Although it is not the only film of the shooting, it has been called the most complete, giving a relatively clear view from a somewhat elevated position on the side from which the president's head wound is visible. It was an important part of the Warren Commission hearings and all subsequent investigations of the assassination, and is one of the most studied pieces of film in history. Of greatest notoriety is the film's capture of the fatal shot to President Kennedy's head when his presidential limousine was almost exactly in front of, and slightly below, Zapruder's position.
Abraham Zapruder stood on a concrete pedestal along Elm Street in Dealey Plaza holding a high-end Model 414 PD Bell & Howell Zoomatic Director Series Camera. He filmed from the time the presidential limousine turned onto Elm Street for a total of 26.6 seconds, exposing 486 frames of standard 8 mm Kodachrome II safety film, running at 18.3 frames/second.
After Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels promised Zapruder that the film would only be used for an official investigation, the two men sought to develop the footage as soon as possible. As television station WFAA's equipment was incompatible with the format, Eastman Kodak's Dallas film processing facility developed the film and Jamieson Film Company produced three copies. Zapruder gave two of the copies to the Secret Service.
On the morning of November 23, CBS lost the bidding for the footage to Life magazine's $150,000 offer. CBS news correspondent Dan Rather was the first to report on the footage on national television after seeing it, although the inaccuracies in his description would contribute to many conspiracy theories about the assassination. In his 2001 book Tell Me A Story, CBS producer Don Hewitt said that he told Rather to go to Zapruder's home to "sock him in the jaw", take the film, copy it, then return it and let the network's lawyers deal with the consequences. According to Hewitt, he realized his mistake after ending their telephone conversation and immediately called Rather back to countermand the order. In a 2015 interview on Opie with Jim Norton, Rather stated that the story was a myth.
Frame 313 of the film depicts the fatal shot to the President's head. After having a nightmare in which he saw a sign in Times Square, New York City, with the phrase "See the President's head explode!", Zapruder insisted that frame 313 be excluded from publication. The November 29, 1963 issue of Life—which featured the "LIFE" logo in a black box instead of the usual red box—published about 30 frames of the Zapruder film in black and white. Frames were also published in color in the December 6, 1963 special "John F. Kennedy Memorial Edition", and in issues dated October 2, 1964 (a special article on the film and the Warren Commission report), November 25, 1966, and November 24, 1967.
Zapruder was one of at least 32 people in Dealey Plaza known to have made film or still photographs at or around the time of the shooting.
The Zapruder frames used by the Warren Commission were published in black and white as Commission Exhibit 885 in volume XVIII of the Hearings and Exhibits. Frames of the film have also been published in several magazines, and the film was featured in several movies. Copies of the complete film are available on the Internet.
One of the first-generation Secret Service copies was lent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, which made a second-generation copy on November 25. After study of that copy in January 1964, the Warren Commission judged the quality to be inadequate, and requested the original. Life brought the original to Washington in February for the Commission's viewing, and also made color 35mm slide enlargements from the relevant frames of the original film for the FBI. From those slides, the FBI made a series of black-and-white prints, which were given to the commission for its use.
In October 1964, the U.S. Government Printing Office released 26 volumes of testimony and evidence compiled by the Warren Commission. Volume 18 of the commission's hearings reproduced 158 frames of the Zapruder film in black and white. However, frames 208–211 were missing, a splice was visible in frames 207 and 212, frames 314 and 315 were switched, and frame 284 was a repeat of 283. In reply to an inquiry, the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover wrote in 1965 that 314 and 315 were switched due to a printing error, and that the error did not exist in the original Warren Commission exhibits. In early 1967, Life released a statement that four frames of the camera original (208–211) had been accidentally destroyed, and the adjacent frames damaged, by a Life photo lab technician on November 23, 1963. Life released the missing frames from the first-generation copy it had received from Zapruder with the original. (Of the Zapruder frames outside the section used in the commission's exhibits, frames 155–157 and 341 were also damaged and spliced out of the camera original, but are present in the first-generation copies.)
In 1966, assassination researcher Josiah Thompson, while working for Life, was allowed to examine a first-generation copy of the film and a set of color 35mm slides made from the original. He tried to negotiate with Life for the rights to print important individual frames in his book, Six Seconds in Dallas. Life refused to approve the use of any of the frames, even after Thompson offered to give all profits from the book sales to Life. When Thompson's book was published in 1967, it included very detailed charcoal drawings of important individual frames, plus photo reproductions of the four missing frames. Time Inc. filed a lawsuit against Thompson and his publishing company for copyright infringement. A U.S. District Court ruled in 1968 that the Time Inc. copyright of the Zapruder film had not been violated by invoking the doctrine of fair use. The court held that "there is a public interest in having the fullest information available on the murder of President Kennedy. Thompson did serious work on the subject and has a theory entitled to public consideration … [I]t has been found that the copying by defendants was fair and reasonable."
