America Stoned: JFK

Darren Slade


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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The video sleeve for JFK.
 

Oliver Stone's JFK has already become one of the most written - about movies ever. Its detractors - of whom there are many - tend to fall into one of three camps, depending on their attitude to the film's hero, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, and his investigations into President Kennedy's murder. 

The first of these camps rejects all conspiracy theories and has dubbed the film 'Dances With Facts'. (Senator Edward Kennedy has allied himself with this view, although Robert Kennedy reportedly thought Garrison might have been onto something.(1)) The second viewpoint complains the film chose the wrong conspiracy explanation. (Anthony Summers has insisted on the anti-Castro Cubans/renegade CIA/mafia theory that formed the basis for his book on the case.(2)) 

Third - and perhaps most worrying - is the revisionist point of view that argues none of this matters, e.g. Alexander Cockburn in Sight and Sound
 

Whether JFK was killed by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy has about as much to do with the subsequent contours of US politics as if he had tripped over one of Caroline’s dolls and broken his neck in the White House nursery. (3


This kind of iconoclasm (note the relish with which the writer imagines an alternative death for Kennedy) shows the left wing converging worryingly with the right: the possibility that the military-industrial complex killed the commander-in-chief is deemed irrelevant. 

But too much of this criticism has addressed itself to Stone's choice of conspiracy theory. Whether or not one accepts the Garrison explanation, Stone uses a brilliantly bombastic approach to demolish the official version of events, pillaring the mass media and creating one of the most politically radical movies ever to come out of mainstream Hollywood. 

Do not forget your dying king

Many critics have complained about the film's view of John Kennedy. Certainly the Garrison conspiracy theory is the one that reflects JFK in the best possible light: he was assassinated by the CIA because he wanted to end America's involvement in Vietnam (which led to Stone's own traumatic tour of duty). But surely it should be possible for a film to eulogise about the unfulfilled potential of the Kennedy years without being branded 'fascist', as it is by Cockburn. 

JFK is not totally unprepared to countenance criticism of Kennedy. It concedes the possibility of a secret Kennedy- Khruschev deal to defuse the Cuban missile crisis; and it suggests the Kennedy brothers gave defence contracts to electorally desirable areas. But generally the film sees Kennedy as a liberal hero. In his climactic address to the jury trying businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to murder the President, Garrison (Kevin Costner) says: "Do not forget your dying king." A prologue narrated by Martin Sheen (who has played both John and Robert on television) tells us Kennedy was a "symbol of the new freedom of the 1960s" ) and celebrates his style with shots of the Kennedy family at work and play. 

Despite the protestations of the revisionists, this is how most of America still views Kennedy, and Stone's film targets itself at mainstream America before delivering its stark conclusion: that the whole nation should share the blame for not being alert to the conspiracy. "To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men," an opening caption says, quoting Edward Wilson. 

The film taps into America's shared memory of November 22 1963 - a collective experience mediated through television. We see the first CBS news bulletin announcing that shots have been fired; then we are introduced to Garrison through watching how he hears the news. Garrison's first reaction to being told about the shots is to go to a bar with a TV set: there, we see a cross-section of Americans watching the CBS coverage. The film re-plays the most memorable images of the news coverage: Walter Cronkite rubbing tears from his eyes after announcing the President's death; the funeral; the murder of Oswald; and later, the final speech of Martin Luther King and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. 

JFK assumes its audience to be Americans who lived through the experience or are familiar with it second hand through television images. It appeals to 'our' American-ness, and also to the audience's assumed regard for establishment values such as family. We see little John Jr. saluting his father's coffin, and the film cuts to Garrison's sad reaction: we're all supposed to feel the same way. The film presents America as a family being torn apart, and Garrison risks dividing his own family for the cause he believes in. He tells the jury: "We have all become Hamlets in our own country, children of a slain father-leader whose killers still possess the throne." 

But it would be a mistake to see the film's relationship to 'ordinary', American, family-loving audiences as a sign of conservatism. The film uses these strategies to engage the audience but then warns how democracy has fallen victim to a coup d'etat. It boldly implicates Lyndon Johnson in the President's murder, and of the intelligence agencies' cover-up Garrison says: "That kind of national security is when it smells like it, feels like it ...but call it what it is, fascism." How many other American films of recent years have even dared breath that word? 

Central to the film's appeal to mainstream America is the use of Kevin Costner in the starring role, a casting decision which adds more than just box-office pulling power. Costner, whose own politics are Republican, has epitomised American heroism in almost everything he has appeared in, even Robin Hood Prince of Thieves - so it's not hard to understand the furore the movie caused in the US when, during the climactic scene, Costner looks at the jury/the camera/America/us and says: "Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important. It's up to you." 

The bigger the lie... 

