Writing About Film

JFK, 1991JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Unpublished, 1992
note: This piece is unfinished, but I think there's enough here to make it worth sharing.

In a few weeks, The Nation magazine will be hosting a panel titled “Hollywood and History.” The ostensible reason for this meeting of minds, of course, is the movie JFK, and the guest of honor will be director Oliver Stone. The Nation’s event, which is already almost sold out, proves that the furor over the film is far from fading, even though the movie opened around the country more than two months ago. And despite the film’s more than three-hour running-time, it continues to draw large audiences as well, still one of the top ten movie draws around.

JFK is the journalistic event of the season, and in all the excitement, everybody feels compelled to comment upon it — most usually as political speech and not as film (which may in fact attest to its powerful effect, as it otherwise would have passed by without the notice it has received). The movie begs the question of why would there have been a conspiracy by the government to assassinate the president, but just as significantly, the film’s reception begs the question why certain people find the movie so objectionable. It seems that everyone, from every political camp, has a reason to attack the film, uniting the media world around a genre most find too negligible to notice: cinema.

In fact, JFK is, in the tradition of Stone’s best films, a beautifully crafted piece of suspense, remarkably so because it is burdened in ways other films are entirely free: the telling of history. And this history, even the elements which are accepted as fact by all sides, is clumsy, dull, and almost entirely without dramatic weight. Without it, however — the shots of downtown New Orleans, the stacks of documents and testimony transcripts — the film would lack the structure upon which to base its assault on the findings of the Warren Commission, the panel ordered by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the circumstances surrounding Kennedy’s murder. If anything, JFK is too detailed, overly concerned with following Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. To a (previously unexposed) viewer, JFK could be a claustrophobic, unrelenting steambath, as Stone beats the audience over the head with his golden hammer, mixing documentary and staged footage, flashbacks, imaginary scenarios, and detail after detail after detail from every possible participant and witness.

My criticism of the film lies in the elements that are conveniently ignored in deference to the political fistfight centering around the conspiracy question. The film’s true flaws lie in its characterization, the single most egregious being its representation of President Kennedy’s character. As portrayed by Stone, and admittedly so, Kennedy and his wife Jackie are perfect — no cheesy shot of the happy couple and their family is spared, no laudatory comment missed; he is the father king, the man who would bring peace to the world, make peace with the Russians, and withdraw troops from Vietnam. Stone’s fatuous portrayal of Kennedy weakens the film because it points to Stone’s inability to see an alternative to the conspiracy upon which he centers: obviously the entire world was crazy and out to get this wonderful prince. This is the crux of the film, however, the establishment of opinion as verifiable fact that JFK was one man against the military-industrial complex — without it, the why of the conspiracy remains unanswered!

Stone’s fixation upon Kennedy’s heroic character, or at least the myth surrounding it, fits his earlier such homages, most recently to another dead sixties icon, The Doors’ Jim Morrison. Garrison, and by virtue of the film’s reception, Stone himself, are martyrs to the truth, the most noble of ideals. This is the male romantic at best — willing to sacrifice everything, everything, for the pursuit of the truth. Stone obviously loves the challenge and the attention he is receiving, especially his underdog role, though all the money rolling in doesn’t hurt. In addition, it’s not as if this wasn’t expected; Stone took on the project knowing quite well who would be lined up against it. This is his character, and his movies fit it: overwrought, muscular and brutal, with no room for sensitivity, especially for the other.

As usual, the other gets it pretty bad here: Sissy Spacek, who plays Garrison’s wife, Liz, is symbolic of the world united against Garrison; she nags and shrills at him for neglecting the mundanities of his life (i.e, her and his children), but the film provides no room to engender any sympathy from the audience for her unwanted sacrifices. Gay men get the shaft — so to speak — as well: New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw is given a nasty portrayal by Tommy Lee Jones — he played murderer Gary Gilmore, don’t forget — but it’s not enough that he associated with those whom Garrison suspects killed Kennedy, we also get to see him cavorting about his Victorian mansion in makeup and Roman regalia to confirm he’s a sleazoid. The relevance of Shaw’s homosexuality, other than that his friends — surprise! — happened to also be gay, remains unapparent, and supposedly, Stone’s homophobia had to be restrained by co-writer Zachary Sklar or he would’ve gone even further in these disgusting attacks. Stone insures we get the idea by having Kevin Bacon’s prostitute character solicit the Puritan straight-arrow Garrison while spouting neo-Nazi slogans as he finishes his affidavit about Shaw’s involvement with Kennedy’s murder.

Another scene illustrates the depth of Stone’s single-minded fixation on his own vision: at one point Garrison stands before Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, uncertain about his resolve to continue the investigation against the odds he faces. Just then, he spies a black man and his son standing reverently before the grave. The moment inspires Garrison to continue the fight. This gratuitous moment is merely the most egregious example of Stone’s pandering and caricaturing of black folks in the film: Kennedy was their messiah, their savior, and Garrison’s job was to protect them from being exploited by the ruling class. A similar moment shifts the motif to Garrisons’ own small children — he has the same motivations to protect blacks as he feels for his children.

In the end, the movie’s power is its ability to leave the audience with an articulated unease; Americans are talking and arguing about the assassination again. What seems to be most important to Oliver Stone is that people believe him, that they feel that whatever the truth, there had to be some sort of conspiracy by members of our very own government. Whether it be after-the-fact or no, Stone’s paranoia takes on an affirmed aura as we join him. The film has done more to get America wondering again than any event since Watergate, and there are signs that the government is listening; much has made recently of House debates about opening the infamous sealed files from the Warren Commission and the 1978 findings of the House Select Committee, as well as the abuse Republican Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter has been taking since he was badmouthed by Costner’s character in the film for devising the much ballyhooed "magic bullet" theory.


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