Over on the new Roger Ebert website, they have what they call a “Movie Love” questionnaire that they give to writers for the site. After reading one of them (thanks to my friend Ali Arkan linking it), I decided to try and do the questionnaire for myself, and I have to say, it’s a lot tougher than it may look.
1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Basically, I grew up in two places; Somerset, New Jersey, where I lived from when I was five years old to when I was about 13, and Walnut Creek, California (we moved there because my father got a job in San Francisco), where I lived till I was 18, after which I went off to college in Washington state (though, of course, I did come home for vacations and summer, except for the summer after my junior year, when I stayed in Washington). Each place had its own charm – in New Jersey, we had the biggest backyard, since we lived on the corner, so we played a lot of baseball and football games there, and we got to go to New York City a lot, which I loved, while California had the nicer weather, and the high school where I went was just a couple of blocks from where I lived. That said, going to California after New Jersey was a culture shock in a lot of ways, not least of which was because I didn’t want to move at all. I had a very bad experience in 8th grade for a lot of reasons, but that was one of them. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school, when I made a number of older friends, that I started to enjoy myself out there.
2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
I say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating; my father is the reason why I became a movie fan. When I was growing up, I was more into sports. I did occasionally go to movies in New Jersey, and my parents took me to animated Disney movies, but that was it. But when we moved to California, my father bought a video disc player – the movie equivalent of a record player – and would bring home a movie almost every night. Now, my father had very particular taste – he didn’t like many movies made after 1960, with some exceptions (Woody Allen films, The In-Laws, Breaking Away), he didn’t like violence in movies, and he definitely didn’t like profanity in movies – but within those restrictions, I got exposed to a lot of great movies growing up. He introduced me to Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Frank Capra, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Fred Astaire and other musicals, romantic comedies, and more. While I have gone my own way as far as movies go – of course I watch a lot of modern movies, I no longer have much taste for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals he loved (though other musicals I still love), and I had to discover film noir, gangster films, and Westerns on my own – I still am a big fan of much of what he introduced me to, and its probably thanks to him (as well as the fact we didn’t have a color TV until we moved to California) that I willingly viewed black-and-white movies at a time when people my age, and teens in general at any time, were stereotyped as not liking black-and-white. Also, my father taught me how to look at a movie critically, and also would highlight particular scenes.
One I remember is from Twelve O’Clock High - an odd movie for him to recommend, as his dislike of movie violence usually kept him away from combat movies – specifically the scene of the morning when Gregory Peck assumes command of an army bombardier unit. Peck’s character is a general, but he starts out sitting in the front seat of the car, the driver stops the car for a little bit, the two of them get out of the car and walk a few feet, and Peck lights the cigarette of the driver and, in a friendly manner, calls the driver by his first name. But after a few moments, Peck throws away his cigarette and says, “All right, sergeant,” to which the driver says, “Yes sir,” and when they head back to the vehicle, the driver holds the back door open, and Peck gets in. It’s a subtle way of showing how someone assumes command, and my father was smart to pick up on it and point it out to us.
3. What’s the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
I honestly am not sure. As I said before, I got taken to a lot of Disney movies when I was a kid (and am somewhat resistant to them today for that reason), so I think The Rescuers is the first one I remember seeing, when I was nine. The first movie I went to see in the theater that made an impression on me, however, was The Muppet Movie, simply because I was a fan of the TV show.
4. What’s the first movie that made you think, “Hey, some people made this. It didn’t just exist. There’s a human personality behind it.”
Probably Annie Hall, because I had practically memorized his stand-up album by that point, and I recognized some lines from his routines in the movie. Also, the way he told the movie, even though he later said more of it was exaggerated than people first believed, you could tell this was coming from somewhere deep inside him.
5. What’s the first movie you ever walked out of?
I Am Sam, which really offended me. Technically, you could say the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, but that doesn’t really count because I snuck into that partway through.
6. What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?
Some Like it Hot. Still my favorite comedy of all time.
7. What’s the saddest film you’ve ever seen?
Leaving Las Vegas. That movie just took me apart when I saw it. When I heard someone in the audience trash it afterwards, it’s the first time I really wanted to inflict pain on someone just because I disagreed with them.
8. What’s the scariest film you’ve ever seen?
My standard answers to that used to be the original Night of the Living Dead (even though I’m generally not a fan of zombie movies) and Cronenberg’s version of The Fly. I would also add Audition to that list now.
9. What’s the most romantic movie you’ve ever seen?
Casablanca, the one and only.
10. What’s the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
In general, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, simply because of how they were able to combine the silly with the sophisticated, and in a way I hadn’t seen done before. As far as U.S. television (or drama) goes, Homicide: Life on the Street, before network interference almost completely damaged it, was the first show where I could say about a particular episode (“The Night of the Dead Living”, “Three Men and Adena”), “That was as good, if not better, than most movies I’ve seen.”
11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?
For fiction, William Goldman’s Marathon Man (the first novel with references I got), C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy. For non-fiction, Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and Richard Corliss’ Talking Pictures, which looks at Hollywood screenwriters from the 30′s to the early 70′s.
12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
Quadrophenia, by The Who, is not my favorite album of all time (that would be Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but it is my desert island album. It is about just about everything I’ve ever felt in my life (even though my background was completely different from the protagonist of this story), and more than any other recording artist I’ve listened to, The Who know how to capture emotions like that, which is why they mean to me more than any other group or singer.
13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
Requiem for a Dream, which I think is brilliant, but which is so haunting and disturbing. And Audition, which is disturbing for a different reason.
14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?
I watch Miracle on 34th Street every Thanksgiving and It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas (the originals, natch), partly as a family tradition, partly because I love both movies, so they would probably be the answer.
15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
My parents were pretty over-protective in this regard, and didn’t let me go to one until I turned 17, so I think the first R-rated movie I saw was Apocalypse Now, which we watched in English class because we were reading Heart of Darkness. I thought it was brilliant until Brando showed up, though the Redux version gives him context.
16. What’s the most visually beautiful film you’ve ever seen?
The Tree of Life; though that’s not the only reason I like it, that’s the main source of its power.
17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Past: Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, James Stewart. Present: George Clooney, Al Pacino.
18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Past: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck. Present: Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain.
19. Who’s your favorite modern filmmaker?
There’s a lot of them I liked, but I’d probably have to go with Paul Thomas Anderson.
20. Who’s your least favorite modern filmmaker?
That’s easy; Michael Bay.
21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
This is from a while back, but the Laurence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin Bad Company (as opposed to the 70′s Western with Jeff Bridges, or the action/comedy from 2002 with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins) got pretty tepid reviews when it came out in 1995, and I think it’s great, nasty, trashy fun.
22. What film do you hate that most people love?
I’m not really comfortable with that question, because it’s usually an invitation for people to say, “Oh, look how I’m slamming this movie everyone loves just so I can look cool!” That said, except for Amour, I’m not a fan of Michael Haneke, and I know The White Ribbon was considered especially good and thoughtful; I wish I had seen that movie.
23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget – not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
I’ve had quite a few memorable moviegoing experiences – seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 70 mm (in a theater in Toronto that was the equivalent of the Ziegfeld, except with better facilities), seeing midnight showings of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and the last two Harry Potter movies, with appreciative audiences, and seeing Almost Famous for the first time, at the Toronto Film Festival after waiting nearly five hours to get a ticket – but I’m going to go with seeing the first two Godfather movies in my “Literature and Film” class the summer before my senior year in college. We got to see them projected on a big screen, and even though they weren’t as cleaned up as they have been since, this was the first time I had seen these (Part II is of course my favorite movie of all time, and the first one is my 3rd favorite movie of all time), and they just blew me away.
Of course, I’ve had other experiences that were memorable for all the wrong reasons – the projector breaking down after the frog sequence in Magnolia, so it took nearly an hour to watch the last 5-10 minutes, and the power going out briefly near the end of The 6th Day, and the people in the projection booth chatting nonchalantly, not realizing (a) we could hear them, and (b) we could hear them instead of the movie itself.
24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
All of the commercials. I can put up with the trailers, but not the commercials.
25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
The fact there weren’t any (or at least not that many) commercials.
26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
At the first video store I worked at, there was one guy I started off liking, but we got into some pretty intense arguments about movies, and that did sort of damage things. I had my own issues at the time, though.
27. What movies have you dreamed about?
I honestly don’t remember my dreams, so I don’t know.
28. What concession stand item can you not live without?
I can live without any of them.
“I’m no stranger to conspiracy. I saw JFK.”
-”I Only Have Eyes For You”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 4/21/98
For better or worse – and there’s been plenty of arguments on both sides of that equation – the work of fiction that’s most associated in people’s minds with the conspiracy theories surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination remains Oliver Stone’s JFK, even over 20 years after its release (it’s being re-released into theaters and is just out on Blu-Ray). As I mentioned in my introductory post, if nothing else, Stone’s movie did have a legislative impact; records on Oswald and the Warren Commission that were meant to be sealed until 2039 will now be unsealed in 2017, thanks to the 1992 Assassinations Disclosure Act. Culturally, it’s been parodied or joked about (some of those works I discuss below) in ways few other movies about the assassination, if any, have been. Most importantly – at least from my point of view – it is possible, even at this late date, to argue that Stone made a good, maybe even great, movie even if you don’t believe in most of what he’s saying.
Given the fact every movie these days that purports to be a docudrama or to be “based on a true story” gets put under a microscope these days as to its veracity (Argo, Django Unchained, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, four of last year’s Best Picture nominees, are prime examples, as are Oscar contenders this year such as The Butler, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave), it’s easy to forget none of them caused the furor Stone’s movie did upon its initial release. It wasn’t the first docudrama to be attacked like this, and from establishment sources – Costra-Gavras’ Missing (1982), which purported to tell the story of an American activist killed during the 1973 coup in Chile*, was criticized by the State Department and sued by a former ambassador to Chile for libel, and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was roundly condemned by, and protested against, by religious groups – but no film had been under so much scrutiny, and for so long. The book of the screenplay of JFK contains 300+ pages of articles and letters about the film, both criticizing and defending it, ranging from May of 1991, before the film was even released (an article by George Lardner Jr. in The Washington Post attacked the film based on a copy of the script Lardner had acquired; in a letter to the paper that was printed two weeks later, Stone responded Lardner’s article was based on a draft of the script that had been significantly changed since, and that an article criticizing a movie based on an early draft of the script was scurrilous) to May of 1992 (in a discussion in The Nation). And that’s just counting the articles and letters that were allowed into the book (the editor noted Arlen Specter, Anthony Summers and George Will, among others, did not want their work included). The furor became so overwhelming Garry Trudeau wrote an editorial cartoon/column in The New York Times (the paper, ironically enough, that probably attacked the film most often) satirizing all the ways Stone’s movie had come under fire.
Obviously, one of the reasons why Stone’s film received so much flak was his choice of Jim Garrison (played in the movie by Kevin Costner) as the hero. It’s true Garrison brought, to date, the only prosecution of someone (businessman Clay Shaw, played by Tommy Lee Jones) to conspire to kill Kennedy. It’s also true Garrison has been dismissed as a crackpot by both sides of the Kennedy assassination debate. In Oswald’s Ghost, as well as the book of the screenplay of JFK, lone-gunman advocates such as Hugh Aynesworth, Dan Rather (both in the film), and David W. Bellin (seen in archival footage in the film; his articles are included in the book), as well as conspiracy theorists such as Edward Jay Epstein, Josiah Thompson (both in the film), and Harold Weisberg (one of the leading conspiracy theorists; a couple of his letters are included in the book, and he was the one who leaked Stone’s early draft of his film to Lardner) ridicule Garrison and his prosecution. Particularly under fire were his methods; a code for figuring out a telephone number that seemed to make sense only to Garrison, the fact (according to his critics) he seemed to change his theory of the crime at will, and the fact he seemed to be targeting only homosexuals for the crime (though the documentary seems to imply he was the only prosecutor in America to do so, which is completely off base) all seemed the work of a prosecutor not entirely in his right mind.