Stone has been criticised for mixing 'truth' - i.e. news footage - and reconstructions/fictionalisation in JFK. It's an odd assertion, firstly because it assumes contemporary TV footage gives us an objectively 'true' record of events and secondly because it is not based on an accurate study of the text. 

JFK is a film about reliable and unreliable texts and narrators. It couples a linear narrative about Garrison's struggle with a murder plot that unfolds through TV clips and newsreels; witnesses' testimonies; and reconstructions of actual events, speculative explanations and lies. Just as the film uses black and white scenes to dramatise Garrison's theory of the assassination, it uses similar techniques to represent some of the Warren Commission's version, including Oswald's impossibly quick exit from the schoolbook depository. Its detractors claim the film blurs the dividing line between fact and fiction - but in fact it shows how no such easily defined line exists. 

At the heart of the film and the wider conspiracy debate lies a conflict between two sets of texts. On one hand is the Warren Commission report and contemporary news stories, which told how Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin; on the other is Anthony Zapruder's 8mm home movie film, which virtually proved he wasn't. Our whole understanding of the case comes from these opposing texts. 

In JFK, the protagonists are frequently shown watching television. When Garrison interviews conspirator David Ferrie, Kennedy's funeral is on television. When Oswald is shot, a Garrison aide exclaims: "They shot him on TV. " Garrison's family watch the story develop while they eat; and his children see cartoon characters blast each other with shotguns while the adults discuss the assassination over dinner. Later, after seeing reports of two more assassinations on TV, Garrison himself becomes the focus of media attention, and he and his wife watch a documentary investigate him instead of the murderers. Here, Garrison discovers the gulf between media representations and reality. Acknowledging the power of TV, he observes: "Guess my reputation's alright with the people watching Laugh-In." 

The movie is immensely critical of the mass media, which is perhaps why it received such a critical roasting from many within the media. TV people like to claim the aftermath of the assassination as the medium's finest hour - a time when a traumatised nation held together because it was able to share its grief. JFK shows TV fulfilling this role, but it also alleges the same communication networks which united the nation helped perpetuate the "official legend".

At best, they failed to do their job and investigate properly. At worst, they were part of the conspiracy: intelligence insider Colonel X recalls seeing a New Zealand newspaper report of Oswald's background only hours after the assassination and noting it had the hallmark of a CIA 'black op'. Rejecting the idea that the mafia could have killed the President, Garrison says: "Could the mob influence the media to go to sleep? " In court, he quotes Hitler : "The bigger the lie , the more people will believe it."

Ashamed to be American

JFK is no historical document. Anyone who expected it to be one was presumably not conversant with the cinema of Oliver Stone. The director declared his intention was to create a 'counter-myth' to the official version - and the film represents an overpowering tale of the American dream going awry. 

The central thrust of the plot - Garrison's crusade to get his message heard - relates the film to a long tradition of Hollywood films about democrats who struggle to assert their right to dissent. And Stone uses a staple ingredient of this genre: the big courtroom climax. In reality, the final summing-up of the prosecution's case was done by one of Garrison's assistants, but Stone alters the facts to fit the genre. 

Several of Stone's films use individuals to evoke crises or conflicts in America (The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July) and even applies this idea to his own life. He told BBC TV’s Arena programme how he returned from Vietnam to find "an America that I had never believed was possible ...It seemed to me America at war with itself." 

Garrison reacts to Kennedy's death by saying "God, I'm ashamed to be an American"; he goes on, in the tradition of liberal questing narratives, to inspire others to improve their country. 

The scenes involving Garrison's wife (Sissy Spacek) and children have been derided for being hackneyed, but they are also part of the Hollywood tradition that Stone exaggerates for his counter-myth. Garrison tells his children: “Telling the truth can be a scary thing sometimes. It scared President Kennedy and he was a brave man. If you let yourself be scared you let the bad guys take over the country." 

Visually, too, the film is big, and heavy with symbolism. When Garrison meets CIA insider Colonel X (Donald Sutherland) to hear about the conspiracy, we see the pair dwarfed by the Washington landscape - like many classical directors, Stone uses geography to reinforce the importance and American-ness of a narrative. Shortly afterwards, Garrison visits the eternal flame at Kennedy's Arlington grave: he sees a black man and his child standing there, reminding us of the hopes that died with John Kennedy. Some find this sort of thing overblown and cliched - but Stone's film insist conservative politics are not the only ones which should get the full Hollywood works. 

REFERENCES

1. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, Robert Kennedy and His Times, Andre Deutsch, London, 1978, p. 616. Return.

2. Anthony Summers, 'Who killed JFK? The unstoned version', The Independent, February 15, 1992, p. 27. Return.

3. Alexander Cockburn,  'John and Oliver's bogus adventure', Sight and Sound, February 1992, p. 22. Return.
 
 

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