“JFK: One Day in America”: The Timely Retelling of a Tragedy

“JFK: One Day in America” is the latest in Nat Geo’s “One Day in America” franchise. Tom McDonald, EVP of Global Factual and Unscripted Content, National Geographic, explains why the assassination of President Kennedy was chosen as the topic, and how this version of the tragic story stands out.

Why did you choose this specific historical event, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as the second installment of the franchise?

With our “One Day in America” franchise, our goal is to immerse viewers in pivotal moments that changed the course of history using only archival footage and testimony from those who experienced it. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a hugely impactful historic moment – former Secret Service agent Clint Hill says in our series that this was the day “the United States lost its innocence.” As we come upon 60 years since this tragic event, we thought it was a fitting time to put together this oral history from the last surviving witnesses, especially as the window in which a younger generation gets to hear directly from them is starting to close. 

What about the series is different from other series, documentaries, books and content made about the assassination?

As the brand of record for retelling historical events with depth and breadth, we at Nat Geo felt a responsibility to focus solely on the human experience that day and during the events that followed, highlighting a point in history that may be starting to slip away from memory. We chose to explore this piece of history in an emotional and intimate way through the experiences of the eyewitnesses, eschewing conspiracy theories or political takes. The decision to build this series without a narrator and only told through testimonies is what really sets us apart from other projects. We also partnered with The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza which gave us access to their extensive archives, allowing us to get granular with minute-by-minute retelling of what happened through footage and photographs, some of which we were able to colorize for the first time. 

What are some of the challenges that arise when making an oral history docuseries like this?

While working with some of the last-surviving witnesses, we wanted to ensure our documentary participants felt safe and comfortable while retelling some truly difficult moments in their careers and lives. Each story and conversation with our documentary participants was compelling and striking, and we’re incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to share their stories. Additionally, our series is three episodes that totals almost three hours to chronicle not just the assassination, but the manhunt that followed, Jackie Kennedy’s poise amidst her grief, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral days later and everything in between. It’s always a challenge to decide what to include and what we just simply don’t have room for – this is where the vision of our series director Ella Wright and our production and editing team goes unmatched. 

What do you hope audiences take away after watching?

We hope that viewers across generations, young and old, feel a greater connection to that pivotal moment in time, and have a deeper understanding of its impact today. While much has changed in the last 60 years, the series is also incredibly timely. America today is grappling with some of the same issues as Kennedy’s America – political divisions, major questions around social justice, the future of the country and America’s role on the global stage. The resonances are crystal clear. As we hear from former members of Jackie Kennedy’s Secret Service team, acquaintances of Lee Harvey Oswald, journalists covering breaking news on location for the first time, and bystanders and law enforcement, viewers absorb all different perspectives from the ground that day, and learn the greater implications of that moment.

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