JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
JFK could very well be the most risible film ever nominated for an Academy Award; it may not be the worst film ever made, as there are too many possible avenues of ineptitude and evil corroding the marketplace that could potentially result in tangibly visible motion pictures, but fortunately most of us will never have to see them or even know about them or their creators. It’s essentially impossible to care about movies and not know who Oliver Stone is or what JFK is about; if you were alive when it was new, you’ll recall it was the subject of breathless news stories, innumerable parodies and even awards season hype. A box office hit and a video store phenomenon (on two tapes!). And if you weren’t, then the disgusting residue from it still permeates your media intake whether you know it or not; start with the defining ’90s artifact The X-Files, which seems to have been lifted wholesale from a stoned surfer’s weekend renting this, All the President’s Men and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But also, enterprising filmmaker Stone, who’s just like your scary Vietnam vet uncle who hoards canned goods in a converted school bus buried in his backyard except it’s somehow for “leftist” reasons, really harnessed the culture more than he defined it — he latched onto a long-lived countercultural phenomenon, non-exclusively but conspicuously popular among parties with very lax critical thinking skills, of inventing ever more intricate narratives around the murder of President Kennedy. Forever after, conspiracy talk would inevitably be tied to memories of this film, a rather ingenious cultural association that’s paid off handsomely; it’s scarcely relevant to its commercial, critical and cultural acumen that artistically and narratively, Stone’s film is a failure on absolutely every conceivable front.
None of this is brought up here to make an ideological point. While I share Stone’s feelings about the Vietnam War and war in general, I’m skeptical of the presentation of John F. Kennedy as peacenik killed for his radical views, which is hardly the only reason that I feel many of the alleged conspiracies surrounding the assassination are much ado about nothing. I feel persuaded that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crackpot; but if he was one of multiple crackpots or an entire hemisphere of crackpots, it really doesn’t deeply interest me personally in light of the much more egregious crimes of current relevance we might spend our time poring over. I wasted a respectable amount of time reading about Kennedy’s death in my youth, have since been required to waste considerably more on the same topic for my job although at least then I got paid for it, and I don’t especially want to wander through enough of that muck again to make a coherent argument about my views here, so you can consider them irrelevant to what follows. I just want it stated emphatically that I am not strictly opposed to this film because of a lack of alignment with its conclusions about the assassination. It goes a lot deeper than that, and using that as the basis for a castigation on this level would require me to be a lot more passionate on this subject than I am, by far.
Paranoia is a great subject for a character study; Stone’s intent here is undoubtedly to revise the black-hearted, singleminded obsessiveness so richly laid out in 1970s New Hollywood films like those of Alan J. Pakula, not to mention Francis Coppola’s The Conversation. A well-directed and compelling version of the story of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the district attorney who was the only lawyer ever to bring anyone to criminal trial for the Kennedy assassination, seems well within the grasp of Hollywood cinema; a great piece of conspiracy propaganda, if you’re not generous. No medium is superior to film at the compelling dispensation of bullshit presented as palpable reality, from Flaherty to Griffith to Riefenstahl; and if you don’t accept the premise that it’s bullshit, fine, imagine the Eisenstein or Pudovkin investigation of Kennedy’s death. The point is that there is undeniably a compelling story to be told here, irrespective of the viewer’s relationship to it.
But somewhere along the way, Stone appears to have carried the reasonable enough expectation of “dramatic license” to an absurd conclusion; available literature suggests that rather than interpret the contradictory evidence that’s said to surround JFK in such a manner to suggest a specific and carefully reasoned point of view, he like some disgruntled Alice in Wonderland accepts and articulates seemingly every possible theory that has ever been associated with the conspiracy legend and presents them all, simultaneously, as the forbidden Truth. The bulging mass of semi-information, a ratking of half-truths and unformed ideas, is simply thrown at the wall in a manner that inundates rather than even explicating anything on its own terms; it’s never obvious what anyone’s talking about in the pages and pages of fast-‘n’-furious dialogue, and that seems to be the intention. You’re sunken into the paranoid mire, and I’m reminded of a defense I once heard from someone who was trying to get me to watch a very lengthy 9/11 Truther video back in the heyday of that stuff: “there’s so much in there, how can you not think that some of it is true?” This sort of credulity is, for whatever reason, what Stone sought; he cannot even provide the most basically believable dramatic interpretation of real life without flying off a bridge of wide-eyed madness. And it’s impossible to make the argument that this confusion is the artistic function he sought here; his admitted goal was to open minds to the cause of reinvestigation, parroting Garrison’s Fiat justitia ruat caelum statements in the film. Would that not be an easier task with a more cohesive narrative?
