Thursday, November 21, 2013


I spent my first 24 years in Dallas, and the history of November 22, 1963 was always there, always floating in the Texas history books like a satellite.  And even though I was ten when the film was released I was fully aware of Oliver Stone's JFK, as the news surrounding his film was everywhere, all the time.  The film was released with much controversy, as barely a truth seemed to be on display in Stone's work.  Following the history of the JFK assassination through the eyes of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison was Stone's first controversial move, as Garrison has since been discredited as being a cook, a loon, and perhaps even a pedophile.  There are so many angles to approach JFK that it's almost impossible for me to make some sort of final judgment.  On one level, it is a masterfully crafted work of art, on another it is reckless and dangerous.  And yet, on even another level, it is about one man's obsessive nature; or perhaps it is a summation of American consciousness.  And much like the assassination itself, Oliver Stone's JFK is a polarizing film, great at its core, but curious regarding its place in the world.

The film itself is a masterwork, and I feel like I must defend it over and over throughout this essay.  On just about every tangible level, JFK is transcendent technically, with unforgettable performances, brilliant writing, and some truly inspired directorial choices from Oliver Stone.  It seems that there are a million possible approaches to the aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination, and yet Stone's choice for his hero was New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, whose investigation has since been debunked on just about every level.  So why Garrison?  Because, I think, Stone was not trying to teach his audience a history lesson with this film, but he was attempting to capture a general feeling in the years following the murder that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.  It seemed to ridiculous, that a drifter and a loser living in a shabby home could be solely responsible for killing the idealistic leader of the free world.  Garrison's investigation operated under this pretense, fed by "facts" that were manipulated by Garrison and his staff along the way.  The conspiracy made more sense to so many people, and Stone's film examines that study of obsession in Garrison, and that notion of paranoia in the American public.

And yet, still, what is the true purpose of Stone's film.  I watched again this week, on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary, and something about JFK feels a bit more slight these days.  It is because, in part, we are nearing such a monumental anniversary.  But the message at the heart of the picture seems to lose some of its luster today because I, along with most people, have come to the conclusion that Oswald acted alone.  All of the shots on Kennedy seem to be explainable.  So does JFK the film still mean what it used to mean, before so many forensic examinations and historical evidence has closed the books?  I don't know.  For me it does, but for the conspiracy theorists I'm sure they would say that's just what they (the CIA? Russia?  The Mob?) want us to think.

And here I go back, the other way, to celebrate the film.  What makes the JFK Assassination so fascinating is that these theories even exist in the first place.  Despite some fringe cooks, the 9/11 tragedies are fairly laid out in front of us.  But the Kennedy situation involves an entire subculture of conspiracy theorists.  So in that sense, Stone's picture is fascinating in the fact that these hairbrained ideas were conceived as fact, as truths.  There are the hobos in dress shoes, the prostitute who tried to warn everyone, the smoke on the grassy knoll, Jack Ruby, the Mob, Castro and Cuba, and on and on we go.  Stone fills the screen with these controversies, and fills each role with actors like Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, all working as pivotal characters in his investigation.  Garrison's probe into the murder pulls him into an obsessively deep world of criminals and thieves, but none of it has lasted.  The picture becomes more of a study of Garrison's unhealthy obsession than the murder of Kennedy itself, until the trial comes into focus in the third act.

Technically, there may not be a better film ever made.  While the straight story is told in color, flashbacks are in black and white with a newsreel texture, and various clips are inserted from time to time.  As Garrison and his staff reconstruct elements like the fishy photo on LIFE magazine or the history of Oswald in New Orleans, the moments are recreated and the music drives up the tension.  And what of the music?  It is perfect at times, but at other times it seems to glorify Garrison and his heroic stance.  Stone has been an adamant conspiracy theorist throughout the years, but certainly he is aware of websites like the JFK 100 which debunk 100 "facts" in his picture.  He has to realize these supposed facts are not, indeed, facts.  He has to, which sheds a different light on the picture and what it means historically.  It may never again hold the same energy as it did back in 1991, but as a cinematic work of art, JFK is masterful.