Oliver Stone: JFK (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: JFK (1991)

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Oliver Stone has a few questions about the assassination of John F. Kennedy that he would like to ask you.  He presents this through a recreation of the investigation performed by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) into the grassy knoll and those mysterious shots.  Is he crazy, or are you just not asking the right questions?The theoristsKyle Commentary BannerJFK is strong, pure film-making that proves how much of a movie's success lies in its ability to convince the audience of its reality in the moment. It's an especially fitting case of form following function, as its real topic is the very nature of our attraction to and predilection for the types of conspiracy theories its main character so strongly argues, which to succeed require absolute conviction in the moment and little to no thought afterward. The movie makes it impossible not to be drawn into New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's investigation and its increasingly controversial findings. Part of the reason for this is that we are primed by the very experience of seeing a movie is to take the events of a film onscreen as a fiction—maybe as a fictionalized representation of reality, but a type of fiction nonetheless. This is perfect for an examination of conspiracy theories, because we as the audience crave the kind of neatly fit-together yet appropriately surprising sorts of explanations they can offer.

One of Stone's techniques is to cut interviews and conversations with shots of action that correspond to, but do not exactly mirror, those being discussed, and while we know that what we see in one sequence may not be “what actually happened,” we're all too ready to accept it as truth. Take, for example, a conversation between Garrison and his investigators during dinner: We simultaneously get a member of his team explaining how the shadows are suspiciously inconsistent in the famous photo of Oswald posing with his rifle, cut with separate closeup shots of hands cutting up pictures and assembling what turns out to be said photo.

If the scene played simply as Garrison's investigator showing the magazine cover and pointing out that the shadows didn't match—well, you're right, that's weird. But edited as it is with scenes we take initially as fact—because we don't know what they're leading to—it becomes an “aha” moment, a moment where the only possible conclusion is that the photo was faked, a conclusion that in turn validates many other previous conclusions. (It could also be that we can't evaluate the accuracy of such a photo at a glance because the human brain has trouble reconciling representations of 3D space in a 2D plane, but that doesn't matter at the time because the shadows!)

This effect is essential to the movie's success. One of the things JFK does so perfectly is chain the audience along as it takes small, believable discoveries garnered from interviews and investigations and builds from them a possible chain of events that, as the product of these small details, also seems reasonable. By the time we've reached a grand conspiracy in which seemingly everyone but Kennedy was plotting his death, we have trouble understanding how factual details about a private investigator's office sharing an address with Oswald's printing press or a photo of homeless men near the crime scene who seem “too clean” have led us here.

For this reason the movie works as a great entertainment, even as it consistently redraws a line between semi-reasonable speculation and unrestrained silliness—the point may well be just how easy that line is to move if the right arguments are presented in the right order. I think its real value is a little deeper than that, but that's tied to the question of its controversy, and I can't seem to shut up as it is.

What say you?A holy daddy-oAndrewCommentaryBannerI say that we've watched a hypnotizing and gripping nonpartisan version of a modern pundit standing in front of a blackboard rambling on for over three hours.  The difference is that today's media presenters stopped at unconnected points and say, "Just asking questions" like opportunistic cowards.  Here the entire film works with incredible plausibility because we're never allowed, for a second, to stop and let someone ask us how the points connect because it has more faith in us as an audience to keep up.  This is the second film that we've watched that shows how the modern media artifice was able to pick up on a specific line of presentation or reasoning and turn it around for entertainment and influence.

The larger point that I've been slowly arriving to with Oliver Stone's films is one that I wasn't expecting, especially since I was the less excited of us two to start this at the beginning.  With admittedly varying, but mostly exceptional, quality Stone has been showing how media has shaped our perception of history and how we can use the same warped experience to shape others.  We joked about The Hand but it was about an artist trying to present his philosophy to the world through comics.  Then a photographer with war.  A fighter with "innocence".  Money.  Radio.  Propaganda.  Now, finally, film.

What a film.  The steady shots of those opening scenes let us drink in Costner and crews amazing recreation of America's mourning period.  The not-quite-sepia tone reminds us that we're in the past and reliving these tragic times with the full screen and majesty granted to these individuals.  They lived it, let them have their greatness.