The conclusion has to be that the obfuscation in the film was by design. It would take a book or two to follow the many trails here that lead nowhere, most of them so mundane that it wouldn’t be a terribly rewarding task. But such is the fragility of the film’s house of cards that a blind sweep in any given direction will generally encounter a spurious “factoid” or several, all of which are presented with great dramatic weight as though they are shocking revelations, designed like a Fox News telecast to burrow under the skin of the audience and nag at them. Take, for example, the moment when Garrison and an associate linger outside the building containing Guy Banister’s office (Banister was a wackjob racist working as a p.i. who conspiracists often link to the assassination) and solemnly muse that two of its entrances, facing different streets, reach the same destination, a complete fabrication and actually the opposite of reality, but treated here with the heart-stopping import of a breakthrough. Why? Or better yet, the controversial matter of the “Clay Bertrand” alias, attributed by Garrison to the defendant at his trial, well-to-do New Orleanian Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Stone runs with an assertion made at some point by a random cop that Shaw admitted to the alias when questioned, a weak link that was never otherwise corroborated, but the way that he stages this moment is screamingly funny, with Shaw quite nonchalantly delivering the smoking gun as soon as he’s asked if he has any other names, at which point it’s dutifully typed onto the arrest report. In reality, said report was apparently filled out prior to the arrest, which seems to have resulted in it being declared inadmissable as evidence by the judge in the trial, which creates a big moment of righteous indignation in the film.
Another example: one of the most compelling moments in the film explores the infamous “single bullet theory” of Kennedy’s killing. The Warren Commission declared that Oswald shot three shots in about nine seconds — not six as the film repeatedly attests — one of which missed, one of which was the fatal shot that hit him in the back of the head, leaving a middle shot which wounded both Kennedy and John Connally. In the conspiratorial conception of this theory, delivered well by Costner in one of the few moments when Stone seems to trust his material enough to let the film breathe, it seems quite ridiculous; as Garrison says, the bullet is required to make all sorts of bizarre manuevers in order to inflict all of the necessary injuries on both men. Except that this dismissive notion of the “magic bullet” requires one to ignore the radically different heights of the seats occupied by Kennedy and Connally, and their uneven positioning in the limousine; modern computer modeling backs up the Commission’s argument that one bullet could easily be responsible for all of that damage. But how inconvenient in the face of an opportunity to let Costner lecture us on the nefarious forces at play in Dallas, that some piece of random dumb luck could destroy so much in a heartbeat. Once you’re aware of this, the scene becomes almost unbearably smug, with the same energy as a man battering you with a photo of the moon landing demanding to know why the flag is “moving.”
Perhaps most irksome of all is one of the shocking bombshells unveiled by a “man on the inside” Stone gleefully names “X,” apparently based on ex-JFK White House official Fletcher Prouty (who, being a very above-board non-scumbag, later did some PR for the Church of Scientology). The entire ideology of the film is formed around the notion that John F. Kennedy, in National Security Action Memorandum 263 (NSAM-263), announced intent to withdraw troops from Vietnam, thus curtailing the war to come; but when he was killed, Lyndon Johnson approved NSAM-273 which walked back this removal. This is so disingenuous in every respect it beggars belief; the withdrawal as originally conceived was dependent on the absence of events like a coup d’etat that occurred twenty days before Kennedy’s assassination, yet nevertheless, the memo signed by Johnson continued to promote the same long-term withdrawal. The narrative as Stone presents lacks even a casual relationship with the truth and requires a nonsensically simplistic notion of who both presidents were, and of how the U.S. military operates. All this begs the question of how much of this stuff Stone himself believes, and how much of it is his own opportunistic pandering to an understandably on-edge populace. His defense would undoubtedly be “dramatic license,” to make his story more cinematic, but if the facts as they exist are so compelling why must one not just boost them a bit but invent them wholecloth? If his intention is merely to present a fairy story of a lonely lawyer fighting back against the system, why is it necessary to adopt the iconography of a shared lived experience like the assassination of a president? The only conclusion one can make is that a movie about a fictitious assassination that nonetheless explored well-justified concerns over the draconian and murderous United States government wouldn’t have sold so many tickets and rentals, and wouldn’t have so thoroughly invaded the cable news cycle, at a time when such free publicity was manna from heaven.
