Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oliver Stone's 'JFK': The Truth Will Set You Free

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy approaches, a Gallup poll found 61 percent of the American public believes someone besides Lee Harvey Oswald was involved in the killing of the president. This is the lowest number in decades, as the percentage was some 20 percent higher more than a decade ago. That shrinking number perhaps represents a kind of victory, considering it is in the era of the Internet, a veritable incubator for amateur historians and speculative theorists. Or it could be reflective of a number of issues – the natural skepticism of the public toward government and the media, the fading memory of an America largely born after the event, or the succession of 9/11 as the prime touchstone for conspiracy theories of this age. 

But 20 years ago, speculation on the Kennedy assassination reached a fever pitch in the popular culture with the release of what many consider Oliver Stone’s greatest movie, “JFK.” It inspired a generation of media devoted to the idea that the American government was involved simultaneously in vast enterprises of skullduggery and equally vast enterprises to cover up those same activities. The truth or falsity of the film’s content is not the point – “JFK” is worth watching even now simply because it is an excellent film, managing to entertain even as it tries to persuade. It has been called everything from treasonous to fantastical, but it endures after repeated viewings, not only for what it says, but how it says it. 

“JFK” begins with a prologue – Eisenhower’s farewell address, which introduced “the military-industrial complex” into the American lexicon. That is immediately followed by a brief recounting of the Kennedy Administration, narrated by Hollywood’s faux-Kennedy, Martin Sheen. The parade of stock footage, news reel and television images recount the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict. These images cast Kennedy as a glamorous, young, vital leader who was slowly moving toward peace and away from conflict. 

By the time we get to November 1963 and Dallas, Stone intercuts with a woman warning of the assassination in a hospital, along with a man suffering an epileptic seizure just prior to Kennedy’s arrival in the motorcade. These are moments filmed for the movie, but they are cut among the authentic past footage in such a way that we don’t notice it at first. The drums, the music, prepare us for the moment we know is about to arrive – yet we do not see it. The screen goes blank, we hear a gunshot, and then the immediate aftermath. This is a crucial decision. Stone has wisely understood that the story he is telling is a mystery, and it should be dramatized as such. Without showing anything, he has, in effect, wiped the slate clean of what we think may have happened in Dallas.

We then meet the New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner, sitting in his office, unaware of what is happening in Texas until one of his deputies comes in to inform him. From this moment, Stone does what William Manchester’s “The Death of a President” did – it puts the viewer in the skin of someone who lived through Nov. 22, 1963. Garrison goes to a bar to watch television coverage, and learns along with a room full of strangers – his countrymen – that the president is dead. Tears follow, but so do cheers. “God, I’m ashamed to be an American today,” Garrison says, summing up the disgust felt by many -not only Kennedy’s admirers but those who were shocked that the President could be murdered. 

But the images do not stop on the television. Eyewitness accounts from Dealey Plaza vary as to where the shots came from – the Texas School Book Depository, or the picket fence above the grassy knoll? The bar learns of Oswald’s arrest for J.D. Tippit’s murder and we see Oswald dragged from the Texas Theatre. Is it just me, or does the first appearance seek to make Oswald look sympathetic? We hear him audibly scream with pain when shoved into a police car, and we see him “emphatically deny” any charges. When Garrison learns that Oswald spent the summer in New Orleans, he begins to track the man’s movements and comes into contact with David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). As JFK’s funeral – and the shooting of Oswald play out in the background – the feeling is spooky. There is the nagging sense that something else is going on that can’t quite be pinned down – which is what anyone who experienced those four days felt. 

A conspiracy theory – indeed, any theory – is concerned with obtaining truth. But the conspiracy theory is special in that it proclaims itself as a truth distinct from a more widespread or accepted set of facts. It usually concerns itself with “the real” reasons behind specific events, or the “real” perpetrators. It gives its believers a certain standing, in that they are the only ones who “know what really happened.” They see events as they truly are, not like the rest of the world which has accepted a lie. There is something much like religion going on emotionally with the people who accept the theory – the “true” believers. To themselves, they perceive reality at a higher, more authentic level. And in the case of the Kennedy assassination, it also gives the believers a task, a quest to resolve the crime and find the person or persons responsible. My aim in stating this is not to dismiss conspiracy theorists, but it must be understood that people are oftentimes emotionally invested in the facts they embrace, as well as the facts they choose to shun. As Manchester observed, there is an emotional reason to believe that someone besides “the wretched waif Oswald” killed Kennedy. And because Oliver Stone is working in film, he understands the emotional needs of his audience. 

