The 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is Nov. 22. However, what interested Ashton Gleckman the most was not how Kennedy died but how he lived.
“Reading the testimony of those who knew him in high school and college and even his teachers when he was younger, I began to be interested in who this person would have been,” Gleckman said. “JFK’s favorite question whenever he met an historian who wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln or whoever else was what was this person like. He was always curious about what people were like and I’ve always been that way, too.”
The 23-year-old Carmel resident began researching in the summer of 2020 and conducted more than 70 interviews. The result is an eight-part, three-night docuseries called “Kennedy,” to be shown starting Nov. 18 on the History Network. Heartland International Film Festival will hold a sneak peek of Episode 7 at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at The Toby at Newfields in Indianapolis, followed by a question-and-answer session with Gleckman and featured subject Lawrence J. Haas, former White House official, author and historian.
Gleckman is the director and score composer of the docuseries from Gleckman’s production company Blackbird Pictures and Academy Award-winning production company RadicalMedia. It is narrated by actor Peter Coyote.
Gleckman said while delving into the story of JFK, it became an examination of America at a pivotal moment in its history from the 1920s to the 1960s.
“I wanted it to be a deeply intimate character journey more so than another Kennedy documentary,” Gleckman said. “I wanted half of the entire show to be before he even becomes president. I was interested in his origin story and how this person became iconic. I knew he was this charismatic, stylish, good-looking, well-spoken president, but how did he get from here to there? Sometimes, it takes a little more unpacking to find the essence of the person.”
The final four episodes are about Kennedy’s term as president.
“The second half of the show is crisis after crisis,” Gleckman said. “You probably become aware that more things happened in his 1,000-day presidency than typically happen in a four-year term or even an eight-year term. The amount of things happening, whether it was the Berlin Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, the Cold War brewing and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly brought the world to nuclear war, it’s also a time of hope with 15 years after World War II, the baby-boomer period where all things seemed possible. When Kennedy was killed, we faced an awakening that things were about to take a darker turn. That’s what happened with the Vietnam War and everything else.”
Gleckman said historians can only speculate on what might have been. However, from his research, Gleckman said he doesn’t believe Kennedy would have escalated the Vietnam War to the point of having 500,000 combat troops in Vietnam.
“He was someone who was far more suspicious of the military complex surrounding him,” Gleckman said. “He had experience through the Bay of Pigs and had been in a war himself.”
Gleckman said viewers might be surprised at Kennedy’s health problems.
“He had scarlet fever and then had a full series of problems as a young boy. As a teenager, he had digestive problems and then he was fainting all the time,” he said. “He was ending up in the infirmary. Then he got diagnosed with Addison’s disease. He was given his last rites three times before he was tragically assassinated in 1963.”
In 1954, Kennedy had back surgery and went into a coma.
“This was someone who knew what death was because he had been so close to it so many times, which also gave his life a sense of speed and energy that I don’t think he would have if he had not had these encounters,” Gleckman said. “This goes to the amount of things he was able to do and be and also goes to the more questionable behavior in his personal life.”
Among those interviewed was Kennedy’s niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and his nephew, Anthony Shriver. He also interviewed comedian Conan O’Brien, who had served on the Kennedy Presidential Library board of directors. However, Gleckman was born 10 to 15 years too late to interview some of the JFK administration members.
“It causes you to be a little creative to find new perspectives into the story,” he said. “I want people to walk away with the sense this was a complicated, three-dimensional person that happened to do remarkable things. There are many aspects that are inspiring and many we can be critical of and it’s fair.”
Gleckman released “We Shall Not Die Now,” a documentary about the Holocaust, in 2019 when he was 19. He then made a documentary set in the Appalachian Mountains, released in 2021.
For tickets to the sneak preview, visit heartlandfilm.org.