Somehow, even this fails to really address the actual frustrations of JFK as a film. There’s some theory of reality in which you watch the movie and Stone tells you all of this stuff with style, verve and urgency and it blows your mind; and then you go home and look it up and get steamed because the bulk of it is make-believe. At least in that scenario, the structure of these revelations and the drama surrounding them is compelling. But Stone is such a dreadful filmmaker, and so infatuated with his prowess as a theoretically important artist, that he can’t even let us have this. This can’t even be a well-made, fun dumb movie; it has to be a sledgehammer-force, corny, self-important, juvenile and dramatically rote dumb movie, all gawking slow-motion gay orgies (Garrison was very preoccupied in his lifetime with “the homosexual underworld”) and celebrity cameos trotted out like it’s Judgment at Nuremberg all over again. The picture opens with Martin Sheen narrating the history of the U.S. during the Kennedy administration with the affect of an announcer who thinks it’s heart-stoppingly important that he sell you the right brand of mashed potatoes; soon enough John Williams’ bombastic, sentimental score kicks in, reminding us of why that now-univeraslly beloved figure was so difficult to tolerate when his work was still ubiquitous outside the whiz-bang genre. The movie has already declared itself a monument to ego-stroking chutzpah before it even really starts.
Stone’s dramatic shortcomings were culturally familiar well ahead of this; Platoon took home the Best Picture Oscar for 1986, and the Ron Kovic biopic Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise, furthered that film’s uncomfortable mixture of unironic male bonding, mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality and the bold-colors, nuance-free exploration of war and politics. But the real roadmap for his sensibility is Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which Stone won his first Oscar for writing nearly a decade before Platoon. It’s all there: the gay panic, the slick ugliness, the unwavering, jugular-hit dramatics, the freewheeling spin of actual events into a wild and wooly tale for the masses, all packaged in a manner as loud and as friendly to the needs of macho posturing as possible. His films, including that one, are auteurist through and through; to see them is to view the entire world through Oliver Stone-colored lenses. (How else would whiny one-dimensional Republicans populate more frames than not; how else would someone find a way to complain in vaguest possible terms about “hippies running around on drugs” in a scene that takes place in 1966?)
As in all of Stone’s films, everything is on the nose, which is why Jim Morrison was such an ideal subject for him; even the lighting seems to be trying to doubly convince us of something we’ve already gleaned. All the dialogue has grandiosity such that when Costner begins reading closing statements at the trial it doesn’t seem like he’s behaving any differently. Bereft of any real sense of threat, the film travels down into realms of pure cheese: Costner researching and flashing back and indulging in the flailing frustration of Jane Fonda in Julia; Jack Lemmon beaten up in slow motion, Joe Pesci’s eyebrows, John Candy entertaining interrogators with jive talk. The relationship of all this to real life doesn’t matter much when Stone only sees it as a way to sand it all down into cute caricature.