In 1967, Life magazine hired a New Jersey film lab, Manhattan Effects, to make a 16 mm film copy of the original Zapruder film. Pleased with the results, they asked for a 35 mm internegative to be made. Mo Weitzman made several internegatives in 1968, giving the best to Life and retaining the test copies. Weitzman set up his own optical house and motion picture postproduction facility later that year. Employee and assassination buff Robert Groden, hired in 1969, used one of Weitzman's copies and an optical printer to make versions of the Zapruder film using close-ups and minimizing the camera's shakiness.
Before the 1969 trial of Clay Shaw, a businessman from New Orleans, for conspiracy in connection with the assassination, a copy of the film several generations from the original was subpoenaed from Time Inc. in 1967 by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison for use at Shaw's grand jury hearing. Garrison unsuccessfully subpoenaed the original film in 1968. The courtroom showings of Garrison's copy in 1969 were the first time it had been shown in public as a film. Noted conspiracy theorist Mark Lane, author of Rush to Judgment, was in New Orleans at the time to assist Garrison in his investigation. Lane borrowed Garrison's copy of the Zapruder film and had several copies printed at a local lab. These low quality copies began circulating among assassination researchers and were known to many journalists as well. The underground circulation of these copies and the secret screenings to a select few who had the opportunity to see them added an additional aura of mystery to the film, enhancing the idea that there was a secret to be found in it that was being kept hidden from the general public.
The first broadcast of the Zapruder film was on the late-night television show Underground News with Chuck Collins, originating on WSNS-TV, Ch 44, Chicago in 1970. It was given to director Howie Samuelsohn by Penn Jones and later aired in syndication to Philadelphia, Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis.
On March 6, 1975, on the ABC late-night television show Good Night America (hosted by Geraldo Rivera), assassination researchers Robert Groden and Dick Gregory presented the first-ever network television showing of the Zapruder home movie. The public's response and outrage to that television showing quickly led to the forming of the Hart-Schweiker investigation, contributed to the Church Committee Investigation on Intelligence Activities by the United States, and resulted in the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation.
In April 1975, in settlement of a royalties suit between Time Inc. and Zapruder's heirs that arose from the ABC showing, Time Inc. sold the original film and its copyright back to the Zapruder family for the token sum of $1. Time Inc. wanted to donate the film to the U.S. government. The Zapruder family initially refused to consent, but in 1978 the family transferred the film to the National Archives and Records Administration for appropriate preservation and safe-keeping, while still retaining ownership of the film and its copyright. Director Oliver Stone paid approximately $85,000 to the Zapruder family for use of the Zapruder film in his motion picture JFK (1991).
On October 26, 1992, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the John F. Kennedy Records Collection Act of 1992 (the "JFK Act"), which sought to preserve for historical and governmental purposes all records related to the assassination of President Kennedy. The Act created the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives. The Zapruder film was automatically designated an "assassination record" and therefore became official property of the United States government. When the Zapruder family demanded the return of the original film in 1993 and 1994, National Archives officials refused to comply.
On April 24, 1997, the Assassination Records Review Board, which was created by the JFK Act, announced a "Statement of Policy and Intent with Regard to the Zapruder Film". The ARRB re-affirmed that the Zapruder film is an "assassination record" within the meaning of the JFK Act and directed it to be transferred on August 1, 1998 from its present location in NARA's film collection to the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection maintained by NARA. As required by law for such a seizure under eminent domain, payment to Zapruder's heirs was attempted. Because the film is unique, the film's value was difficult to ascertain; eventually, following arbitration with the Zapruder heirs, the government purchased the film in 1999 for $16 million.
The Zapruder family retained copyright to the film, which was not seized. In 1997, the film was digitally replicated and restored under license of the Zapruder family. The 1998 documentary Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film shows the history of the film, as well as various versions of the restored film.
In December 1999, the Zapruder family donated the film's copyright to The Sixth Floor Museum, in the Texas School Book Depository building at Dealey Plaza, along with one of the first-generation copies made on November 22, 1963, and other copies of the film and frame enlargements once held by Life magazine, which had been since returned. The Zapruder family no longer retains any commercial rights to the film, which are now entirely controlled by the museum.
