[20 November 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When it was released in 1991, it was simply seen as another Oliver Stone screed set to the horrific events of history. Riddled with ridiculous conspiracy theorizing and undeniable artistic merit, it would soon become a talking point for those on either side of the Warren Commission controversy. Those who wanted to be believe in a second gunman, the grassy knoll, and a high ranking government cover-up got all that… and much, much more. Those satisfied with the single bullet theory and the lone assassin explanation viewed it as yet another way for Stone to sell his homegrown paranoia while dressing up fantasy in the falsehood of “facts”. Still, some 22 years later, JFK remains a masterpiece, a motion picture manipulation of one of the United States most tragic times argued by some as an affront in that it convolutes truth in order to tell an alternative version of what possibly happened 50 years ago in Dallas.
Yes, in just a couple of days we will memorialize that moment in Dealey Plaza, TV and the typical social media outlets letting us revel in remembrance and the reality that, outside of a few attempts, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the last sitting President actually killed in office. Sure, Gerald Ford literally dodged a couple of bullets and the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life ended in more Jodie Foster jokes than anything else, but the murder of JFK, no matter the various parameters of who, what, when, where and how, stands as the last great American mystery, unexplainable even with film footage capturing the gruesome moment when the leader of the free world was felled by a sudden, sickening, rifle shot. The Zapruder Film, perhaps one of the most important piece of celluloid ever accidentally captured, remains both a blueprint and a bluff, its answers as unclear and yet as certain as anything in Stone’s sensational film.
Using the book by Jim Garrison which explained the New Orleans District Attorney attempt to bring various “conspirators” in the case to justice, Stone structured his three hour epic as a combination of explanation and indictment. Providing ample backstory into Kennedy’s importance to both a post-Eisenhower country and a growing military/espionage industrial complex, Stone recreated the grotesqueries of the day before launching into his directorial diatribe. In essence, a group of NOLA outsiders, including businessman Clay Shaw, associate (and anti-Communism agitator) David Ferrie, and various inside individuals are accused of working within a CIA spy game to bring down the Executive branch and continue their corrupt control of a growing Cold War world. The mob plays a part. So does Cuba. Garrison would eventually bring about the only prosecution of anyone allegedly associated with the JFK assassination, and while he lost the case, he became a benchmark for everyone who believed/believes that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone.
Opinions of the film itself are fairly consistent. As cinema, the movie is breathtaking. As investigative journalism, it’s junk. Often compared to Alan J. Pakula’s equally masterful All the President’s Men, critiques comment on how, while in the right place, Stone’s heart seems stuck in fabrication. During interviews and pre/post Awards junkets, the director continued his claims about authenticity and accuracy, but eventually conceded that his main intention was to get the Congress to release the long off limits files on the whole matter. In the aftermath of such material’s mainstreaming, they did just that, providing more fodder for the film’s veracity or lack thereof. Since its release, others have gone out of their way to dismiss the various theories and forensic ideas in the film. Perhaps the most telling was a computer recreation that “proved” a single bullet could have made all the obtuse and illogical wounds complained about by the main challengers to the Warren Commission version of events.
Still, when a movie can make such a difference, when it can literally change the cultural conversation and reopen a case for further examination, that’s not just art imitating life, that’s the medium making news. Better still, JFK can play fast and loose with the various aspects of the event, but there is no denying that the movie manages the near impossible. It casts real, significant doubt. Sure, it’s hard to imagine a Donald Sutherland like Black Ops guys spending 25 minutes explaining everything to Garrison out in the open near the Washington Monument in a suspicious DC, but his main theory is what’s important. Before considering a conspiracy, you have to ask, who would benefit, who was capable of such an act, and who had the power to cover it up. To this day, these questions remain the core of any lone assassin denial and the reason many question Warren and his conclusions.
As the old adage goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and in this case, JFK has set many blazes that, 22 years later, still have a hard time being put out. A recent poll puts the number of people who believe in a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy at 61%. USA Today, which published the figure, also made it clear that this was the lowest number in years, but also a vast majority. It also argued that, thanks to Stone, the 1992 The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act declassified 98% of the unreleased documents in the Warren Commission’s investigation. In 2017, we will supposedly get the rest. When a movie goes from mimicking history to making it, it has to have some valuable beyond entertainment. Even more telling, the fear that Stone’s “version” of events would become the accepted narrative of that day on November 22, 1963 has apparently not played out. The number was in the high 70s before the film (as high as 81% in 2001). A drop of near 20% is telling.
Of course, Stone hasn’t helped his case much. In recent years, his confrontational approach has turned into a punchline, especially as his creative output has become less and less significant (have you seen Savages?). In fact, his recent Showtime series The Untold History of the United States was met with a kind of cliched overreaction that has come to represent the view of the public’s perception of the director as of late. In 1991, JFK seemed like the start of something verging on the truth. Today, in a climate of deniers and debatable political affiliations, Stone’s studied masterwork has become a bellwether for belittling the status quo without completely thinking such an assault through. Dismissing this movie would be a mistake, however. Two-plus decades later, JFK still matters because the man it celebrates (the President, not the prosecutor) still does. He represents promise cut short and possibilities that can never play out.
Stone did something similar with his film. He offered up conjecture as concrete evidence and alternatives as an answer. He didn’t alter history so much as open it up for analysis, a rarity in the realm of movies. Argue with JFK all you want, but you cannot deny its power or impact. We may never know what really happened 50 years ago on a crisp Texas day, but one thing is certain. Silence only supports the everyday interpretation of what happened. By braving the backlash that would come with such suggests, Stone lent a seemingly legitimate voice to years of frustration and foolhardy theorizing. JFK may not be “right”, but by raising questions and not settling for the standard answers, it’s the right thing to do.