And yet that doesn’t entirely explain the vitriol directed towards Stone and his film, nor does Stone’s combative personality, and nor, I would add, does whatever artistic license Stone did take towards the film; after all, for example, Ken Russell took frequent liberties with his biopics of famous musicians, but while film critics went after him for that, and maybe music critics, he wasn’t roundly condemned on editorial pages (with the possible exception of The Devils) and the like. As Canadian cultural critic Geoff Pevere explained in a column on 2/11/92 for The Globe And Mail:
Yet, as nutty as so much of the flap around JFK is, it was inevitable and invited. If anything, what all this sound and fury ultimately signifies is a struggle over territory far less lofty than history. This is a professional turf war.
And, let’s face it, Oliver Stone made the first incursion. In making plain–scratch that–in bellowing (emphasis Pevere’s) his intent to lay bare the historical coverup of the century, a coverup that could not have succeeded without either the systematic collusion or deception of the fourth estate, Stone was not only bulldozing his way through territory conventionally demarcated as journalistic turf, he was also plowing dirt all over the institution of journalistic integrity. If Stone is right, even remotely so, the implications for the media establishment are as clear as Kevin Costner’s complexion: the press blew it.
While that doesn’t make a silly situation any less so, it may pull a couple of matters into sharper focus. Stung by an assault on their most sensitive and vulnerable flank (the issue of non-partisan objectivity), the guardians at the gate of journalistic integrity loaded their entire arsenal with the most potent ammo at their disposal. Judging JFK on the terms Stone had unwisely invited it to be judged–as a work of journalism–it was judged a travesty.
All of which may go down as one of the sillier and sadder episodes of our recent, wacky cultural history. Obviously, judged as journalism, JFK fails. How could it not? Failing it on those grounds is like flunking a cat for not being a dog.
And that, I think, is a rational theory. In this movie, Stone is challenging the “official” history of the event, the Warren Commission report, as well as the fact the mainstream press accepted it so willingly instead of questioning it (the fact the mainstream press has since then often swallowed “official” stories that turned out not to be true – the second Iraq war being a prominent recent example – makes that a valid argument in my book). You may believe the report to be substantially accurate, but I think there are enough questions to be raised about it that any movie trying to present a “counter-myth” (as Stone called his movie) is work taking seriously if it’s done well enough. And the “counter-myth” Stone presents here (which he also presented in abbreviated form in Nixon, as a scab Nixon didn’t want to pick at too much because he was afraid of what would come out if he did) may have its own problems (some of which I mention below), but I see nothing wrong with trying to challenge the “official” story when that story also has its own problems.
So, I will acknowledge that yes, I do have problems with some of Stone’s ideas here. I’m not 100% convinced Kennedy would have tried to get the U.S. out of Vietnam, as I’ve seen enough evidence to suggest he was still more of a Cold War warrior than Stone thinks, even though it can’t be denied Kennedy was making certain public overtures of peaceful. Given the fact Johnson pushed forward stronger versions of domestic policies than Kennedy proposed (including the Civil Rights Act), I absolutely don’t believe he was part of any conspiracy. I also do think Stone discounts the probability of mob involvement a little too easily (even though I agree they weren’t the overriding force). And yes, I also acknowledge some parts of the movie do come off as clumsy. Sissy Spacek, for one, is completely wasted here as Jim Garrison’s wife Liz; Stone may claim her character was true to life, but all it proves is he has no idea how to write those scenes. Finally, while I don’t necessarily think Garrison was targeting Shaw, David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and the like because they were gay (and again, if he was, while that’s definitely bigoted behavior, he would have been far from the only U.S. D.A. to do so), I do think Stone indulges in some pretty ripe stereotyping here, particularly the infamous orgy party scene.
Nevertheless, despite the questions I may have about Stone’s thesis, I maintain it’s still a powerful film. Unlike Executive Action, which also purported to tell the “truth” about what happened, Stone doesn’t make this pedestrian looking at all. The way he, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia combine old newsreel footage, black-and-white footage, color footage and so on, and yet never confuses you as a viewer is breathtaking. It helps juice up scenes that by all rights should have slowed the picture down to a crawl, as with the scene where Garrison is in Washington D.C. with a former army officer known only as X (Donald Sutherland) and he lays out Stone’s entire thesis about Kennedy wanting to pull out of Vietnam (the character is based on Fletcher Prouty, a consultant on the film). And while John Williams’ score often takes the solemn tone that is usual in the other films he’s done for Stone, he also uses music of the period and area well, and uses more disparate elements than normal, such as the heavy percussion in the last scene Ferrie has (where he quotes Churchill with, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!”).
Finally, while there’s a danger to using famous faces in a movie like this, where you’ll tend to think, “Hey, that’s Joe Pesci!” instead of, “Okay, that’s David Ferrie”, Stone manages to pull that off as well. Costner, of course, came to this not just with a much-criticized performance hanging over his head (the title character in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie that couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be), but also an irony few people at the time commented on (if memory serves, Bob Costas, back when he had a late night talk show, was one of the few); in a long speech his character made in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, from three years earlier, he says, “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Costner is more that up to the challenge, even if his character is more idealized than Garrison was in real life. And except for Spacek, who’s wasted on her role, all the other actors are up to the challenge as well, particularly Jones, Pesci, and Sutherland, but also Gary Oldman as Oswald, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker and Jay O. Sanders as some of Garrison’s staffers, and John Candy playing against type as Dean Andrews, who was supposedly called upon to be Oswald’s lawyer.
Along with all of the attacks against the film, there were also the works parodying it. By far the most clever came from Seinfeld, which otherwise was a sitcom I wasn’t a fan of (even though I get its importance and popularity). In “The Boyfriend, Part 1″, Kramer (Michael Richards) and Newman (Wayne Knight) recount how, at a Mets game, Keith Hernandez spit at them, but Jerry (Seinfeld) demonstrates to them that there was a second spitter (to make the joke even better, Knight played one of Garrison’s staffers in JFK, and was used by Garrison in the movie to demonstrate the so-called “magic bullet” theory the same way Seinfeld uses Newman to demonstrate his “magic loogie” theory). Stone himself even got into the act; Ivan Reitman’s Dave is a comedy about the title character (Kevin Kline), a temp agency owner and occasional imitator of President Mitchell (Kline) who’s called on to impersonate the President for real when Mitchell suffers a stroke, and Stone plays himself, being interviewed by Larry King and insisting Mitchell literally hasn’t been the same person since the stroke and has been replaced by a look alike (of course, Stone also burnished his own legend as well; in “Everything Must Go”, an episode of the set-in-the-near-future ABC miniseries Wild Palms – which Stone co-produced – he appears as himself on a talk show, where the host congratulates him on being credit about everything he said in JFK being proved right now that all the files had been released).
After this film, Stone made one more great movie - Nixon, which I maintain is his best movie – and then went into somewhat of a creative funk. He’s made a couple of interesting, if flawed, movies (Any Given Sunday, Heaven and Earth, W.), but he also made movies that seemed tired and that the old Stone could have made provocative (Alexander, World Trade Center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), or worse, movies where it seems like he was just going through the motions (U-Turn, Savages). It seems like JFK took a lot out of him, and whatever you think of Stone as a filmmaker (I won’t deny he can be bombastic and sentimental), we need more mainstream filmmakers challenging the so-called “official” history, and more films like JFK that do it well, and which aren’t graded on the scale of whether they’re “true” or not.
*-Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), the film that put him on the map worldwide, was acknowledged by Stone as a major influence on his film, particularly in the way Gavras used the techniques of melodrama to tell his story, and the unashamed point of view. This may also explain why Stone cast Spacek, who appeared to great effect in Missing.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there have been plenty of movies (as well as novels and TV episodes) that have brought up the idea the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not the work of one man, but of a vast conspiracy, and my list was by no means comprehensive. But for my money, the two movies that not only dealt with the idea of a conspiracy the best, but also really made you feel the shadowy forces that would be at work to achieve it, were Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). They each use different means to get there – Pakula’s film is a suspense thriller that uses mostly suggestion, while Richert opts for black comedy combined with suspense – but the end result is terrific in both cases.
In the book Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life, by Jared Brown, Pakula mentions how he wanted to try out different kinds of films and not be pinned down to one genre. And though he only directed 16 films (11 of which he produced; he also produced seven movies for director Robert Mulligan before deciding to direct), he did try to direct a variety of films, from romantic comedy (The Sterile Cuckoo) to Western (Comes a Horseman) to romantic drama (Starting Over) to literary adaptation/period drama (Sophie’s Choice) to legal drama/thriller (Presumed Innocent, The Pelican Brief). But if he’s remembered as a director today (tragically, his life was cut short in 1998 at age 70 through a traffic accident), it seems to be for his unofficial “paranoia” trilogy in the 70′s, consisting of Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men. While I like all three films (Klute, which is the weakest relatively speaking, has an excellent lead performance by Jane Fonda), it’s The Parallax View that holds up the best for me.
The film is based on a novel by Loren Singer, and the novel is more explicitly about the idea several people who witnessed the assassination died under mysterious circumstances (although it’s never named, the main characters in the novel are watching the Zapruder film). The movie, on the other hand, starts out with referencing Robert Kennedy’s assassination instead; Senator Charles Carroll (William Boyce), an independent party senator thinking of running for president, is hosting a luncheon on top of the Space Needle tower in Seattle when he’s suddenly assassinated. As security guards chase a waiter who has a gun, we see another waiter (Bill McKinney) putting his gun away, and it’s implied either he did it himself or was another shooter. The first waiter, named Thomas Richard Linder (Chuck Waters), ends up falling off the roof as he’s trying to escape the guards, and is killed. The film then makes its connection to JFK’s assassination explicit when we see a panel of men looking like judges, known as the Carroll Commission, giving their preliminary findings four months later; Linder acted alone, and there was no conspiracy.
Three years later, Joe Frady (Warren Beatty), a reporter and recovering alcoholic (he was at the Space Needle at the beginning, but couldn’t get into the luncheon, is getting in trouble with the police (for trying to get a story on a drug bust) and his editor Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn), who thinks Joe is creating news rather than reporting it. So he’s in no mood when Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), a TV reporter and Joe’s ex-girlfriend, shows up at his apartment in a panic (she’s been calling him). Lee claims six other reporters who were at the luncheon have died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s afraid she’ll be next. Joe doesn’t want to hear it, claiming she’s just being paranoid. When Lee is found dead three days later in her apartment, however, Joe starts to believe her story, especially when Will (Kenneth Mars), an ex-FBI agent Joe knows, tells Joe how easy it is to make a person’s death look like a suicide (which is how the coroner ruled it). After Will agrees to give him a fake name and background, Joe heads to a small village in upstate Washington, where Alan Bridges, the last reporter before Lee was killed, died. L.D. Wicker (Kelly Thorsden), the sheriff, at first seems eager to help, but when he takes Joe to a river by a dam (where Bridges was killed), it turns out Sheriff Wicker really wants to kill Joe. As water escapes from the dam, Joe and the sheriff both fall in the river and get in a fight, but Joe manages to escape while the sheriff drowns. At the sheriff’s house, Joe discovers forms and tests from the Parallax corporation, and when he gets back to the newspaper (after being chased by Red (Earl Hindman), Wicker’s deputy, when Red discovers Joe at the sheriff’s house), Joe tries to convince Bill he’s on to something big. Bill doesn’t believe it, but allows Joe to continue with the story.
With help from Nelson Schwarzkopf (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), a local psychology professor, Joe is able to fake the results of the written test from Parallax (Joe signs it with the name of Richard Parton, the ex-con alias Will had set up for him), so he can apply to it. Joe also finally manages to track down Austin Tucker (William Daniels), a former aide to Senator Carroll (he was also at the luncheon at the beginning) who has been in hiding. He tells Joe how he believes there was a conspiracy, and points to the other waiter at the luncheon (he has a photograph). The two of them, along with Tucker’s bodyguard, are on a boat, and a bomb explodes, killing Tucker and his bodyguard, but once again, Joe manages to escape. When Joe returns to the newspaper, Bill at last is convinced there’s a story (Joe was reported dead), but Joe manages to convince him that he should keep digging and pretend to be dead. Joe is soon approached by Jack Younger (Walter McGinn), who works for the Parallax corporation, and tells Joe they liked his test scores. But will Joe be able to find the truth about Parallax?
