Charles Rivkin Remarks at Screening of “Years of Lightning, Day of Thunder”

May 30, 2024

Remarks as prepared on May 29, 2024.

Good evening, everyone. I’m Charlie Rivkin, Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association.

I’m deeply honored to welcome such distinguished guests to our headquarters — to mark President Kennedy’s 107th birthday with a showing of “John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”. And I want to give a special welcome to my predecessor in this job, the legendary Senator Chris Dodd.

Let me just say what a thrill it is to have the great George Stevens Jr. with us tonight, a true visionary behind not only this film, but everything from the Kennedy Center Honors to the American Film Institute and so much more.

And allow me to offer a special note of gratitude to Chris Matthews, who will conduct our interview with George after the film and who, before teaching us all about Hardball, got his start the way many in his generation did: answering JFK’s call to serve by joining the Peace Corps.

Sitting in my office upstairs is a book of personal letters sent by my father, William Rivkin, when he was President Kennedy’s U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg.

There are plenty of fascinating nuggets throughout. But one note recently caught my eye.

Back in November 1964, he wrote the following:

We “screened Years of Lightning, Day of Drums…and I’m still shaking… the JFK film can only be characterized as magnificent. It was produced by an old friend of mine, George Stevens II…”

And he went on to say: “I’m sure we had tears in our eyes for 50 of the 90 minutes this Greek Tragedy unfolded; never in my lifetime will there be another such man, elevating us in spirit and embodying both the idealism and pragmatism of America.”

Now, I’d like to claim that I remember the original screening the same way. But I was just two years old at the time. So I’ll have to take my father’s word for it. But I know that this impactful film was not just sent to Embassy Luxembourg, but all of our embassies around the world.

His sentiment, though, about this production, its resonance, its meaning – holds an enduring message about the power of cinema and its intersection with the public good:

How a film can tell stories at once inspiring and impactful…

How a film can open our eyes to the real-world effects of politics, of a President’s vision, of programs conceived in Washington and exported abroad…

How a film can unite people across cultures and borders…

How a film can lift our sights toward what our nation can be…

The nation JFK moved us to forge…

An America principled and strategic, honorable and compassionate.

On top of it all, watching “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums” 60 years later does something else achieved by movies at their best:

It forces us to think.

It summons us to wonder.

It beckons us to confront tough questions.

Can we be that optimistic country envisioned by JFK?

What role might each of us play in that endeavor?

Where might we rekindle the spirit of the New Frontier in our time – and ensure that the “glow from that fire” continues to light the world?

Are we prepared to carry the torch ignited by JFK, illuminated by figures like George Stevens Jr., enlightened by generations of public servants – asking ourselves, again, what we can do for our country and for the freedom of humanity?

My father wrote in November, 1963 when the world was still in mourning “to many here in Europe, Jack represented the intellectual curiosity of the Renaissance Princes – who drew to their sides the poets, artists, bankers, philosophers, warriors, athletes and intelligentsia of their times. Ever probing, ever questioning, ever learning – yet capable of action. He was great – so well equipped for the job. Will there ever be another in our time?”.

“Years of Lightning, Day of Drums” is a reminder of what was once not only possible, but achievable –a call that echoes today…that encourages us to do our part to build a future that’s better, fairer, more equal and more just.

That is the measure of what a great film can do.

I look forward to watching it with you.

But first, we have a real privilege to hear a few introductory words from a man my father considered an old friend. Someone who’s a living legend in the halls of Hollywood and Washington. A visionary who has always understood the importance of telling great stories to advance the public good.

Please welcome to the stage George Stevens Jr.