With the appearance of Ferrie, we see Stone’s gifts as a filmmaker. As Garrison questions him, Ferrie begins to descend into obvious fabrication. How do we know it’s fabrication? Because even as Ferrie spins his stories, we see short bursts of film, intercut into the scene with sound effects to undermine his words. By the time Garrison informs him he is being held for further questioning - because his story is “simply not believable,” we laugh at Ferrie’s response: “Really? What part?” Stone has managed, in just a few minutes, to make us laugh and reinforce his core message – that no one can be trusted to know, or tell, the truth about the murder. It is that nagging sense of something wrong  that is the reason that “JFK” is, as it was billed on release in 1991, “the story that won’t go away.” It is also why Garrison, after wading through the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report, takes up an investigation into the case years after the fact.

Stone’s intercut images also establish a pattern – as the movie unfolds, we will see recreations of events in the lives of Oswald, Ruby, Ferrie, and others, as well as the assassination recounted – though never totally until the end. Through the use of black and white footage, aged color footage to resemble home movies, and other different stock photography, we are being enticed into the illusion that we are seeing these things as they really happened. This is helped along by the familiar faces we see in cameo – Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon and others.

But the other gift Stone displays is the ability to throw an unreal amount of information at the viewer and still keep the story moving and the characters interesting without any confusion. Consider – during the course of “JFK,” we are introduced to several conspiracy theories involving Oswald, Ruby, Ferrie, Guy Bannister, Clay Shaw, the CIA, the Mafia and the military, and we are also enticed to follow the career of Jim Garrison and his staff. Yet over the course of three hours, the story never bogs down in the minutiae of the theories because the pace never slackens. The movie is briskly edited, and Stone’s script manages to pass along his “facts” in only a few seconds. If there is confusion, it plays into the movie’s central thesis of conflicting narratives, shadowy motives and unsure information – “We are through the looking glass here, people. White is black, and black is white.” 

For example, take the character of Lee Harvey Oswald. For much of the movie, Oswald is a chess piece. We see him in the homosexual underworld of New Orleans, passing out pro-Castro leaflets, haunting the anti-Communist Bannister’s office and Jack Ruby’s night club, defecting to the Soviet Union, living alone, associating with others, loving and beating his wife, holding his baby (with Garrison smiling as he considers it), acting as both hero and villain. We see his face superimposed into a created photograph as Garrison spins a theory that Oswald was an intelligence agent, possibly framed with Kennedy’s death. Stone even filmed a scene that was later cut from Garrison’s courtroom summation where the “ghost” of Oswald testifies to his innocence. There is no attempt to reconcile these conflicting Oswalds, because they match up with the words of David Ferrie – “Everybody’s flippin’ sides all the time. It’s fun ‘n’ games, man! Fun ‘ n’ games! …There’s more to this than you can dream!”

Even as the story goes forward, and Garrison makes a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza, we are confronted with the eyewitnesses to the assassination, but not the event itself. Stone does not tell us that Jean Hill’s story has changed many times after 1963, or that her timeline of questioning can’t be based in reality. He shows us Garrison flinching at the picket fence on the Knoll, and the running figure of Jack Ruby through the Plaza. We still do not see the moment of the killing, except in bursts of a second or two. We are not yet true believers. The genius of the movie is that it slowly nudges us in that direction. 

It is after the death of David Ferrie that Garrison travels to Washington, and Stone introduces us to the character of X, played by Donald Sutherland. X is the witness – the voice from the abyss who tells the audience that their suspicions are not crazy. X gives the Cold War background of the CIA – “We were good. Very good.”  Then as things begin to go badly, with the implication that some dark shadow has descended on American ideals, he recounts how Kennedy was beginning to withdraw troops tentatively from Vietnam. 

This is the sermon portion of the movie – where we are reintroduced to the idea from the opening – that the military-industrial complex has too much power in the United States and has warped the soul of the country, as best depicted in the nation’s entanglement in Vietnam. In many ways, “JFK” is the movie that sums up the Baby Boomer generation – there is an optimism in the idea of America, but the abiding belief that its greatness is an illusion perpetuated by sleeping believers and propped up by evil, ruthless men who will kill to preserve their power. There is no attempt to explain why a conspiracy exists to continue a war in Vietnam except greed in selling weapons, and the presumed endless need of the military to seek out an enemy who must be destroyed. In the years since “JFK,” one might legitimately ask why similar assassinations did not happen when bases were closed and the military was downsized following the end of the Cold War. But by the time X is finished, we want to believe in something terrible hatching in a smoke-filled room amongst dimly-lit generals and bureaucrats, something “as old as the Crucifixion.” 

Garrison leaves Washington, after a pilgrimage to Kennedy’s grave at Arlington, and we are not surprised when he is ridiculed and followed, lampooned and potentially set up because we feel he is close to the truth, whatever that truth may be. When a fatigued Garrison argues with his wife over news coverage of Martin Luther King’s assassination, or wakes her to tell her that Bobby Kennedy is dead, we are not surprised. It only reaffirms what we have already been told – the other side will stop at nothing. 