In his review of the film for Sight & Sound, critic Philip French called the movie “a paranoid film as well as a film about paranoia”. Part of that comes from the fact, except for Younger, Sheriff Wicker and the mysterious assassin from the beginning (who also pops up a few other times in the film), we never really see anyone from the Parallax corporation, yet the film gives you the feeling anyone could be involved* (the novel is a little more explicit about who works for the company, but not too much), and anyone could die at any minute. It also comes from the work of editor John W. Wheeler (who worked on Pakula’s directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo) and especially from cinematographer Gordon Willis (this was the second of six films Willis and Pakula would work on together). As per usual in a film shot by Willis, there’s a lot of natural light and dark photography, especially in all the scenes that take place indoors, such as the hotel room Joe is in when Younger first sees him (Willis does contrast it with scenes such as the one with Professor Schwarzkopf, which is more brightly lit because that character has no hidden motives), and this helps to give the movie a sense of unease at all times. He also gives a plastic, faceless look to the places Joe visits, from the bar where Joe first meets Sheriff Wicker to that hotel room (only Bill’s newspaper office is shot in warmer colors, and feels lived in). Also contributing to that is Wheeler’s editing, which adds to the elliptical nature of the film; this especially comes out early on, where the film goes from Lee begging Joe to help her right to the morgue, where she’s lying dead on a slab, and we don’t realize until several seconds into the scene that it’s Joe the coroner is talking to.
This paranoid feeling especially comes through in what became the most famous scene in the film, when Joe is given a test by the Parallax corporation that consists nothing more than monitoring his reaction to a series of images (accompanied to music), which start out showing the usual images of the American dream but then turn into something darker (in the novel, it’s a word association test). This is meant to be a form of brainwashing, or at least a way of manipulation, but what’s unusual about the whole sequence is how it’s more seductive than assaultive (compare this, for example, to the similar sequence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is forced to watch images to turn him from a sociopath into a “normal” member of society. True, the nature of Kubrick’s movie demanded Alec’s treatment be more assaultive, but it’s still amazing how Pakula, Willis and Wheeler are able to pull off, and show, manipulation that’s this subjective. It’s also of a piece in how Pakula is showing the dark side of Americana; not just with the training film, but also the luncheon at the beginning and a political rally rehearsal at the end (originally, it was going to be a fundraising rally until Pakula, Willis and production designer George Jenkins – who was art director on Klute and went on to be production designer on nine more films Pakula directed – saw the convention center being set up and decided a rehearsal would work even better for the film), which at first seems like your typical political event, complete with patriotic music, until the shocking turn it takes.
While it’s accurate to call The Parallax View a conspiracy thriller and a paranoid thriller – and to link it to Kennedy (even though Pakula didn’t want any explicit associations, though the Carroll Commission, which appears at the beginning and end, is a dead giveaway) as well as the unease that came from Vietnam and Watergate – Pakula (at least according to interviews Brown excerpts in his book) also saw this as a Western set in modern day and turned inside out. Although Joe is able to take care of himself physically (we see him not only fight off Sheriff Wicker in the river, but also Red in the bar, in a fight not unlike a Western bar brawl), he’s more of a smart-ass and less laconic than your typical Western hero. However, he has the unshakable confidence in himself that he alone can get to the bottom of this and he’ll be able to take care of himself, and Pakula’s film sets out to undercut him at every turn, showing just how little he knows (only once, when he’s able to get a plane to land that has a bomb on board, is Joe ahead of the game). By the climax of the film, when Joe finally figures out just how little he’s known all this time, it’s too late. This, of course, is keeping with the times of unhappy endings (as well as keeping in with the novel, which otherwise has a radically different ending), but it also keys into this idea of a Western hero made ineffectual, no matter how cocky he is.
Considering how well the film is put together, it may come as a surprise how much of it was done on the fly. Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who also was one of the writers of Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, another great 70′s conspiracy thriller) was the original writer of the film, but David Giler (the original Fun with Dick and Jane) rewrote it at Pakula’s request, Beatty, as per usual, brought in his friend Robert Towne to help out, and because of an impending writer’s strike, Pakula did a lot of re-writing on set. Originally, Joe (named Malcolm Graham in the novel) was going to be a cop, with Bill being his superior office (in the novel, Malcolm was an ex-reporter), but Pakula had it changed to a reporter and editor, and also encouraged improvisation. Apparently, despite the fact it allowed for multiple takes, which was Beatty’s preferred way of shooting, he wasn’t too happy with Pakula’s approach here (in Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman recounted how when he met Beatty, and managed to tell him Goldman would be working with Pakula on All the President’s Men, Beatty’s reply was, “Just make sure you’ve got it before you go out on the floor”). But it ends up working for the film, and even for Beatty’s performance. Like Robert Redford, another romantic leading man of the 70′s, Beatty could be frustratingly opaque, yet what made him ideal for the 70′s is unlike Redford, Beatty was willing to play with his image more, as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo and this film proved. There’s no extraneous plot thread here, like a love story (there was one in the novel, between Malcolm and the widow of a Parallax assassin Malcolm killed), just Joe trying to survive on his wits, and Beatty effectively conveys how Joe actually is intelligent, just not as much as he thinks he is. The other roles are smaller, but Prentiss (whose character was originally an older, wisecracking woman, in keeping with the novel, until Pakula met Prentiss), Cronyn (who, aside from Beatty, has the largest role and makes the most of it), Daniels, McGinn (Younger was originally supposed to be more like an FBI man until Pakula met with McGinn) and others are all terrific. In a recent article for The Guardian, Alex Cox (Repo Man) called Pakula’s film one of the high points of the golden age of 70′s film, and though the film was poorly received with critics at the time and at the box office, I’d agree, and say the film has gotten better and more relevant over time.
*-It’s probably accurate to say Jonathan Demme’s re-working of The Manchurian Candidate (2004) owes as much to Pakula’s film as it does to Condon’s original novel and Frankenheimer’s film version, especially in the sense of a shadowy corporation having its hands in everything.
Whereas Pakula’s film was serious and oblique, Richert’s film of Winter Kills is blackly comic and direct. This, of course, comes straight from the original novel by Richard Condon, and keeping in line with Condon’s other novels (The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi’s Honor), but it’s also the approach Richert, who had started out in documentaries, wanted to take. In a documentary about the making of the film, Richert said he wanted to make it like a modern day Alice in Wonderland, which may seem like an odd approach for a conspiracy thriller, yet in its own way, the novel (and film) capture a feeling of paranoia just as much as Pakula’s film does.
The hero of this story is Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges), brother of former President Tim Kegan, who was assassinated 19 years earlier. Nick is working on an oil tanker owned by his powerful and wealthy father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), when Keifitz (Richard Boone), Nick’s closest friend and co-worker, tells Nick a rig worker who had an accident and is dying is claiming to be the second gunman that killed Tim, and he wants to speak to Nick. The gunman, named Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell), who’s heavily bandaged and can barely talk, tells Nick his gun and ammunition are in a steam pipe in a room on the sixth floor of a building in Philadelphia. Nick, along with Miles (David Spielberg), who works for Pa Kegan but is close with Nick anyway (Nick and his father don’t get along), and Captain Heller (Brad Dexter), a Philadelphia police captain, go into the building, and they manage to find the rifle and ammunition. However, when the three of them get back into the car, Nick gets distracted by a woman (Barbara Richert, the writer/director’s real-life wife at the time) riding a bicycle, and when he turns his attention back to the car, he discovers Miles, Captain Heller and the driver have all been shot dead. Not only that, but when Nick ducks into a building and calls up Cerruti (Anthony Perkins), his father’s right-hand man, the car is driven off, with the rifle still inside.
Reluctantly, Nick tells his father what happened, and Pa Kegan confides while he went along with the report of the Pickering Commission that Willie Arnold (whom we never see) was the lone assassin, he never believed it, and he wants Nick to investigate, using only his help. Nick goes to see a number of people who might be connected, among them Z.K. Dawson (Sterling Hayden), an arms industrialist who hated Kegan but claims he didn’t kill him, Ray Doty (Michael Thoma), who tells Nick about Joe Diamond (Eli Wallach), the nightclub owner who killed Arnold, and how Diamond was forced onto the job by Gameboy Baker (Ralph Meeker), and a mobster named Irving Mentor (Irving Selbst), who tells him the mob organized his brother’s assassination through a man named Casper Jr. But as Nick goes further into his investigation, he finds himself still targeted (a maid at a hotel he usually stays at tries to kill him), and he doesn’t know who to trust, including his girlfriend Yvette Malone (Belinda Bauer), a newspaper writer whom he loves (he wants to marry her, but she keeps putting him off), but turns out to be more mysterious than he thought.
One thing Richert’s film has in common with Pakula’s is how elliptical it is, though in the case of Winter Kills, it wasn’t entirely by choice. True, the way the movie sends Nick down the rabbit hole is consistent with the novel (with the exception of a couple of changes which I’ll get to in a minute), but while Richert was able to get an impressive array of talent both in front of (in addition to the cast mentioned above, there’s also Dorothy Malone as Nick’s mother, Toshiro Mifune as Nick’s childhood butler and mentor, and Elizabeth Taylor as a gangster’s girlfriend (her then-husband John Warner appears uncredited as Tim)) and behind the camera (Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) was the cinematographer, and Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest), who also appeared briefly as a hotel clerk, was the production designer), the film got shut down twice thanks to money troubles. Executive producers Leonard J. Goldberg and Robert Sterling were exploitation producers (they had done the Emmanuelle films) and, according to Richert, drug dealers (Goldberg ended up getting murdered, while Sterling went to jail), and the film ran out of money a couple of times. This meant there were plenty of things Richert wanted to shoot but couldn’t (according to the DVD commentary, the woman on the bicycle was supposed to be an angel, but Richert couldn’t afford to make that clear, though he said audiences seemed able to intuit there was something otherworldly about her), and it also made for some abrupt transitions (such as when Nick goes from first meeting Pa Kegan as he’s driving in from playing golf to Nick riding on a horse the next day, stopping, and yelling to the skies, “You stink, Pa!”). However, this adds to the satirical and funhouse tone of the film.
Richert may not have been the visual stylist Frankenheimer was in his adaptation of a Condon novel, but he makes some interesting choices to add to the comic tone. In the novel, Nick’s meeting with Dawson takes place in Dawson’s house, but in the movie, it’s in a field, as Dawson is with his private army doing a series of exercises with tanks (Dawson even tells Nick he’s going to shoot him if he doesn’t get off his property), making him all the loonier. Then there’s the meeting Nick has with Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian), another mobster; in the novel, it’s with Nick and Pa Kegan in a hotel room, but in the movie, it’s in a police van, as he’s supposedly just out of prison long enough to meet with Nick. Richert also goes even further in portraying how debauched Pa Kegan is; when Nick first sees him as he’s driving in on a golf cart, Kegan has two beautiful women in the cart with him, and offers Nick either one of them. Richert also ends up combining the character of Yvette with Chantal Lamers (in the novel, she’s the reporter), though that ends up working, and making a character who was completely on Nick’s side throughout turn traitor at the end, and that’s questionable but goes by so fast you don’t really have time to think about it. More damaging – and I wonder how much of this was by choice or by necessity – is the motive rant by the person ultimately behind it all (unlike Parallax View, Nick learns the true culprit, but it doesn’t make him any happier), which in the movie is given to another character (though the true villain is the same). It works well enough on screen, but I still think the movie would have been better if it had stuck closer to the novel in this respect.
Still, Richert manages to combine both the comic tone with genuine suspense (the scene in Philadelphia when Nick discovers everyone around him is dead is definitely hair-raising), as well as a tone of paranoia (Boyle does a terrific job in the computer center where Cerruti works, where it seems like all the information in the world, and the dirt on everyone, is stored). Also, while there are parallels to other historical figures besides John F. Kennedy and Joe Kennedy (Diamond is based on Jack Ruby, while Taylor is based very loosely on Judy Campbell, a woman who slept with both Kennedy and mobster Sam Giancana), Richert doesn’t push the parallels, but lets us discover them for ourselves (of course, audiences then might have been able to take it more for granted). And of the famous faces in the movie, only Mifune seems wasted on his part (in the commentary, Richert admits he shot more scenes with Mifune – who spoke in his own voice, and learned his dialogue phonetically – but was afraid the audience would laugh at him, as English was a struggle for him, so he cut his part to the bare minimum). Taylor only mouths one word of dialogue (an obscenity), but certainly conveys someone who has a shady past, Hayden is as colorful as usual, while Meeker was no longer as lean and mean as he was in movies like Kiss Me Deadly, he’s still effectively menacing, as is Perkins, and while this was Bauer’s first film, she holds her own with Bridges (she became involved with Richert during filmmaking).
