“You’re the one that makes the beautiful movies.”

That’s what Abraham Zapruder’s assistant, Lillian Rogers, told him on the morning of November 22, 1963. It was meant as a gentle retort. Zapruder had left his movie camera at home, thinking that the crowds lined up for President Kennedy’s motorcade would be so thick and jostling he wouldn’t have a chance to get the sort of footage that would live up to his amateur but fastidious filmmaking standards. He told Rogers she should use her own camera instead. But Rogers and several other colleagues at Jennifer Juniors, the Dallas knockoff-dress-making business that Zapruder owned, convinced him it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to film the president as he passed by.

So Zapruder drove home and got his camera and returned by 11:30. It was a Bell and Howell, loaded with what was known as double 8-millimeter color film. It took silent movies; sound was still a rare feature for nonprofessional cameras. It was powered by a hand-cranked winding mechanism, which advanced the film at approximately eighteen frames per second.

Zapruder, a Russian-born Jew, had emigrated to the United States with his family when he was fifteen, fleeing the pogroms in his native Ukraine. He had an alert, owl-like face and was sensitive about his appearance; he grew upset when, after the assassination, reporters described him as “pudgy” and having short legs. He suffered from vertigo and was worried when he climbed up on a concrete abutment in Dealey Plaza that he might lose his balance. He asked his receptionist, Marilyn Sitzman, to stand behind him and make sure he didn’t fall.

The fact that he didn’t fall, and that he somehow kept his hands steady and kept the film rolling as the horror erupted in front of him, is a big part of why we know what happened that day, and the only way we can witness it. But it came at a traumatic personal cost. Darwin Payne, who was a young reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, raced on foot the five blocks from the newspaper’s office to Dealey Plaza. He interviewed the sobbing Zapruder half an hour or so after Kennedy was shot, when the nation was still waiting to learn if he had survived. “I got film,” Payne scribbled in his notebook as he recorded Zapruder’s anguished words. “ I saw it hit in head. They were going so fast. . . . Slumped over with first shot. Second shot hit him in head. It opened up. Couldn’t be alive.”

These are some of the details recounted in Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film, a recently released book by Alexandra Zapruder, the granddaughter of the unassuming dressmaker who was known to his office staff as Mr. Zee. It is a detailed account of how the film was made, how it was guarded, sold, exploited, and preserved. It is also a story about a family that was somewhat enriched but also deeply burdened by the happenstance of its patriarch’s being at precisely the right place at one of the hinge points in American history.

Reading the book in November, just before the fifty-third anniversary of the assassination, sent me back to watching the film, and watching the film sent me back to—I’m not sure where. For a week or so I viewed it over and over again in the enhanced digital format created from the now-ancient frames of the original film that are housed in the National Archives. There was nothing new to see, and I wasn’t particularly looking for anything. Those 486 frames are so familiar to most of us they’re less like historical documentation than a confirming memory: Oh yes, that really happened. It wasn’t just a collective nightmare.

The digital improvements make the film’s colors more vibrant, its images sharper, and its action more gruesome. But they can’t erase the passage of time. Eight-millimeter film is an artifact now, an artifact that carries a nostalgic charge for those of us old enough to remember the days when home movies were silent and shaky and blurry. Those films, denatured analogues of the events they depicted, kept us at more of a distance than the smartphone videos of today.

As I watched the Zapruder film again, I felt that distance but also—having lived through that time and that technology—a paradoxical immediacy. I saw the wooden rectangle of the intercom speaker hanging all by itself on the bare blue wall of my high school classroom in Corpus Christi, the principal’s tremulous voice emanating from the mesh circle at its center: “Attention, students”—a long, long pause—“President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.” I heard my little sister’s strange laugh when I came home from school that day, her terrified attempt to locate the emotional wavelength of an event she could not comprehend.

Over the past almost five and a half decades, history has made room not just for the investigators of the Warren Commission but for generations of researchers and theorists who regard the Zapruder film as, first and foremost, something to be entered into evidence. What about the four missing frames, or the two that show splicing (tampering!) marks? What about the mysterious gunman whose ghostlike image is visible between the sprocket holes? What about when Kennedy raises his fists to his throat after being hit by the first shot? Is he experiencing a spasmodic reflex known as a Thorburn position, or is that just another lie we’ve been told to distract us from the fact that that first bullet created a “non-transit wound” and therefore there had to have been another shooter firing from the grassy knoll?

There was a time when I entertained a mild sort of Bigfoot/Loch Ness Monster curiosity about this kind of conspiracy speculation, but I’m long past that, and long past the point where I think the Zapruder film is going to reveal anything other than the heartbreaking, nation-breaking moment it captures. It’s not something to investigate, just something to steel yourself for and behold, hoping that in watching it you are a citizen performing a solemn and necessary task, and not just a voyeur of long-ago violence.   

There’s a sequence in the film, beginning at about frame 203, when the president, waving from his limousine, disappears behind a sign for Stemmons Freeway that blocks the view of Zapruder’s lens. We can see only the backside of the sign. For about a second and a half, a gray rectangle dominates the screen and hides the president and Jackie Kennedy from our sight, as well as Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, who are riding in front of them. When the car emerges once again into full view, both the governor and the president have been hit. Connally twists to his right, his face contorted in pain. Kennedy’s fists are at his neck, his elbows out. His wife stares at him with surprise and concern, but not yet with the howling disbelief that will possess her a few seconds later. A man standing on the curb as the car passes is still waving, apparently unaware of what has just happened. Then, a few ticks of the cosmic clock later, as Kennedy slumps toward his wife, there is frame 313. “Head opened up” is the phrase that Zapruder used again and again to describe what he saw.

His film confirms it, with shocking, obscene intimacy: something we should never have seen, should not allow ourselves ever to see now. But we do, or at least I did. Fifty-three years after the assassination, as I kept replaying the film, primed each time for that awful ballistic blast, I focused on the gray backside of that obscuring freeway sign. Kennedy slips behind it as a living man. He emerges from it a wounded one with roughly a hundred frames of Zapruder’s film—less than five seconds—left to live.

But I still can’t shake off a strange crosscurrent of possibility while the presidential limousine travels behind that sign. Out of sight, it almost seems as if it’s making a detour around the rules of destiny, entering some kind of time tunnel or wormhole through which history might swerve onto another track. That, for me, is the persistent power of Abraham Zapruder’s accidental, alchemical home movie. It recaptures the new and dreadful sensations I felt that day at the age of fifteen, when the world seemed to be pulsing back and forth between what had just happened and what still might, somehow, by some benevolent magic, be undone.