As color filters in experimentation follows suit.  As Costner probes and questions the color filters in more.  Stock footage mixes with, at times, amateur reenactments based on faulty memory and even the figures that we are presented with seem too cartoonish to be real.  How else can we accept John Candy's brilliant cameo as a hustler on the wrong side of Looney Tunes?

Because it's how Garrison chooses to remember things.  We're entering the age where the larger than life figures seem less so because we have access to them all the time.  But for Garrison there's this Zapruder film, a scant collection of witnesses, just enough whisperings from the government to think he's onto something, and a film willing to recreate every narrative impulse he has regardless of whether it is truth or fiction.

That's why the final hour, not just the trial scenes but the paranoia leading up to it, are so amazing.  This was the era where anyone up to and including the President could die at someone's hand.  Garrison wanted a story to make sense of a death that racked him to his core and was able to present it on the national stage.  Why didn't he spend as much time on Bobby?  Because death came knocking to him once and he already had a story to build.

Stone's confidence in mixing real, willingly unreal, stock, fact, speculation, and straight guesses is amazing.  No matter what's to come, he embraced the go for broke sensibilities of American '70s filmmakers that paid off in spades.The truth isn't so good at setting you free

 So, where’s the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryMuch of the immediate controversy, weirdly enough, seems to simply lie in people's bizarre demands that movies about real events act as nothing but dramatic recreations of said events. This is absurd for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that people experience events, especially those on a large national or global scale, differently. Much of the outcry here regarded a “how dare you” attitude toward Stone for having the audacity to put arguments its detractors regarded as exploitative fictions into a fictional film.

The controversy is representative of the very thing the movie is trying to show—when people agree on a narrative, be it through faith, tradition, or force of media, they will do almost anything to avoid challenging its validity. The controversy wasn't that Stone tried to legitimize left-field, crackpot, potentially dangerous theories—that may have been worthy of such a response—it was that he would even consider them at all.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI get into this conversation a lot about films in general because movies, like any good art form, are political.  Some are explicitly less so than others but they all represent a specific value set and the director ultimately has to choose what idea of the world they are going to represent.  This time it was the idea that our own government was responsible for the death of its elected leader - which for a film shooting at the mainstream like this is audacious to say the least.  That he parlayed the film back into another attempt at getting records from the shooting released is a testament to just how effective and divisive this film was and continues to be.Quite the party

 How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryBy tapping into the intense need to understand something that defied explanation but had immense cultural significance. As you said, the driving force of the movie is Garrison's need to deal with how Kennedy's death has shaken him—that's perhaps why he's so willing to accept without question almost everything he is presented with. Conspiracy theories are often easily satisfying because everything fits together just right.

This may be why we enjoy thrillers, in which terrible things happen but we watch safely from a distance, taking comfort in our ability to “figure it out” and apply reason to something that resembles an unreasonable world. Here Stone has preserved what that desire must have been like for people living in the U.S. at the time—shortly following not only the assassination of JFK but also of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—to have some answer to what seemed like such unreasonable events. The real audacity of JFK in that sense is to suggest that there could be greater comfort in believing that your own government secretly killed its leader than in living with the possibility that a scarce few disturbed individuals can cause such tremendous damage.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryConsidering that we had the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings ahead of us as well as 9/11 those are some prescient thoughts.  Heck, we have films like Loose Change (endorsed by David Lynch!) and Kony 2012 that are attempting to inform on the same lines as JFK.  Not all art needs to be pleasing and easy to digest so long as it allows people to process the world in a way that keeps them sane and from hurting others.  This doesn't mean I think that the creators of Change or Kony are crazy, or even that talented, but it's all coming from the same place of obsessive need that has at least found a healthy form of expression.Proper motorcade

 That’s fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI think it's the best we've seen from Stone so far. It's incredible to me how many people cite as a reason to attack this movie the fact that they question the accuracy of the theories presented. What does that have to do with anything? Talk to me about that when the man writes a history book.


Tiny Andrew CommentaryI have an inkling that if Stone had opened this film with a page from the Coen Brothers playbook and said that it was "Based on a true story" that it would ignite even more fury today.  JFK is leagues ahead of the films we've watched so far with Platoon being the only possible exception if we can digitally insert Tom Cruise in Charlie Sheen's role.  The fact that I still talk to people that are upset about it goes to show just how deeply Stone's "history as experience through violent collage" method works here.

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Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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