But it’s Bridges and Huston who make this work especially well. As I’ve written before, I think Bridges was often underrated because he made it look easy and didn’t take roles depending on his looks. In this movie (and the novel), Nick has lived in the shadow of his brother, who was always more glamorous and obsessed with power than he was, and Bridges gets the resentment his character feels because of this down pat. At the same time, in order for all this to work, we need to be willing to follow Nick as he goes through one byzantine turn in the story after the other, and without explicitly playing for our affection, Bridges does that too. As for Huston, he reportedly took the role because he apparently had the same feelings about Joe Kennedy in real life that Condon did, and thought it was effectively conveyed in the script. But Pa Kegan is also of a piece with Noah Cross, the villain from Chinatown made memorable by Huston’s performance. Kegan of course is a more satirical figure than Cross (though just as debauched), but Huston makes you see the steeliness and venom, as well as the debauchery, of Kegan.
When Winter Kills was finally finished and released in 1979, it received rapturous reviews from the New York critics (Vincent Canby (New York Times), David Ansen (Newsweek) and Michael Sragow (Rolling Stone), among others, all praised it) and did decent business there, but after about a week or two in Los Angeles (where the reviews weren’t quite as stellar), it disappeared from theaters completely. In an article for Harper’s magazine, Condon apparently claimed Avco Embassy (which distributed the film), which did business with the Kennedy family, was pressured by the Kennedys to bury the film. Whatever the reason, the film re-emerged in 1983 with a different cut. The film is now on DVD in an out-of-print 2-disc edition from Anchor Bay (which has a making-of documentary), as well as a DVD-R version from Lionsgate. Either way, it’s worth checking out, as it’s one of the unsung films of the 70′s, and just as much as The Parallax View (in its own, twisted way), gets to the heart of the feelings of conspiracy that arose out of Kennedy’s assassination.
Kaffee: Maybe, if we work at it, we can get Dawson charged with the Kennedy assassination!
-A Few Good Men, written by Aaron Sorkin
Ever since the Warren Commission Report was released in 1964, the gulf between those who think the commission got it right and Lee Harvey Oswald was the only shooter, and those who think there was a conspiracy, has been huge, but there is probably one thing which both conspiracy theorists and all but the most die-hard defenders of the report can agree on; they didn’t have the whole story. Of course, they only had a limited time to complete their investigation, they were under pressure to get it done on time and right, and both the FBI and CIA were withholding information from them. Supporters of the Warren Commission, however, feel even with all of that, the Commission basically got it right and recent technological advances bear that out, while critics insist the errors, the information that didn’t even come up, and motives they feel were ignored are just a few of the many reasons the Warren Commission at best, at best, was misguided and mistaken, and at worst, helped cover up the real truth. Again, while the Warren Commission was accepted at first, more Americans now believe there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and that belief has certainly been prevalent in pop culture over the past nearly 50 years. In this post, I’ll be looking at some of the movies, books and TV shows where those conspiracy theories have been demonstrated, discussed, or even mocked, as well as a couple of works that dispute the idea of conspiracy.
I. Premonitions of Conspiracy: The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May.
One of the most disputed aspects of Kennedy’s presidency has been over how much of a hawk, or dove, he really was. There’s no question Kennedy started out firmly as a Cold War warrior – as a Senator, he invoked the “domino” theory to defend the idea of the U.S. trying to stop the spread of communism throughout the world – but whereas some feel Kennedy changed those views while he was in office, especially after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis (they feel Kennedy was arranging to pull troops out of Vietnam), others feel while Kennedy may have talked like a peaceful President in public, in private he still espoused Cold War rhetoric (supposedly, neither Kennedy nor his brother Robert gave up on the idea of trying to assassinate Castro). Those who adhere to this latter view of Kennedy point to his interest in spy novels, particularly of James Bond novels, which had become popular at this time. One such novel was Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, which came out a year before Kennedy was elected President. As the story goes, Frank Sinatra had a deal with United Artists to make four films, and he wanted a film version of Condon’s novel to be one of them, but United Artists president Arthur Krim was nervous about the subject matter, so Sinatra, who was friends with President Kennedy, approached him about the project, and Kennedy gave it his blessing.
The Manchurian Candidate – both book and film – is, of course, about the fever of another conspiracy that had gripped the nation in the 50′s and before; that of a Communist conspiracy within the U.S. government (in an edition of the novel I have yet to find again, Condon wrote in an introduction several years after the novel was published that he had seen an editorial claiming Joe McCarthy could not have done more damage to the country than if he was a paid Soviet agent, and Condon claimed this led him to wondering, “What if he was?”). Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who at first glance seems to be the perfect (if somewhat aloof) American hero, as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and respected journalist, is in fact a brainwashed (by the Communists) assassin, and it isn’t until Ben Marco (Sinatra), a former member of his platoon, starts having nightmares about what really happened to them when they were in combat (in Korea). The novel was a mix of satire, camp humor, and suspense thriller, and director John Frankenheimer and writer George Axelrod embrace both the satire and suspenseful aspects, sometimes all at once (as with Marco’s first nightmare sequence, where a scene of Marco, Shaw and their fellow soldiers waiting out a rainy day in the lobby of a hotel while a woman lectures about gardening becomes, in a 360 degree shot, becomes Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) showing off the soldiers to the Soviet and Chinese military officials in attendance). The McCarthy-like Senator Iselin (James Gregory) also gets satirized, with the idea, for example, the number of Communists he claims are working in the U.S. government is the same as the varieties of ketchup Heinz claimed to have.
Aside from the fact Kennedy was apparently a fan of the novel and gave the film project his blessing, another way The Manchurian Candidate has been connected with the president is the fact it was out of circulation for so many years after its initial release (in 1962) until its re-release in 1988. It was later claimed Sinatra, who owned the rights to the film for many years, withdrew the film from circulation after Kennedy was assassinated, but this has proven to not be true. In fact, the film, one of many older films to be re-released into theaters in the 80′s, was withdrawn after its theatrical run in 1963, and when Sinatra gained the rights in the 70′s, according to his lawyers, he kept it out of circulation because only United Artists would profit from a re-release or any showings on television; only in 1988, when a better deal had been negotiated, was the film re-released again.
A film that actually was delayed thanks to the Kennedy assassination, and one that fed fuel to the idea there was not a Communist by right-wing conspiracy to take over the country, was Seven Days in May, also directed by Frankenheimer. Originally set for release in December of 1963, the film was pushed back to February of 1964 at the request of star Burt Lancaster. Lancaster plays General Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is planning a coup against President Lyman (Frederic March) for what he feels is the President’s dangerous policy of trying to pursue a course of disarmament with the Soviet Union. Whereas Manchurian Candidate aimed for both satire and suspense, Frankenheimer plays this one straight (as to be expected with a screenplay from Rod Serling, adapting the novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel), albeit with the same technical brilliance. And while President Lyman could hardly be called a Kennedy-esque figure (he was probably closer to Adlai Stevenson, without the jokes), the idea there might be a secret cabal in the military, with support from some government figures, was just one of the many ideas Kennedy conspiracy theorists would seize upon (in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Negotiator, another right-wing cabal sets out to stop the U.S. president for the same reason, though in this case, they don’t attempt a coup, and one of them warns against assassination a la Kennedy because it would (a) martyr him and (b) his successor might push ahead his agenda).
II. The Zapruder Film: Blow-Up, The Conversation, and Blow Out.
The film dressmaker Abraham Zapruder took of the Kennedy assassination has been endlessly debated by both sides of the debate over who really killed Kennedy, particularly, of course, where the bullets were fired from and when. The fact the film was sold to Life magazine and they held onto the rights for many years (until selling it back to the Zapruder family in 1975 for $1) has also added fuel to the debate, as some conspiracy theorists thought it was being hidden from view. Photos from the film were included in both the Warren Report and in issues of Life (the issue the week after the assassination, as well as a Kennedy Memorial edition in December and an issue in 1964 when the Warren Report was released), and the photos, along with the film itself once it was made generally available, have been obsessively studied ever since.
It’s hard to say whether Michelangelo Antonioni had the Zapruder film in mind when he adapted Julio Cortazar’s short story “Las Babas Del Diablo” (loosely translated as “The Devil’s Drool”) for his film Blow-Up (1966), the first of three English-language films he was to make for producer Carlo Ponti (the others would be Zabriskie Point and The Passenger). But if he wasn’t, it was certainly an eerie coincidence this film – about fashion photographer Thomas (a character reportedly based on British fashion photographers David Bailey and Terence Donovan, and played by David Hemmings) who thinks he’s taken a picture of a murder – would come out so soon after Kennedy’s death, and as public opinion was turning against the findings of the Warren Commission. Along with the paranoia that was starting to come into vogue at the time – Thomas is convinced he’s being followed, and gets suspicious when a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) he photographed is willing to do anything to get the photo back, including seduce him – the film also shows Thomas obsessively studying the photographs he took to try and find evidence of that murder. Antonioni has always been philosophical than political – even Zabriskie Point, which starts off as his most explicitly political film, turns towards the abstract about a third of the way through – but again, intentionally or not, this does capture how the Kennedy assassination made forensic scientists out of a lot of people.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which came out eight years later, is about sound instead of image, is about what might happen rather than what did, and is more grounded in the specific than Antonioni’s film was, but it’s of a similarly philosophical bent (and Coppola acknowledged the Antonioni film as an influence). The hero of Coppola’s film, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the classic character who claims to be just about the work, and not getting personally involved in it – he’s a surveillance expert – until he does. In trying to figure out a conversation between the two people (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) he’s following, and what it means (in particular, the line, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”), Harry becomes obsessed with it to the point it interferes with everything else. Coppola’s film may have unconsciously tapped into the paranoia people were feeling at the time of Watergate, even though he claimed the timing was a coincidence, but again, it’s another case of someone poring over the minute details of a piece of evidence, just as people did with the Zapruder film.
In 1981, Brian De Palma crossed both sound and image strands together with Blow Out, and unlike Antonioni and Coppola, he made explicit (if guarded) political parallels. Jack (John Travolta), a former police technician turned movie sound effects artist, is out one night recording ambient sounds when he hears a noise and then a car goes over a bridge. Jumping in the water, Jack is unable to save the man in the car – who turns out to be a U.S. senator and presidential candidate – but he saves the woman, Sally (Nancy Allen) who’s a passenger. At the hospital, the senator’s aide (John McMartin) tells Jack to forget Sally was even in the car, and Jack reluctantly goes along with that, but he’s also told the noise he heard was the tire of the car blowing out. Jack insists the noise he heard was an explosion, as if someone shot out the tire, and he becomes even more convinced when photographs taken by Manny (Dennis Franz), who “happened” to be there, show what might be smoke from a gunshot. De Palma’s film calls up another Kennedy, Ted – specifically Chappaquiddick – but it also shows a conspiracy (we see Burke (John Lithgow), the man who did shoot out the tire against specific orders from his superiors, arranging to cover his tracks), shows conspiracy is a way of life for some people (which makes Detective Mackey (John Aquino), the detective working the case, irritable, as he thinks Jack and other like-minded conspiracy thinkers are nuts), and again, has someone obsessing over a piece of forensic evidence (once Jack, thanks to Sally, gets ahold of Manny’s original negatives, he turns them into a film to sync it with the recording he made, and we see him listening to the recording over and over) that might prove a conspiracy. One other aspect linking Blow Out with its predecessors; it ends unhappily, as to demonstrate the truth is out of reach.
III. “The Russians Did It”: Yuri Nosenko, KGB, “The Deceiver”, ”The Sisters” and Salt.
One of the biggest worries when the assassination occurred was the fact it might be part of a Communist plot, especially since Lee Harvey Oswald had defected to the Soviet Union in October of 1959, only to return to the U.S. in June of 1962. Was it simply because he was, as he put it, disillusioned with his life in the Soviet Union, or was he now working for them? And even if he wasn’t specifically working for the Soviets, were they involved anyway? One of the most fascinating figures in the Oswald story was KGB officer Yuri Nosenko, who defected to the U.S. in 1964 after contacting them in 1962. Nosenko claimed the KGB never tried to recruit Oswald (though they did place him under surveillance), nor did they consider him, or his information useful (when he worked as an electronics operator at a naval base in Japan while he was in the Marines; some conspiracy theorists speculate Oswald supplied the Soviets information that enabled them to shoot down Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 plane he was flying), because they thought he was too mentally unstable and unintelligent. Nosenko, however, got involved in a turf war among the CIA; a previous defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, also from the KGB, claimed the Soviets were responsible for any thing that had gone wrong with the world since WWII, and also claimed the KGB would send someone after him to discredit him. This pitted James Angleton, head of counter-intelligence of the CIA and Golitsyn’s champion, against other factions in the CIA who believed Nosenko (they considered Golitsyn an unreliable conspiracy theorist), which resulted in Nosenko being imprisoned and tortured and the CIA torn apart by internal war for several years (Frederick Forsyth relays this history as background for a fictional Soviet plot to destroy CIA morale from within in one of the four interlocking stories of his novel The Deceiver).