By all accounts, Garrison’s trial against Clay Shaw was a joke. But Stone isn’t documenting that trial as much as he is putting the Warren Commission’s theory of the Kennedy Assassination on trial. It’s during the courtroom scenes that he finally reveals the moment of the shooting – his theory of the case. He begins by showing the Zapruder film, which at that time still had not been widely seen. Using the actual footage, Stone then recreates his version of the shooting. Oswald is never seen – but instead Stone and Garrison theorize three teams with a triangulation of fire. To do that, they have to take apart the “Magic Bullet” theory. What’s interesting is that Stone does not use a recreation shot for this, but a courtroom approximation – an approximation which does not account for the presidential limousine’s jump seats or the angles at which Kennedy and Connally were seated. To do so would have undermined his theory. Instead, it allows him to pick apart the Warren Commission findings as invented. When it comes time to present his own theory, we finally see a recreation – which makes it “real” for us. 

The “reality” comes when we are taken to Parkland Hospital to see the emergency room treating Kennedy, followed by a recreation of the Kennedy autopsy, which feels uncomfortably authentic. When we hear a general say that he’s in charge, we are ready for Stone to reveal to us what really happened. We don’t laugh when Garrison says, “Let’s just for a moment speculate, shall we?” despite the fact that speculation is precisely what we have been doing for the last two hours. We see fake Dallas Policemen on the knoll, men in “Acme” suits in the sixth floor, and men with rifles in another building. (It’s interesting that the rifle teams are racially diverse, by the way.) Then Garrison replays the Zapruder film to recreate the motorcade, only this time superimposing his own narration, intercut with recreated shots. When he repeats that Kennedy’s head goes “back, and to the left,” we are being invited to believe this because it is crucial that we believe the shot came from the knoll. A shot from the front means a conspiracy. (The official explanation is that Kennedy’s head snaps back because of the force of the bullet striking his head from the rear right, causing a whiplash effect.) 

But the motorcade is not the end of the story, because Stone must now account for Oswald. His actions immediately after the shooting are recreated, including the murder of Tippit. But he also recreates competing theories, sowing enough doubt about his guilt here (and there is more than enough guilt linking Oswald to this crime) that when we again see Oswald carried from the Texas Theatre, we might just believe he is a sympathetic figure, framed for the crime so the real gunmen will safely get away. Mournful music plays once Ruby shoots him, and Stone gives us close ups on the seemingly unfazed faces of Dallas policemen, cigarettes dangling from their lips, who seal his doom. 

Despite all of Garrison’s eloquence, we know his case will fail. But we don’t care by this time, because by now, we know the truth. Though Stone’s movie was meant to inspire people to look for their own answers, what it instead inspires is a false sense of information, a sense that we have suddenly been given access to privileged facts, and that, in knowing the truth, we have now been set free. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


  1. The first time I saw this movie, I was still in high school, and hadn't quite learned the lesson that sometimes people who write stories are liars. Sometimes -- and this an even harder lesson to learn -- they KNOW you know they are liars, and tell their lies accordingly. In that fashion, they become something other than lies: they become fiction, which is a very different thing.

    This review is a fine argument for why the one is okay, whereas the other isn't. And Stone's movie is A-okay by me: it's entertaining as heck, and unless you are a hapless high-schooler (or a hapless adult, perhaps) there's surely no way you watch a movie like this and take it for the gospel. What it IS is deliberately constructed mythology, and as such, it is fairly fascinating. It's been too long since I saw it.

    I watched the recent television movie "Killing Kennedy" (which was okay) and found myself thinking primarily about "JFK" and "11/22/63" the whole time! I actually found myself thinking, "Hmm...Jake is listening to every word of this right now...!" and sort of felt vaguely ashamed of myself. Not really, though; that was a great novel, and every bit as delicious a bit of myth-making as "JFK," if not moreso.

    Final note: "JFK" has an awesome John Williams score. Not one of his more heralded works, but it probably ought to be.

    Great review!

    1. "JFK" is one of Williams' most innovative scores. There's the symphonic main title, the track "The Conspirators" that was totally ripped off for the theme to "The Usual Suspects," the "Drummers Salute" that plays over the prologue, and the "Arlington" theme which anticipates his work in "Schindler's List." Awesome.

    2. Good job on mentioning "The Conspirators" -- that is a fine cue. (And one even Williams himself couldn't help ripping off; there's a cue in "Jurassic Park" that is essentially the exact same set of ideas.)

      I also can't help but marvel at that cast for "JFK." That might be one of the top ten casts to any movie ever filmed.

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