of evidence has taken.

On November 22, 1963, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder was working in the Dallas Textiles (Dal-Tex) building on the corner of Houston and Elm Streets in Dallas, Texas.  As it so happened, President Kennedy’s motorcade was scheduled to pass that very corner on the way from Love Field (where Air Force One arrived) to the Trade Mart (where President Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech).[7]  Zapruder knew this, but initially left his camera at home.  It was only after the urging of coworkers that he went home to retrieve it, returning less than an hour before the motorcade arrived, as a “story of a near miss with history.”[8]    

In Dealey Plaza, literally across the street from his office, Zapruder, with secretary Marilyn Sitzman, located a concrete abutment extending from one of the decorative pergolas in the plaza that they believed would make an ideal spot for filming.  Both climbed the abutment, Zapruder to film and Sitzman to help him maintain his balance.  There were other persons who also filmed that day,[9] but the Zapruder film stands out for its timing, viewpoint, and clarity.[10]

From here, the book picks up a narrative that in some cases simply must be read to be believed, in terms of the travails that 26 seconds of 8-millimeter film can (and did) take.  The author is Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of filmmaker Abraham.  An award-winning author and documentarian, Zapruder was an inaugural staff member at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  With strong historical credentials and connections to key players, who better to write the story of the film?  The narrative includes some family history, but the tone is one of an investigative journalist interested in understanding the controversies surrounding the film.  The research is strong and well-documented, drawing heavily upon well-structured interviews and archival materials.  The volume reads well as Zapruder easily relays the film’s story and the findings she makes about its history.

Several themes echo throughout the book.  The first, familiar to investigators, is the significance of documenting the chain of custody.  In discussing the Zapruder film, one key question that must be asked is, “which Zapruder film?”  While there was only a single original film, three copies of the original were made, each at a different exposure, as explained by the processing company:  “…this way we could be assured that we had one optimum copy.”[11]  Zapruder retained the original and one copy; the Secret Service took two copies.  Subsequent copies have also been made.  As the book illustrates, documenting a chain of custody may be easier said than done.  One question certainly begged is why investigators did not more vigorously press for the original copy, which in itself can raise a host of potential Fourth and Fifth Amendment[12] questions.   

Because, unlike digital video, film reproductions are more complex than “copy and paste,” a second theme is the ownership and copyright status of the original film itself.  On the surface, this may seem straightforward, in that the ownership can be traced to parties that have contracted for it.  However, the negotiations that were involved each time the film changed hands, and the considerations, restrictions, and payments for each, are the stuff of novels, well detailed in the research presented in the book.  Zapruder initially sold the original film to Life magazine for $150,000; of this, he donated $25,000 to the family of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was also killed by Oswald as he was making his initial getaway.[13]  Life ultimately resold the film to the Zapruder family for $1.

Under the ownership of Life and the Zapruder family, one recurring question was, under what circumstances should rights to the film be provided, and how should its copyright status be enforced?  Over time, as lines blurred between the film as an object of private ownership versus public interest, these decisions became more challenging.  As Zapruder notes, “Ultimately, our family’s private attachment to the film had to give way under the weight of a competing reality, which was that as the twentieth century drew to a close, the American public had become attached to it, too.”[14]  As a teaser question, consider what should happen if the Zapruder family was to request to physically remove the film from the National Archives, to whom they had loaned it?  This narrative recounts this effort and its results, among a number of other turning points in the film’s ownership.

It was the 1992 passage of the Assassination Records Collection Act and its progeny Assassination Records Review Board[15] that brought the film to public ownership; ironically, it was the film JFK that at least, in part, sparked these initiatives, whose goal was to consolidate all records pertaining to President Kennedy’s assassination.  The book’s description of the arbitration hearing, which ultimately resulted in a $16 million payment to the Zapruder family for the original film, stands as a detailed and instructive example of arbitration processes.

A third theme is the investigative value of the film.  Zapruder describes some technical details of the 8-millimeter film that are important for fully understanding it as an artifact.  Zapruder also speaks to the use of the film in investigative efforts, from the earliest days (hours, really) of the investigation, to the Warren Commission, to debates promulgated by conspiracy theories, and more.  The evidentiary value of the film is easily illustrated through Zapruder’s recounting of the myriad ways in which its use was sought – for research, for media consumption, and for some less-than-tasteful pursuits.