Mick Jackson’s Yuri Nosenko, KGB (1986) tells the story of Nosenko (Oleg Rudnik) from the point of view of those who were trying to decide who Nosenko really was, including Angleton (Josef Sommer) and “Steve Daley” (Tommy Lee Jones), the CIA agent who became Nosenko’s handler. It begins with the Kennedy assassination, and painstakingly recounts how Daley attempts to try and find out whether Nosenko is telling the truth or if he’s a plant, and you see him descend to the methods of torture to try and figure out the truth. The film might seem to be too dry to anyone who isn’t interested in stories about the CIA (Robert De Niro’s movie The Good Shepherd, a fictional film about the early years of Angleton (Matt Damon plays the character, named Edward Wilson here), has Golitsyn and Nosenko figures, but ends before the JFK assassination. It is less dry than Jackson’s film, though, and more compelling), but it does shed some light on a man who, as I said, is a footnote in the strange life of Oswald, and Jones is very good as the CIA officer. Also of note; Edward Jay Epstein, one of the leading critics of the Warren Report and leading proponents of the idea Oswald was involved in intelligence work, was a consultant on the film.
In contrast to the docudrama approach of Jackson’s movie, Philip Noyce’s Salt (2010) is a high-octane action film that isn’t anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Even though it’s come out in recent years there have been Soviet sleeper agents still living in the U.S. and other areas of Western Europe (an idea handled with far more nuance, intelligence and flair in the TV show The Americans), Noyce’s film about a CIA agent (Angelina Jolie) accused of being a Soviet sleeper agent and forced on the run sacrifices verisimilitude for thrills, which wouldn’t be so bad except those thrills are pretty generic, and it doesn’t trust the audience enough. It is relevant to this discussion, however, because a man Jolie’s character interviews claims Oswald was switched out while he was in the Soviet Union for a body double who carried out the assassination of Kennedy. This is another theory that’s been debated by conspiracy theorists, but whatever you think of that theory, this movie isn’t credible at all.
Robert Littell’s novel The Sisters doesn’t seem, at first glance, to be about Kennedy’s assassination at all. Instead, it’s about two CIA intelligence operatives, Francis and Carroll – dubbed “the sisters of death and night”, which is taken from a Walt Whitman poem – who try to put together what they feel is the perfect crime. At the same time, a Soviet sleeper agent, who has been living in the U.S., is finally called for a mission (he is known only as The Sleeper). Meanwhile, his Soviet handler (known as The Potter), who reluctantly gave The Sleeper’s name up to his superiors, follows The Sleeper along with the Sleeper’s ex-girlfriend – despite the fact it’s against his orders and his training – because he’s convinced the Sleeper is being set up. Kennedy isn’t even named here (he’s known simply as “The Prince of the Realm”), but once you get to Oswald going to Mexico (and using Hidell, one of his aliases), it becomes clear where this is going. Still, Littell, in his usual style of CIA intrigue with a layering of literary flourish (the Whitman poem is referenced throughout), keeps you gripped throughout because you may not be able to guess exactly how it all shakes out.
IV. Homegrown Threats: “American Tabloid”, “The Cold Six Thousand”, “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Third Bullet”, Annie Hall, Stakeout, An American Affair, Executive Action, and Shooter.
By far, the biggest candidates for being involved in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy have been homegrown; the mob, the CIA (or some government types) or some kind of right-wing cabal. Each of them have their adherents and their theories, and this has been true in popular culture as well. James Ellroy’s recent “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy takes us through the underbelly of the 60′s and early 70′s, and no surprise, Kennedy’s assassination figures prominently in the first two books of this opus, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. The former, told from the point of view of Pete Bondurant (an ex-cop working for the mob), Kemper Boyd (an FBI agent sent by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on Kennedy but who ends up falling in and out of his thrall), and Ward Littell (an FBI agent who goes from trying to dig up dirt on the mob to working for it), posits the popular theory Kennedy’s assassination was blowback from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and spearheaded by a combination of the mob, anti-Castro Cubans, and disgruntled current or ex-CIA agents. The latter picks up right after the assassination, and deals at first with how Bondurant and Littell help cover it all up and pin everything on Oswald (it goes on to deal with both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations, and pins them on a mob-related conspiracy as well). Ellroy’s style has become more clipped and staccato over the years (he often has chapters that are only one page, and sentences as few as one or two words at a time), which can become wearying at times, and he does like to roll in the muck of his characters, but he also finds the battered idealism in that time even if he doesn’t quite believe in it, and he presents his theories credibly.
Those who believe the mob, as powerful as it was, could never have arranged for everything to go off like it did*, believe the CIA, or other government agencies, were the ones who had the power and influence.** Stephen Hunter’s novel The Third Bullet features Hunter’s usual hero, Bob Lee Swagger, an expert with guns, who’s hired by a woman when her husband, a thriller writer, is killed while researching the Kennedy assassination. Unusually, the people Swagger eventually tracks down who are responsible for the Kennedy assassination (without giving anything away, they had government ties) did it because they thought Kennedy was going to get even more involved in Vietnam, not because he was going to pull end U.S. involvement. As usual with Hunter’s novels though, I found more posturing than plot, and it became wearying as a result (Hunter had dealt with a conspiracy to kill a President in his novel Point of Impact, which in 2007 became the dull and perfunctory Shooter; in the film, a man played by Levon Helm tells the Swagger character (played by Mark Wahlberg) about the shooters on the grassy knoll being killed three hours after the assassination and buried in the desert, adding, “Still got the shovel”). William Olsson’s An American Affair (2009) tells the story of Adam (Cameron Bright), a lonely 13 year old boy in 1963 Washington D.C. who develops a crush on Catherine (Gretchen Mol), the beautiful 30 year old woman who lives next door. Turns out Catherine is (a) the ex-wife of a CIA agent (Mark Pellegrino) and (b) one of the girlfriends of JFK (her character is based on a real-life person). The coming-of-age story and the conspiracy theory story (the CIA is implied to be heavily involved) don’t mix, and while Mol is terrific (as is James Rebhorn as a CIA agent who keeps a watchful eye on Catherine), the film doesn’t really add up to much.
Finally, considering all the hatred Kennedy had engendered in Texas, especially Dallas, before his visit (all the “Kennedy Wanted for Treason” posters, for starters), as well as with the John Birch Society and similar groups, there are those who speculate a right-wing cabal, possibly with help from the CIA or government agencies, killed Kennedy. David Miller’s Executive Action (1973), based on a story by leading conspiracy theorist Mark Lane (Rush to Judgment), argues two oil magnates (Robert Ryan and Will Geer), along with an ex-CIA agent (Burt Lancaster), planned the assassination. To the best of my knowledge, Miller’s film is the first fictional film (though supposedly based on real sources) made explicitly about the assassination, and the first to posit conspiracy theories. If only it were a better movie. It’s unfair to fault the movie for its mixing of real footage and fictional footage, since the technology wasn’t available at the time to make it look convincing, but Miller et al are fault for making a movie that’s so rote, despite the cast (Ed Lauter also appears as a man Lancaster hires to train a team of assassins).
*-Though it doesn’t address the question of whether there was a conspiracy, in Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel The Day of the Jackal, about a professional killer hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, there’s mention of how the French version of the Secret Service (who, of course, could take pride in their work, since de Gaulle never was assassinated) inspected the U.S. Secret Service and were not impressed with their protection services, which was born out on November 22, 1963.
**-Woody Allen, who as I mentioned in my introductory post had professed his belief in a conspiracy in his stand-up act, also floated this idea in Annie Hall (1977). His character, Alvy, is about to have sex with his first wife Allison (Carol Kane) when he interrupts by going on and on about how the Warren Report makes no sense, and there must be a government conspiracy. Allison wearily asks, “Then everybody’s in on the conspiracy? The FBI and the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover and oil companies and the Pentagon and the men’s room attendant at the White House?”, to which he replies, “I would leave out the men’s room attendant.” Also played for comedy, albeit with a more neutral eye, is John Badham’s Stakeout, where two cops (Richard Dreyfus and Emilio Estevez) on a stakeout argue about, among other things, the assassination (Estevez insists there was a second gunman while Dreyfus argues Oswald acted alone, and doesn’t believe Gerald Ford and all those people lied).
V. But who was Oswald? Oswald’s Ghost and “Libra”.
What all of those movies and books that I’ve discussed above (and most that I mention in the next segment) have in common is Oswald is barely mentioned. The documentary Oswald’s Ghost (2007), directed by Robert Stone (initially released theatrically before being broadcast on the PBS series “American Experience”), is set up (at first) as a debate between those who feel Oswald acted alone (reporter Hugh Aynesworth, historian Robert Dallek, Dan Rather) and those who think there was a conspiracy (Edward Jay Epstein, Mark Lane, Josiah Thompson), but it’s also an attempt to at least understand Oswald, as what Kennedy’s death meant in terms of the unrest of the 60′s and 70′s. I’ll have more to say about how the film views Jim Garrison when I discuss Oliver Stone’s JFK, but overall, while the film is somewhat tilted towards those who believe Oswald acted alone (Norman Mailer – whose book Oswald’s Tale is the best book I read in my research – says he started out as a conspiracy theorist, and allows that there might still be, but didn’t see any evidence for it), it is a good primer on the assassination and why it still resonates so strongly for people.
One side effect of Oliver Stone’s JFK is a planned movie version of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra never came to pass (the production company trying to film the novel accused Stone of trying to prevent the movie from being made, which Stone denied). Whatever the reason (it was finally made into a stage play directed by John Malkovich and starring Laurie Metcalf), it remains one of the great missed opportunities, because I would argue it’s the best piece of fiction ever written on the subject (Ellroy has long acknowledged using it as inspiration for American Tabloid). The title comes from Oswald’s Zodiac sign, and the novel goes back and forth between Oswald’s story, the story of CIA agents and Cuban exiles planning to attempt an assassination, and a CIA agent named Nicholas Branch who, 15 years later, is trying to make sense of it all. DeLillo really does take us inside the heads of Oswald and others involved, and also captures the history of the time. This remains, for me, the most fully realized of his works, and one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever read.
VI. Odds and Sods: “11/22/63″, “A Time to Remember”, “The Bourne Identity”, “The Tears of Autumn”, Watchmen, “Question Authority”, Zoolander, Sneakers, Hot Shots, The Rock, and “The Magic Bullet”.
Along with “would you kill Hitler?”, one of the most prevalent questions in time travel stories nowadays is “would you save JFK if you could?”. I’ve not seen the episode of the 80′s version of The Twilight Zone that dealt with this scenario, but I have read two novels that deal with it; Stanley Shapiro’s A Time to Remember (filmed in 1990 for the USA network as Running Against Time - never saw it – directed by Bruce Seth Green and starring Robert Hays) and Stephen King’s recent 11/22/63. Curiously enough, both start from the premise Oswald acted alone and was the guilty party. In Shapiro’s novel, a history professor who believes Kennedy would have stopped the U.S. from getting involved in Vietnam if he had lived (it’s especially personal for him because his brother died there) comes across a colleague who’s invented a time machine, and tries to go back in time to stop Oswald. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go the way he planned. In King’s novel, a high school English teacher is persuaded by the local diner owner – who has a time portal in the basement of his place – to go back and stop the assassination; since the teacher has his own reasons, once he gets over the shock, he agrees. King’s novel deals more with the overall consequences of trying to change the past (Shapiro’s novel is only focused on Vietnam), and also, since the main character goes back a few years before Kennedy was shot, it gives us more detail on Oswald (in an afterword, King explains why he thinks Oswald was the only shooter and the research he did). King brings richer detail to his story, but he also fills it out with too much padding and subplots, so on balance, I probably prefer Shapiro’s take, even though he doesn’t write as well as King when he’s on.