The relevant history of the film is covered in a book by David Wrone called The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK's Assassination (2003). Wrone is a professor of history who tracks the "chain of evidence" for the film.
Each frame of the Zapruder film has been put together into a panoramic movie. Each object that appears during the film has its starting position equal to where it appears first in Zapruder's frames. The objects' positions are updated during visibility in Zapruder's frames and stay unmoved as soon as each object moves out of the frames.
The film by Orville Nix had the same technology applied to it. The Nix and Zapruder films were then combined into a direct simultaneous comparison movie.
Between November 1963 and January 1964, the FBI examined a copy of the Zapruder film, noting that the camera recorded at 18.3 frames per second. It is not clear from the film itself when the first and second shots occurred. It is apparent that by frame 225 the President is reacting to his throat wound. However, no wound or blood is seen on either President Kennedy or Governor Connally prior to frame 313. The fatal shot to the President occurred at frame 313 with the visible effects of the head wound.
There is also a stabilized high-definition version of the Zapruder film that is synchronized with the Dallas Police Department audio recording. The version of the Zapruder film used here is the first-generation copy that went to France. The video also shows the immediate aftermath at Dealey Plaza and the press conference of JFK's assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff.
The Zapruder film has often been believed as capturing the shooting from start to finish and has been called a "complete record of the Kennedy assassination". This view is, however, challenged by Max Holland, author of The Kennedy Assassination Tapes, and the professional photographer Johann Rush in a joint editorial piece published by The New York Times on November 22, 2007. Holland and Rush point out that Zapruder temporarily stopped filming at frame 132, when only police motorcycles were visible. When he resumed filming, frame 133 already shows the presidential motorcade in view. This pause could have great significance for the interpretation of the assassination, Holland and Rush suggest.
One of the sources of controversy with the Warren Report has been its difficulty in satisfactorily accounting for the sequencing of the assassination. A specific mystery concerns what happened to the one shot that missed (and how Oswald came to miss at what was assumed to be close range). Holland and Rush argue that the break in the Zapruder film might conceal a first shot earlier than analysts have hitherto assumed, and point out that in this case a horizontal traffic mast would temporarily have obstructed Oswald's view of his target. In the authors' words, "The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started."
The evidence offered by Holland and Rush to support their theory was challenged in a series of 2007–08 articles by computer animator Dale K. Myers and assassination researcher Todd W. Vaughan, who defended the prevailing belief that Zapruder's film captured the entire shooting sequence.
In 1994, the Zapruder film footage was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for permanent preservation in the National Film Registry.
Author J. G. Ballard focuses on Kennedy and the Zapruder film in a number of his works, such as The Atrocity Exhibition.
Actor Freddie Prinze was fascinated by the Zapruder film, and watched it frequently in the time leading up to his 1977 suicide.
Some critics have stated that the violence and shock of this home movie led to a new way of representing violence in 1970s American cinema, both in mainstream films, and particularly in indie and underground horror movies.
The film has been featured in films or other media, such as the Oliver Stone film JFK, which used the clearest copy of the film available to the public before the late 1990s. For example, after the fatal shot, Jacqueline Kennedy can be seen mouthing what appears to be the words, "Oh, my God!" A closeup from the portion of the film showing the fatal shot to Kennedy's head is also shown in the Clint Eastwood film In the Line of Fire.
The film was pastiched by the American television show Seinfeld in the two-part episode of Season 3 titled "The Boyfriend".
Zapruder is also mentioned in the 1994 Manic Street Preachers' song "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit'sworldwouldfallapart", a track from the album The Holy Bible.
The Red Dwarf episode Tikka to Ride features a recreation of the shooting which was shot meticulously using the Zapruder film as a reference. It was originally shot in black and white, but was so realistic that people thought it was the original footage. Director Ed Bye then reshot it in colour.
In the Don DeLillo novel Underworld, there is a screening of a bootleg copy of Zapruder film, at which the film is played over and over on multiple televisions at varying speeds.
In the 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins, the film was projected onto Lee Harvey Oswald's white shirt during the climax of the show.
The music video for Lana Del Rey's single "National Anthem" is a partial re-creation of the Zapruder film.
The earliest three days of the original film's life, including its actual filming, developing, copying, premiere viewing by Zapruder, government agents and reporters, and sale to Life magazine are portrayed in the 2013 docudrama Parkland, in which Abraham Zapruder is played by Paul Giamatti.
Abraham Zapruder is sometimes presented as a forefather of all citizen journalists.
The Zapruder film, kept from public viewing for years, has evolved into one of the most viewed films in history, now available on the Internet for public access.