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AU's Book, Movie Picks on JFK Era

Dr. Stangelove

Since President John F. Kennedy entered the political fray, countless books and movies have been written and produced about his life. From Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Making of the President 1960 to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, they seek to further explain the nation’s 35th president.

In celebration of Kennedy’s historic speech at American University in 1963, AU asked members of the university community to offer recommendations for their favorite books or movies that best encapsulate aspects of Kennedy’s legacy. Here is their suggested list:

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb directed by Stanley Kubrick (1964)

What it's about: Dr. Strangelove is a dark comedy, which follows United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. The character orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

School of International Service Dean James Goldgeier and School of Communication Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck picked the film because of its provocative satirical examination of Cold War thinking. Rutenbeck added, "With the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis still reverberating, Dr. Strangelove's release in early 1964 presented an eerily realistic (and frighteningly fact-based) critique of current U.S. military personalities, policies, and practices." SOC will host a screening of Dr. Strangelove on March 26 from 7-9 p.m. at the Wechsler Theater.

2. On The Beach directed by Stanley Kramer (1959)

What it’s about: The 1959 Oscar-nominate movie stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire. It is based on Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic novel. The story is set post-World War III in Melbourne, Australia after nuclear war devastated the northern hemisphere. Peck plays the captain of the last American nuclear submarine and Gardner is his love interest.

"The film reflected the widespread concern in the popular culture about the impact of nuclear war and raised a number of moral issues about war and its aftermath," said Dotty Lynch, SOC executive in residence. "As a young teen, I was personally influenced by the book and movie in a profound way. The movie may be viewed as a bit melodramatic in hindsight, but at the time it was very powerful to alerting people about the implications of nuclear policy."

3. Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews (2011)

What it’s about: Chris Matthews’ biography documents the young Kennedy’s appetite for history and biographies of great leaders and heroes he admired. The host of NBC’s Hardball delves into the politics of the Kennedy presidency.

"The glamorous images of his own short time in public life so dominate our impressions that it's hard to get a full sense of him. His intellect, the pain, and illness he lived with his whole life, the risks he took, his humor, courage, and steely reserve all come into sharp focus in this book," said Vice President of Communication Terry Flannery. "If you want to know how he was able to face down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and why he boldly called for peace for all time when the rest of the world thought human annihilation through nuclear war was an eventuality, then read this book."

4. Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

What it’s about: The novel is a dark comedy set in Havana, Cuba, during the Fulgencio Batista regime. It was made into a film of the same name in 1959, directed by Carol Reed.

"The book and the film based on it are brilliant windows into Cuba during the revolutionary age about to be trapped in a superpower struggle," said Anton Fedyashin, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and executive director of the Initiative for Russian Culture. "While the book predates the Cuban Missile Crisis, Greene’s writing is prescient and seems to predict the events of 1962. Greene's espionage novel set during the Batista regime is a great cry for humanism in an era of distant, but total threats."

MORE: The Lasting Legacy Of JFK's American University Speech

5. Soy Cuba directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (1964)

What it’s about: The film recounts the island before it became a post-revolutionary civilization. It shows issues related to political oppression, wealth, and poverty.

"It’s a poetic meditation on the island’s beauty and the popular support for the anti-Batista revolution in its early stages," Fedyashin said. "The film is a must for all lovers of film history."

6. John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums directed by Bruce Herschensohn (1966)

What it’s about: It is a memorial tribute made in 1964, the year after Kennedy’s assassination. The film, narrated by Gregory Peck, is full of excerpts from Kennedy’s speeches, including his swearing-in and his inaugural address.

"It concentrates on his achievements during his short time in office, including creating the Peace Corps, putting an astronaut in outer space, averting nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and proposing the limited nuclear test ban treaty," said University Chaplain Joseph Eldridge. "Initially, the film had been made for the United States Information Agency and was not meant for the general public. But it was deemed to be of national importance and was released in theaters in 1966. The film is hard to find now, but absolutely worth a watch."

WATCH: Video of JFK's Speech at AU

7. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK by Gerald Posner (1993)

What it's about: In the book, Posner asserts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of Kennedy. The book was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1994.

8. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters by James W. Douglas (2010)

What it’s about: Douglas argues that the murder of Kennedy was orchestrated by the C.I.A. in response to policies adopted by the president after the Cuban Missile Crisis to de-escalate tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"These two books, [Case Closed and JFK and the Unspeakable], represent the Alpha and the Omega of the extensive and highly controversial literature on the assassination of Kennedy," said Distinguished Professor of History Allan Lichtman. "Regardless of the outcome of this dispute, the murder of Kennedy was an event that changed the course of American history."

FACTS: Did You KNOW? JFK At AU By The Numbers

9. Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration by James Abbott and Elaine M. Rice (1999)

What it's about: The book showcases first-person accounts, media annals, photographs, and analysis of the restoration of the White House during the Kennedy era.

"I would recommend this book to more fully appreciate how Jackie Kennedy not only understood the value of historic preservation and the power of style, but also how she used that power to reflect the internationalism and vigor of the Kennedy administration," said Anita McBride, School of Public Affairs executive in residence. "During her brief tenure as first lady, Mrs. Kennedy revitalized the White House and encouraged appreciation of America's cultural heritage both at home and abroad."

Originally published on March 5, 2013