Along with the theories I outlined above, there are other, more bizarre theories about Kennedy’s assassination that have been suggested in popular culture. Some of them have been played seriously – in Robert Ludlum’s original The Bourne Identity novel, Bourne thinks Carlos, the international terrorist, committed the murder while disguised as a homeless man in Dallas, Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn, featuring his recurring character Paul Christopher, claims the South Vietnamese did it in revenge for Kennedy helping to assassinate their leader, and in the movie version of Watchmen (2009), the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is responsible (this is more ambiguous in the original graphic novel by Alan Moore). More often than not, though, these scenarios are played for laughs. In “Question Authority”, the ninth episode of the fourth season of Justice League, the Question (voiced by Jeffrey Combs), notorious for being a conspiracy theorist, is being tortured by Lex Luthor’s people to find out what he discovered when he hacked into Luthor’s files; among the answers the Question gives to “Tell me what you know” is, “There was a magic bullet. It was forged by Illuminati mystics to prevent us from learning the truth!” Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), which combines a satire on the modeling industry with a Manchurian Candidate-style assassination plot, features a conspiracy theorist (David Duchovny, doing a nice job of sending up Mulder) who claims all of the assassinations of the last 200 years (including Lincoln’s) were done by male models. When a reporter (Christine Taylor) points out Oswald wasn’t a model, Duchovny retorts, “The two lookers who capped Kennedy from the grassy knoll sure as shit were!” Then there’s Phil Alden Robinson’s Sneakers (1992), where Mother (Dan Aykroyd), another conspiracy theorist, claims to Crease (Sidney Poitier), an ex-CIA agent, that the NSA tried to kill Kennedy but he’s still alive.
Unless the final reports and files on Oswald that are scheduled to be released in 2017 produce it, conspiracy theorists have and most likely will continue to look for the “smoking gun” that proves their theory correct, and culture has had fun with this idea as well. In Jim Abrahams’ Hot Shots! (1991), his spoof of Top Gun-type movies, the character Dead Meat (William O’Leary) tells his adoring wife (Heidi Swedberg) he has the final proof on who killed JFK, and it goes all the way to the top, but he’ll tell her all about it when he returns (naturally, he doesn’t). In Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), FBI Director Womack (John Spencer) wants Mason (Sean Connery), a prisoner who’s been released to help rescue hostages on Alcatraz, to be kept on a tight leash because of all the secrets he knows, including who killed Kennedy (Mason used to work for British intelligence). At the end, Agent Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) finds where Mason hid a case of microfilm (in a church in Kansas), and tells his bride (Vanessa Marcil) as he looks at the film that she won’t believe who really killed Kennedy. And sometimes, they do get an answer. In “The Magic Bullet”, the 19th episode of the fourth season of Angel, Jasmine (Gina Torres), a mysterious being who has come to L.A. to bring what she calls her message of peace and love, tells Ted (Patrick Fischler), who owns a bookstore dedicated to conspiracy theories, that Oswald acted alone (of course, Jasmine turns out to be evil, so it’s best not to take her at her word. Plus, there’s an episode in the fifth season, which I never watched, which claims Joe Kennedy made a deal with the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, and Kennedy’s death was the result of it going bad).
I was going to write about The Parallax View and Winter Kills, but I plan to discuss those at length, and since this is an already monster post, those two movies will be in part 2b.
Paula: Where were you when Kennedy got shot?
Harry: Which Kennedy?
Paula: Any Kennedy.
Harry: When the president got shot, I was on my way to San Diego. Football game. When Bobby got shot, I was sitting in a car waiting for a guy to come out of a house with his girlfriend. Working on a divorce case. One of those times I wish I was in another business. Why do you ask?
Paula: It’s one of those questions everybody knows the answer to.
-Night Moves, written by Alan Sharp.
In a recent post on Entertainment Weekly‘s web page entitled “Remembering 11/22/63…or Not; Why It’s Time for Pop Culture to Stop Killing Kennedy” (located on its “Inside TV” page), senior TV writer Jeff Jensen opens by saying while he wasn’t alive when Kennedy was assassinated, it seems like he experienced it all the same. The tone of the post, unfortunately, falls into the same self-satisfied tone that seems to pass all too often for insight these days. It’s doubly unfortunate because, in spite of tone, Jensen does raise a couple of valid points. The first is, whether intentionally or not, memorials of the assassination, in real life or in pop culture, do tend to reinforce the Baby Boomer generation’s belief they were the only one that mattered* (though Jensen undercuts that point by not acknowledging the possibility 9/11 memorials in the future might be the same way. Also, depending on who you think killed Kennedy, he seems to think Oswald did it alone and all conspiracy theorists are deluded). The second is the trap these depictions of reactions to the assassination fall into is they risk solipsism or self-indulgence instead of genuine emotion.
Take, for example, Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids, from 1990 (adapted by June Roberts from the novel by Patty Dann). The movie is set in a small town in Massachusetts in 1963, and is a coming-of-age story about Charlotte (Winona Ryder), a teenager who rebels against her unconventional mother (Cher) – she makes finger foods for meals, the family doesn’t sit at the table, and she is constantly getting involved with men and then moving Charlotte and her sister Kate (Christina Ricci) when the relationship no longer works out – by being obsessed with being a nun (“Charlotte, we’re Jewish”), even though she also becomes attracted to Joe (Michael Schoeffling), the handyman/bus driver who works at the local convent. About 40 minutes into the movie, Charlotte is in class watching a documentary when a teacher comes in crying, and telling Charlotte’s teacher the news. Immediately, the film gets turned off, a radio gets turned on, and in a tracking shot, as the first teacher pulls up the blinds, the camera tracks, showing the students’ stunned reactions until it settles on Charlotte. Right after this, we see Charlotte walking the streets of town, seeing people either walking around in stunned silence, or gathered around a store window where there’s a TV (which is where she sees the famous footage of Walter Cronkite choking up before announcing Kennedy was dead). In a voice-over (she narrates the movie), Charlotte mentions how she misses her father, and how it doesn’t feel like there are any adults in the world. All fair enough, and the scenes of people reacting feel true to life.** But then Charlotte goes over to the convent (a nun walks by crying) and the bell tower, where Joe is; he’s obviously broken up as well, and Charlotte hugs him, which eventually leads to them kissing, until Charlotte realizes where she is and freaks, running away. Now, this may have been in the novel (which I’ve not read), but the scene feels strange, especially since Benjamin overdoes the comedy of Charlotte’s naivete about sex and how drawn to yet afraid of religious symbols she is. To be sure, while there’s much to like in the movie, this isn’t the only time there are jarring shifts in tone, but it seems especially wrong here.
The Mad Men episode “The Grown-Ups” that I cited in my introductory post also makes its characters’ reactions risk being self-centered, but at least the show recognizes this, and it’s consistent with the way we’ve seen these characters portrayed already. Along with the moments of genuine grief and shock (Don (Jon Hamm) comes into the main area to find all the phones are ringing because all the secretaries are huddled around the radio, and then, all of a sudden, they stop; also, when Carla (Deborah Lacey) brings the kids home right when its announced Kennedy is dead, and all Betty (January Jones) can do is nod in confirmation that he’s dead) are Margaret (Elizabeth Rice) sobbing at the news because her wedding is ruined (although, to be sure, there were plenty of people in real life in her shoes), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) complaining he doesn’t want to go to the wedding because of how the people at the office reacted to the shooting (in the sixth season episode “The Flood”, which dealt with Martin Luther King’s assassination, we can see Pete wasn’t that far off, but we can also see this is his way of of manipulating his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) into not going), to Duck (Mark Moses) turning off the initial report of the shooting so he can have sex with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and Jane (Peyton List) sighing she’s never going to get to vote for Kennedy. Most of all, we see Don seeming determined to demonstrate that life goes on; the best comfort he can offer the kids, for example, is they’ll be getting a new President, and everybody will be sad for a bit. Peggy sums it all up at the end of the episode (it’s the day of the funeral, and she and Don – who’s been kicked out of the house by Betty for reasons important to the story but not to this post – are the only ones at the office) when she says she had to get out of the house because her mother was “crying and praying so hard there wasn’t room for anyone else to feel anything.”
Then there are those works that use the assassination as a springboard for another story. Ronald Neame’s The Odessa File, as well as the Frederick Forsyth novel it’s based on (adapted by George Markstein and Kenneth Ross), starts out with Peter Miller (Jon Voight), a German journalist, driving to his home in Hamburg when he hears the news on his radio (in Germany, it was 8:30 when Kennedy was pronounced dead). Miller’s immediate reaction is to pull over to the side of the road, as do other cars in front of and behind him (in the novel, Forsyth writes, “as if driving and listening to the radio had suddenly become mutually exclusive, which in a way they had”). It’s because he pulls over to the side of the road and listens to the radio for half an hour (interrupted by another driver who wants to talk) before pulling away that he sees the ambulance that kicks the plot into motion, and except for the following scene, the assassination is never mentioned again (at least in the movie; in the novel, there’s one more scene where ex-Nazis – as well as one deep cover agent – toast the good news`). Jonathan Kaplan’s Love Field (written by Don Roos) at least has the assassination organic to the plot at first; the movie centers on Lurene (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Dallas housewife obsessed with Jackie Kennedy (early on in the movie, she drives out to Love Field airport in hopes of getting to talk to her), and when Kennedy is shot, she’s determined to get to the funeral at any cost, defying her husband (Brian Kerwin) to do so. But the movie soon drifts into a plot involving her and Paul (Dennis Haysbert), who’s traveling with his daughter, and throws in a whole number of plot contrivances at the expense of real feeling, even in dealing with Lurene’s grief over the assassination and the interracial romance between her and Paul. And that quote from Night Moves I posted at the top turns out to be a bit of misdirection to prevent Harry (Gene Hackman) from asking too many questions about what had happened with his character earlier.
Are depictions of that day involving the people actively involved automatically exploitative, or do they shed some light on the situation? The 1964 documentary Four Days in November, directed by Mel Stuart (mostly known for directing other documentaries, though he also did the original adaptation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder) and produced by David L. Wolper (Roots) uses newsreel footage of the time, along with some staged re-creations (though not in the same way they’re done today; it’s mostly shooting some of the locations as they were a year later, and traveling along the routes people like Oswald and Ruby would have taken) to show the events and people’s reactions to them. The music (by Elmer Bernstein) is overdone, as is the narration by veteran actor Richard Basehart (it was written by Theodore Strauss), but it does get to you. This is more than can be said, unfortunately, for Peter Landesman’s movie Parkland, which came out this past September (and is already on DVD). You may not agree with the conclusions of the Vincent Bugliosi book this is based on (originally titled Four Days in November, and taken from his much longer book Reclaiming History), but at least his cross-section of what was going on in Dallas, Washington D.C. and elsewhere is readable and pulls you in. Landesman, a journalist (his article on sex slaves was the basis for the movie Trade, starring Kevin Kline; he later came under fire when he was accused of making part of it up), tries for a similar approach, but there’s too much banal dialogue and scenes where it’s clear he had no idea where to put the camera. There are a lot of well-known faces here (Paul Giamatti as Abraham Zapruder, Zac Efron and Colin Hanks as doctors, Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Welling as Secret Service agents, Jacki Weaver as Oswald’s mother), but the only person who makes any sort of impression here is James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert, as Dale is the only one who bothers to internalize any of the emotion his character feels. Adam Braver’s novel November 22, 1963 starts out in a similar fashion, but mostly narrates its focus to imagining the state of mind of Jackie Kennedy. This might seem to ultimate in exploitation, but Braver actually does grant Kennedy her dignity, and it comes off as touching instead, even though the novel itself is too diffuse.