A fourth and final theme perhaps speaks equally to the style and substance of the book.  Quite simply, it reads like something of a detective story – with a new twist around each corner.  Rarely have books explored the life cycle of a single piece of evidence, and especially one so deeply connected to a “crime of the century.”  At the very least, this can give investigators and historians pause, as an illustration of how 26 seconds (or 486 frames of film) can involve so many persons, so many theories, and so much complexity and controversy over a 54-year timeframe.  And it’s a heck of a story.    

This book is easily recommended to those who have an interest in the investigation of the Kennedy assassination, to the history of criminal justice generally, and to lessons learned about criminal investigations.  However, Zapruder also notes that “the film’s life as evidence has always coexisted with its life as a cultural object,”[16] which also recommends the book to a broader audience who may be familiar with the film, whether from Geraldo’s show, Stone’s JFK, the Seinfeld parody of JFK,[17] the HBO program “The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald” with Vincent Bugliosi and Gerry Spence as opposing counsel, or other sources.

“Back…and to the left.”  For over half a century, the Zapruder film has occupied a place in public discourse.  Its story is now finally preserved and artfully conveyed by author Alexandra Zapruder, in a compelling read.


[1] Zapruder, A. (2016). Twenty-six seconds: A personal history of the Zapruder film. New York, NY: Twelve.

[2] The Zapruder film, which recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is the subject of the book described in this review.  The “Back…and to the left” comment refers to the backward movement of the President’s head after being struck by a bullet fired from the rear.  Conspiracy theorists take this to imply a shot from the front; however, the backward movement is scientifically consistent with a shot from the rear, as described in testimony to the 1975 Rockefeller Commission and by Alvarez, L. W. (1976). A physicist examines the Kennedy assassination film. American Journal of Physics, 44, 813-827.  (The Rockefeller Commission, so known for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s service as chair, was formally named the Commission on CIA Activities within the United States; the Commission concluded that the CIA was not involved in the assassination and that no evidence supported a shot from the front).

[3] The weight of the forensic evidence supports the investigative conclusion of the Warren Commission, namely, that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository – the first a miss, the second being the so-called “magic bullet” that injured President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, and the third being the fatal head shot to President Kennedy.  An encyclopedic reference is found in Bugliosi, V. (2007). Reclaiming history: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.

[4] JFK, while an excellent film from a cinematic perspective, is very much a Hollywood production, and takes liberties with the facts of the case; see Lambert, P. (1998). False witness: The real story of Jim Garrison’s investigation and Oliver Stone’s film JFK. New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc.  

[5] It appeared in the October 2, 1964 edition, which included color images on the cover of the magazine and a four-page color spread in an article related to the Warren Commission’s findings.

[6] In the spirit of full transparency, I believe the film to be authentic and invaluable evidence.

[7] The speech was to focus on the themes of American strength, freedom, and security:  “Our adversaries have not abandoned their ambitions, our dangers have not diminished, our vigilance cannot be relaxed.  But now we have the military, the scientific, and the economic strength to do whatever must be done for the preservation and promotion of freedom.”  From The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to November 22, 1963, page 477.

[8] Zapruder, page 31.

[9] Numerous other films from Dealey Plaza may be accessed; in particular, the Muchmore film (available at and the Nix film (available at show aspects of the assassination.

[10] The Zapruder film may be viewed from the website of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, at; the first seconds are office footage of Zapruder’s assistant, Lillian Rogers, before transitioning to the Dealey Plaza images.

[11] Zapruder, page 55.

[12] These might include search and seizure issues for the Fourth Amendment and Takings Clause issues for the Fifth Amendment.

[13] The definitive source pertaining to the life, death, and homicide investigation of Officer Tippit is Myers, D. K. (2013). With malice: Lee Harvey Oswald and the murder of Officer J. D. Tippit. Milford, MI: Oak Cliff Press.

[14] Zapruder, page 343.

[15] The Assassination Records Review Board (AARB) report also included a discussion of research undertaken pertaining to the film, detailed in Chapter Six, Part II of the report:

[16] Zapruder, page 415.

[17] The episode is “The Boyfriend,” which originally aired in Season 3.  The premise is that Kramer and Newman allege that Keith Hernandez (guest starring in the episode) spit on them as a result of their heckling during a game; with a film that is a clear parody of the Zapruder film, debate emerges about a “second spitter.”  An additional point of interest is that Wayne Knight, playing Newman on Seinfeld, also played a character named Numa in JFK; in both productions, his character plays a similar role in re-enacting what is shown in the film, the Seinfeld episode clearly mimicking JFK