The larger problem is that even the ostensible point of the film is diluted by the incompetence with which it usually doles it out. The integration of documentary and staged footage is the least of the concerns; Stone isn’t great at pulling it off without really straining credulity, but few directors are. Other techniques are more bothersome: on two occasions, monologues by different characters — Walter Matthau on a plane, Donald Sutherland in a park — go on for so long that Stone breaks them up with stock footage, the music video affect of which only worsens the problem of basically being forced to listen to someone drone on at length (something like half an hour in Sutherland’s case; that might be an unfair exaggeration but I learned from the best) in interruption rather than complement to whatever story we’re meant to be following. Constant use of endless expository dialogue and flashbacks to explain all of this seems like an uncinematic methodology (imagine if All the President’s Men had constantly broken into Nixon B-roll) and, in addition to just sowing additional confusion, feels lazy; so much of the film is finally comprised of actors talking, talking and talking some more over footage: sometimes documentary footage, sometimes goofy impressionistic montages. Worse yet it nearly always seems to be talking past us rather than to us, an incomprehensible and unstructured flood of meaningless information whose only purpose is to have the final effect of feeling like, well, a lot. So much, again, that there just must be something there. That’s the essence of Stone’s strategy, and it seems not only wrongheaded but unwarranted.
All of which is made worse by the absolutely terrible portions of JFK in which Stone attempts to fashion it into a domestic drama, presumably as an extra narrative hook (again, a ridiculous error in judgment that Pakula never made, though he also had the advantage of directing a movie about something that actually happened). In over 200 minutes, Stone never establishes Garrison as much of a character except insofar as he says “oh, no!” when Kennedy is shot, announces that he’s ashamed to be an American that same day (you just wait, pal) and likes to demand that people tell him if they remember their “Hemingway” and “Shakespeare,” which makes these scenes particularly hard to take — they are so vague, so familiar and so heinously half-formed that they come across as a sub-Saturday Night Live sketch about an inattentive father. Sissy Spacek, who is too good an actress for this maltreatment but you wouldn’t know it from what she does here, gets to play the pathetically undercomposed nagging wife role, reminding him it’s 4:30 in the morning and that he’s too busy making speeches to watch his kids grow up. “I think you care more about John Kennedy than your own family!” she announces, proclaiming that she wants her life back only to be confronted with a torrent of such kooky declarations to satisyingly dance around the problem as “You just don’t get it, do you!?” and “The government wants you to be scared!”. If it’s too late for Costner’s Garrison to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and kids, who cry when Mommy and Daddy fight, then at least he has the compensation that his “eyes have opened”; what’s more important, attending a dinner with your family or interviewing Pesci’s eyebrows? In the end, of course, Mrs. Garrison will appear dutifully in the courtroom just at the climactic showing of the Zapruder film, still his last and best supporter, and the picture will end on their walk into the future. They are America, or something.
It all rings ceaselessly false, like so much of Stone’s work, and builds up its self-regard on the underhanded illusion of naivete; what good does it do for Stone to parrot a line like “I can’t believe they killed him because he wanted to change things!”, to act therefore as though the pie-in-the-sky belief in an apparently miraculously competent government conspiracy is the obvious and unquestionable position of anyone who wants a better world. (In fairness to Stone, the fact that conspiracy-debunking falls so much to conservative and libertarian crackpots scarcely helps matters.) And it seems surprising that someone who flaunts his skepticism of institutions as much as Stone does would encourage so sycophantic a statement as the attribution of Kennedy as “your dying king.” In trying to get a handle on all this you’re left with the feeling of having to clean up a terrible mess; unlike Garrison, I don’t think it’s worth much more effort. The film is ideologically incoherent, silly and self-regarding, and it succeeded in every fantasy Stone had about it: generating just the right level of controversy at the time to render it inescapable as an artifact and to reframe the narrative around Kennedy’s assassination. It’s not just David Crosby-like doofuses who believe this stuff anymore; now there are plenty of people who took it on good faith that Stone was a decent enough soldier. He did, after all, dedicate the film to the youth of the planet, suggesting that they alone would be the harbingers of truth. What a nice sentiment, like the one at the end of Platoon. But the enterprise is really just cynicism; that’s Stone’s entire covert brand, and what’s worse is how many people understand this and still find reasons to praise him as a great schlock merchant, a charlatan with a conscience, whatever. JFK is the quintessential Oliver Stone propaganda piece designed for the further thriving and development of Oliver Stone’s career. It’s also the ultimate fruition of Hollywood’s — and auteurism’s — very worst promises.