The most honestly depicted reactions to Kennedy’s death, at least that I’ve seen, are the ones that show characters reactions long after the event. One of the many subplots of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville (written by Joan Tewksbury) involves John Triplette (Michael Murphy), an aide to Replacement Party candidate Hal Walker (never seen), trying to organize a rally for Walker and trying to recruit singers such as Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) to appear at the rally. At a party at Hamilton’s house, he and his wife, Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley) politely but firmly inform Triplette that Hamilton never allows himself to endorse any politician specifically. Pearl, with a slight catch in her voice, does admit she worked for Kennedy and his brother, “but they were different”. Later in the movie, when several of the characters are at a club, Pearl is sitting with Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), a BBC reporter, and Opal notices Pearl is wearing a Kennedy button, which prompts Pearl to reminisce about Kennedy’s run for President (“He took the whole South except for Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky”), the anti-Catholicism she encountered, and how scared she was for Robert Kennedy when she worked for him. What makes it all work so well is not just the fact Altman doesn’t only focus on Pearl (showing, for example, Triplette continuing to try and persuade Hamilton to appear at the rally, as well as the music), but also because while you can see how the event continues to affect Pearl, she never lets herself slip into bathos or make it all about her (Baxley helped come up with the dialogue for the scene, according to Murphy). Then there’s the end, when Altman subverts our expectations that Walker might appear and get shot; it’s a musician that gets shot and killed instead, and Hamilton, who’s wounded, urges everyone to stay calm during they melee by asserting, “This isn’t Dallas; it’s Nashville!”
Although Wolfgang Peterson’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire (written by Jeff Maguire) comes in the form of a thriller – aging Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) tries to stop ex-CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) from assassinating the current president – it also touches on the Kennedy assassination. Horrigan is portrayed as someone who was there in the motorcade when Kennedy was shot (he was based on real-life Secret Service agent Clint Hill“), and Leary is constantly taunting him about the fact he didn’t react in time to step in front of the bullet and whether his own life was just too precious to do his job properly. Horrigan doesn’t like talking about those days, especially with Leary but with anybody (when Lily Raines (Rene Russo), another agent, asks about the time Kennedy’s girlfriend was caught in the White House and Horrigan claimed she was with him, Horrigan only says, “That was different. He was different”). Finally, near the end of the movie, when Raines has to tell Horrigan he’s off the President’s detail, Horrigan finally talks about it:
You know, for years now I’ve listened to all these idiots on barstools, with their pet theories on Dallas. How it was the Cubans, or the CIA, or the white supremacists, or the Mob. Whether there was one weapon, or whether there was five. None of that’s meant too much to me. But Leary… he questioned whether I had the guts to take that fatal bullet. God, that was a beautiful day. The sun was out, been raining all morning, the air was… First shot sounded like a firecracker. I looked over, I saw him, I could tell he was hit. I don’t know why I didn’t react. I should have reacted. I should have been running flat-out. I just couldn’t believe it. If only I’d reacted, I could have taken that shot. And that would have been alright with me.
What makes the scene all the more moving is Eastwood, who normally didn’t get too emotional as an actor except when he was showing anger, finally letting his facade break down (in an unscripted move, Russo takes his hand after this speech, causing his eyes to fill up). But again, as in Nashville, we’re given a sense of history with what happened, and not just one character (or several) feeling the need to express emotions about the event, and it’s done with dignity, not bathos. Perhaps if more works of art depicting reactions to the Kennedy assassination were done like this, even with the generational factor, it would feel as moving as intended.
*-Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (written by Nora Ephron), from 1989, drives this point home when Jess (Bruno Kirby) compliments Harry (Billy Crystal) on his younger girlfriend, and Harry replies, “Of course, when I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot, she said, ‘Kennedy was shot?’”, and Jess winces. A different kind of misunderstanding arises in the novel version of Marathon Man; when Babe (the novel’s hero) is out walking with his dissertation professor Biesenthal (a former student of Babe’s father) when they happen by a bookstore with a picture of Kennedy in the display window (along with posters of Che Guevara and Bette Midler). Biesenthal asks Babe where he was when “he” died; Babe assumes Biesenthal meant Kennedy, and tells about a jock who told him when they were in high school, and since the joke wasn’t the smartest person in the world, Babe didn’t believe him at first. However, it turned out Biesenthal meant Babe’s father.
**-If I can be permitted my own self-indulgence for the moment; to the best of my knowledge, this was the first film I had seen depicting the reaction to Kennedy’s death, and my mother, who went to see this with me, said the reaction was pretty much true to life.
`-It’s important to remember, of course, there were those who actually either celebrated Kennedy’s death or didn’t see much to grieve about it. Among the most notorious reactions in the latter camp came from Malcolm X with his “chickens come home to roost” comment (Spike Lee’s Malcolm X recreates that moment – and uses footage from Oliver Stone’s JFK - as well as Elijah Mohammad’s (Al Freeman Jr.) subsequent suspension of Malcolm X (Denzel Washington).
“-Jim Lehrer’s recent novel Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination, is also partly inspired by Hill, with a reporter trying to help a Secret Service agent who has become desolate in the years after the assassination because he thinks it’s all his fault. It’s not a bad story, but it is told in a rather plodding, perfunctory style.
Underneath the chilly gray November sky
We can make believe that Kennedy is still alive
We’re shooting for the moon and smiling Jackie’s driving by
-Andy Prieboy, “Tomorrow Wendy”
About a third of the way into “Love Among the Ruins”, the second episode of the third season of Mad Men, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), one of the partners of an ad agency, gets a visit from his ex-wife Mona (Talia Balsam, Slattery’s real-life wife) and his daughter Margaret (Elizabeth Rice). After arguing over with Roger over whether his current wife Jane (Peyton List) should be allowed to come to Margaret’s wedding (Mona is willing to compromise, but Margaret doesn’t want her there at all), they show Roger invitations, and he picks one out. The date reads, “November 23, 1963″, and even though creator Matt Weiner had initially said he wasn’t going to cover that period in time during the show, most viewers could guess what that date signified. Sure enough, “The Grown-Ups”, the penultimate episode of the season, spent much of its running time showing the reaction of those four characters, as well as everyone else on the show, to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
In the introduction to his novel American Tabloid, James Ellroy argues:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
Blunt, of course (and, for critics of Ellroy, self-serving nihilism masquerading as insight), but Ellroy highlights an argument that’s been going on ever since this country was founded. One of the dominant strains of American culture (novels, music, plays, TV shows, and, of course, movies) has been the longing for a more innocent time, and hand-in-hand with that longing, of course, has been the nagging question of trying to figure out Where It All Went Wrong for us. Was it the Civil War? The Great Depression? The McCarthy era? Vietnam? Watergate? 9/11? Or was it, as Ellroy (and many others, to be sure) suggests, right when we came here? Or was it indeed that fateful Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, when the presidential limo drove past the school depository in Dallas?
When John F. Kennedy, the 33rd President of the United States, was assassinated that day, writers invoked Camelot, the long-running Broadway musical at the time, particularly the line from the show, “One brief shining moment” (William Manchester later used that line as the title for a book he wrote memorializing Kennedy). Just as people of my generation will remember where they were and what they were doing on 9/11, people of age at that time remember where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, and how seismic an event it seemed. It’s entirely fair to say, if you read or watch the coverage from that day, or read accounts of what happened, that the world seemed to stop, just as it did on 9/11. It’s true there were people who were glad Kennedy was dead (not least the people who circulated the “Kennedy: Wanted for Treason” ad that was in newspapers before his visit to Dallas), but it’s also true there was nationwide mourning, and even worldwide mourning, even in countries who weren’t necessarily friendly to the U.S.
As time has passed, the luster attached to JFK has faded somewhat, and his legacy is still up for debate. We know he suffered from Addison’s disease, which he had to take painkillers for. We also know the marriage of the Kennedys wasn’t the media-perfect marriage portrayed at the time, as he slept around with a lot of women. And for all those who see JFK as the man who challenged the country to do better (as per “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”), who was the president that championed civil rights, the space program, and nuclear disarmament, there are those who say his reputation as far as civil rights goes is overrated (it was LBJ, for example, who ultimately pushed through the civil rights bill) and he was more of a Cold War warrior than people would like to believe, pointing, for example, to his rhetoric as a senator (he gave full credence to the domino theory), his fascination with spy novels and how they influenced his thinking with regards to foreign policy, and the claims he was secretly plotting to neutralize Castro even while publicly decrying the Bay of Pigs. Still, whatever his legacy may ultimately be, there’s a reason why he still exerts a hold on history, as well as the people who lived during that time, and why his death still reverberates. For starters, he was the youngest president at the time to serve, and he died young (only 45 years old when he was assassinated). Also, however manufactured this image may have been, Kennedy was a president who, for the most part, was charming, engaging, glamorous, and thoughtful on camera and in front of the press, as well as witty in a way his immediate predecessors weren’t considered to be.* Finally, and arguably most importantly, even after 50 years, we still don’t know what happened.
We know when Kennedy was killed, of course. We know Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for both Kennedy’s assassination and the shooting death of Officer J.D. Tippit (which occurred about an hour later). And we know on November 24, as the Dallas police were taking Oswald to a car so they could transfer him to the county jail, Jack Ruby, a strip club owner, shot Oswald dead. But because Oswald was never tried and was never able to testify on his own behalf, and despite the fact the Warren Commission – set up by President Johnson to investigate what happened, headed up by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and including former CIA director Allen Dulles and future president Gerald Ford – concluded in its report Oswald did kill Kennedy and acted on his own, no one really knows for sure. There are people, to be sure, who believe the Warren Commission, given both the evidence at the time and how it can be interpreted today (with the technological advances available today) was correct in their verdict. And these people – including David W. Belin (former counsel to the Warren Commission), Gerald Posner (Case Closed) and Vincent Bugliosi (Four Days in November, re-issued as Parkland) – have said so over the years. But while the Warren Report was accepted for the most part when it was first released in 1964, over the next few decades, most Americans (at least, those who were polled) now believe there was some kind of conspiracy to kill Kennedy (even the House of Representatives Select Committee in 1979, while they said Oswald was the shooter, also admitted there was probably a conspiracy, though they weren’t able to name the conspirators).
There’s no exact agreement on what Oswald was (was he a CIA agent, a Soviet-controlled one, or simply a patsy?), who organized the assassination (the mob, the CIA, right-wing extremists, the Cubans), or why (revenge for the Bay of Pigs, to prevent Kennedy from withdrawing from Vietnam), but all conspiracy theorists, and their adherents, do agree there was a conspiracy. Is this simply because, as Manchester has stated, it seems inconceivable that someone like Oswald, a loner who went through a series of low-paying jobs and seemed no more than average-level competence and intelligence, could have assassinated the “leader of the free world” (Manchester doesn’t believe there was a conspiracy, but is sympathetic to those who do because of this)? Of is it something deeper? After all, we’ve seen in the years since Kennedy’s assassination how much the people in power have lied to us, over Vietnam, Watergate, and Iraq, and so on. We’ve also seen how the CIA and other government agencies have acted in secret; plotting to kill Castro (with the mob), infiltrating left-wing organizations, helping plan a coup in Chile, propping up the Shah in Iran and Noriega in Panama (at least until, for the latter, it was no longer politically expedient to do so). With all these attempts by our government and its intelligence agencies to get rid of leaders in power we didn’t like in other countries, who’s to say it couldn’t happen here?
Of course, since movies, television, literature and other arts reflect the culture and life of a country, they have also joined the debate.** As early as 1968, Brian De Palma’s film Greetings had a character (played by Gerrit Graham) who was an obsessed JFK assassination conspiracy theorist (he meets a kindred spirit in a bookstore; Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which came out 23 years later, had a similar scene). And though Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up doesn’t mention politics at all, it seems weirdly appropriate what little plot there was involved Thomas (David Hemmings), a photographer, becoming convinced he had photographed a murder, and that he studied his photograph as obsessively as JFK assassination conspiracy theorists would study the Zapruder film (or, at least, the photos of it made available in Life magazine). Still, it was mostly in the 70′s when movies and novels began to reflect the unease with the official position on the assassination. As with Vietnam and Watergate, movies, which were still controlled and released by major studios for the most part and were looking to please a wide audience and not court controversy, dealt with the subject obliquely rather than directly. But it’s surely no coincidence the 70′s gave rise to the conspiracy, or paranoid, thriller (and that it spread to such other genres as sci-fi, with movies like the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Of course, these weren’t the only movies out there, but they definitely seemed to catch a mood in the air.
Though the assassination debate seemed to cool off, at least culture-wise, in the 80′s (other kinds of movies were dominating the landscape at the time), it came roaring back with a vengeance when Oliver Stone came out with his movie JFK in 1991. In 1968, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison put businessman Clay Shaw on trial for conspiracy to kill Kennedy (Shaw was the only one ever tried on such a charge), and though Shaw was found not guilty, Stone hung his movie on Garrison’s trial and investigation as a way of countering what he called the “myth” of the Warren Commission (he called his own movie a “counter-myth”). Other historical dramas (or docudramas) had come under fire by people who thought the films were playing fast and loose with the facts, but few of them came under as much criticism as Stone’s film did. Even people who believed there was a conspiracy though Garrison was a crackpot and for Stone to use him as his hero was simply wrong. As much as the film was criticized, however, Stone’s film did re-ignite the debate, and possibly thanks to the furor it created, the JFK Records Act was passed in 1992, which established that Warren Commission records originally meant to be sealed until 2039 would now be released in 2017. And, of course, Stone’s earned over $200 million at the box office worldwide and was nominated for eight Oscars (winning Best Cinematography – for Robert Richardson – and Best Editing), and is being re-released into theaters, not long after Peter Landesman’s Parkland, which takes the opposite tack (being based on Bugliosi’s book), came out. This re-release, of course, comes out just in time for the 50th anniversary of the assassination, which has already inspired a glut of articles in newspapers and magazines (as well as online), and a number of new books as well.
I don’t make any claims as to have “solved” the murder, nor am I writing this to state my views on whether or not Oswald did act alone or whether there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy (though I happen to do believe there was a conspiracy). But I do think taking a serious look at how movies (as well as novels and TV shows) took a look at the assassination, the fallout, the debate is an interesting subject to write about. As you can see from the bibliography and filmography I list below, this is unfortunately not as comprehensive as I would have liked it to have been, but I do think I’ve caught an interesting cross-section of how U.S. culture has looked at the Kennedy assassination, from the serious to the crazy to even (in some cases) the satirical. In my next post, I’ll be looking exclusively at works that dealt with how the nation reacted to the assassination itself, as well as Wolfgang Peterson’s In the Line of Fire, which dealt with a character partly inspired by the Secret Service agent (Clint Hill) who was in the motorcade during the assassination. My second post will be about the conspiracy thriller films (and novels), from the 70′s and afterwards, that dealt with the assassination, either obliquely (The Parallax View), satirically (Winter Kills) or directly (Executive Action). My final post will be about Stone’s film, as well as a summing up. Whether you believe Kennedy’s murder was a “loss of innocence” moment or not, it’s still a seismic event in our history whose aftereffects continue to be debated, in media, our government, and our culture.
*- The Rat Pack, Rob Cohen’s entertaining (if not entirely credible) film about when Frank Sinatra (Ray Liotta), Dean Martin (Joe Mantegna), Sammy Davis Jr. (Don Cheadle) and the others were at their peak, has a scene where Sinatra is inspired to campaign for then-Senator Kennedy (William L. Petersen) when he sees him at a press conference on TV reading that famous “telegram” from his father, “Dear Jack; Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” In the movie, Sinatra is charmed by the fact Kennedy took criticism about his father’s wealth, turned it around, and made a joke about it.
**- Even Woody Allen, not exactly who you’d think of as a political comedian, took at jab at the official theory of JFK’s assassination in his routine “The Vodka Ad”, recorded from a 1968 show (found on the out-of-print compilation album Woody Allen: Stand-up Comic); he talks about how he turned down doing a vodka ad (at first; he did do some print ads): “I must say, that it took great courage at the time, ’cause I needed the money, I was writing and I needed to be free, creative. I was working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Report.”
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FILMOGRAPHY
Those marked with an asterisk (*) are books (or movies) that I’ve read (or seen), but wasn’t able to re-read (or re-watch) when I started researching for this project. Also, because of availability, there were books (Conspiracy, by Anthony Summers, books by Sylvia Meagher and Josiah Thompson), movies (Flashpoint, Ruby) and TV episodes (the Twilight Zone episode dealing with someone traveling in time to stop the assassination) I wasn’t able to get to before doing this, and I regret missing those.
The Warren Commission Report, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1992
Braver, Adam, November 22, 1963, Tin House Books, 2008
Brown, Jared, Alan J. Pakula; His Films and His Life, Back Stage Books, 2005
Bugliosi, Vincent, Parkland (previously issued as Four Days in November, taken from Reclaiming History), W.W. Norton, 2007
Condon, Richard, The Manchurian Candidate, McGraw Hill, 1959*
–, Winter Kills, Dell Publishing, 1974
DeLillo, Don, Libra, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1988
Ellroy, James, American Tabloid, Vintage Books, 1995
–, The Cold Six Thousand, Vintage Books, 2001
Epstein, Edward Jay, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, McGraw Hill, 1978
Forsyth, Frederick, The Day of the Jackal, Hutchinson & Company, 1971
–, The Odessa File, Viking Penguin Inc., 1972
–, The Negotiator, Bantam, 1989
–, The Deceiver, Bantam 1991
Garrison, Jim, On the Trail of Assassins, Sheridan Square, 1988*
Goldman, William, Marathon Man, Delacorte Press, 1974
Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, Harper & Row Publishers, 1988
Haley, Alex and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballantine Books, 1964
Hoberman, J., The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, The New Press, 2003
Hunter, Stephen, Point of Impact, Bantam Dell, 1993*
-, The Third Bullet, Simon & Schuster, 2013
King, Stephen, 11/22/63, Gallery Books, 2012
Kirshner, Jonathan, Hollywood’s Last Golden Age; Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America, Cornell University Press, 2012
Kurtz, Michael L., The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman versus Conspiracy, University Press of Kansas, 2006
Lee, Spike with Ralph Wiley, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X” Including the Screenplay, Hyperion, 1992
Lehrer, Jim, Top Down; A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination, Random House, 2013
Littell, Robert, The Sisters, Bantam Books, 1986
Ludlum, Robert, The Bourne Identity, Richard Marek, 1980*
Mailer, Norman, Oswald’s Tale; An American Mystery, Random House, 1995
Manchester, William, One Brief Shining Moment; Remembering Kennedy, Little, Brown & Company, 1983*
Marrs, Jim, Crossfire: The Plot to Kill Kennedy, Carroll & Graf, 1989*
McCarry, Charles, The Tears of Autumn, Woodstock, 1974
Peretti, Burton W., The Leading Man; Hollywood and the Presidential Image, Rutgers University Press, 2012
Posner, Gerald, Case Closed, Anchor, 1993
Rollins, Peter C., and John E. O’Connor (Editors), Hollywood’s White House; The American Presidency in Film and History, The University Press of Kentucky, 2003
Shapiro, Stanley, A Time to Remember, Random House, 1986
Singer, Loren, The Parallax View, Franklin Watts, 1981 (first published 1970)
Stone, Oliver with Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film, Applause Books, 1992
Stone, Oliver with Eric Hamburg, Nixon: The Screenplay, Hyperion, 1995*
Stone, Oliver and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, 2012
Weisberg, Harold, Case Open; The Omissions, Distortions and Falsifications of “Case Closed”, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994
Wills, Gary and Ovid Demaris, Jack Ruby, Da Capo Press (originally New American Library), 1968
Wrone, David R., The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003
An American Affair, W: Alex Metcalf; D: William Olsson; S: Gretchen Mol, Cameron Bright, James Rebhorn, Mark Pellegrino, Perrey Reeves, Noah Wyle; 2009; Screen Media*
Annie Hall, W: Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman; D: Allen; S: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon; 1977; United Artists
Blow Out, W, D: Brian De Palma; S: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz, John Aquino, John McMartin; 1981; Paramount
Blow-Up, W: Michelangelo Antonioni, Edward Bond (English dialogue), Tonino Guerra (from the short story “Las Babas Del Diablo” by Julio Cortazar; S: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin; 1966; MGM
Bull Durham, W, D: Ron Shelton; S: Susan Sarandon, Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, William O’Leary, Jenny Robertson; 1988, Orion
The Conversation, W, D: Francis Ford Coppola; S: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams, Teri Garr, Harrison Ford; 1974; Paramount
Dave, W: Gary Ross; D: Ivan Reitman; S: Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames, Ben Kingsley, Oliver Stone, Larry King, 1993, Warner Brothers
Executive Action, W: Dalton Trumbo (from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane); D: David Miller; S: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer, Ed Lauter; 1973; National General Pictures
A Few Good Men, W: Aaron Sorkin (from his play); D: Rob Reiner; S: Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollak, James Marshall, Wolfgang Bodison; 1992; Paramount
Four Days in November, W: Theodore Strauss (narration); D: Mel Stuart; Narrated by Richard Basehart; 1964; United Artists
Greetings, W: Brian De Palma and Charles Hirsch; D: De Palma; S: Jonathan Warden, Robert De Niro, Gerrit Graham, Megan McCormick, Ted Lescault, Allen Garfield; 1968; West End Films
Hot Shots, W: Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft; D: Abrahams; S: Charlie Sheen, Valeria Golino, Cary Elwes, Lloyd Bridges, Kevin Dunn, William O’Leary, Heidi Swedberg, 1991, 20th Century Fox
In the Line of Fire, W: Jeff Maguire; D: Wolfgang Peterson; S: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Mahoney; 1993; Columbia
JFK, W: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar (from the book On the Trail of Assassins by Jim Garrison and the book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy); D: Stone; S: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Doyle Murray, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland; 1991; Warner Brothers
Love Field, W: Don Roos; D: Jonathan Kaplan; S: Michelle Pfeiffer, Dennis Haysbert, Brian Kerwin, Beth Grant; 1992; Orion
Malcolm X, W: Spike Lee, Arnold Perl (from the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley); D: Lee; S: Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Al Freeman Jr., Albert Hall, Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee; 1992; Warner Brothers
The Manchurian Candidate (1962), W: George Axelrod (from the novel by Richard Condon); D: John Frankenheimer; S: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Lee, James Gregory, John McGiver, Leslie Parrish, Khigh Dhiegh; 1962; United Artists
The Manchurian Candidate (2004); W: Dean Georgaris and Daniel Pyne (from the novel by Richard Condon and the screenplay by George Axelrod); D: Jonathan Demme; S: Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber, Meryl Streep, Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, Vera Farmiga, Bruno Ganz; 2004; Paramount
Mermaids, W: June Roberts (from the novel by Patty Dann); D: Richard Benjamin; S: Winona Ryder, Cher, Bob Hoskins, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling; 1990; Orion
Nashville, W: Joan Tewkesbury; D: Robert Altman; S: Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Geraldine Chaplin, Henry Gibson, Scott Glenn, Barbara Harris, David Hayward, Michael Murphy, Gwen Welles; 1975; Paramount
Night Moves, W: Alan Sharp; D: Arthur Penn; S: Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Edward Binns, Harris Yullin, James Woods, Melanie Griffith; 1975; Warner Brothers
Nixon, W: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson, Oliver Stone; D: Stone; S: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen, Larry Hagman, Ed Harris, Bob Hoskins, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Sorvino, J.T. Walsh, James Woods; 1995; Hollywood Pictures
The Odessa File, W: George Markstein and Kenneth Ross (from the novel by Frederick Forsyth); D: Ronald Neame; S: Jon Voight, Maximilian Schell, Maria Schell, Mary Tamm, Derek Jacobi, Peter Jeffrey; 1974, Columbia
Oswald’s Ghost, W, D: Robert Stone; S: Robert Dallek, Edward Jay Epstein, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Mark Lane, Norman Mailer, Dan Rather, Josiah Thompson; 2007; BBC
The Parallax View, W: David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (from the novel by Loren Singer); D: Alan J. Pakula; S: Warren Beatty, Hume Cronyn, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn; 1974; Paramount
Parkland, W, D: Peter Landesman (from the book Four Days in November by Vincent Bugliosi); S: James Badge Dale, Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Colin Hanks, Ron Livingston, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver; 2013; The American Film Company
The Rat Pack, W: Kario Salem; D: Rob Cohen; S: Ray Liotta, Joe Mantegna, Don Cheadle, Angus Macfadyen, William L. Petersen, Zeljko Ivanek, Megan Dodds, Deborah Kara Unger; 1998; HBO
The Rock, W: Douglas S. Cook, Mark Rosner and David Weisberg; D: Michael Bay; S: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse, William Forsythe, Michael Biehn, Vanessa Marcil; 1996; Hollywood Pictures*
Salt, W: Kurt Wimmer; D: Philip Noyce; S: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbychski, Olek Krupa, Andre Braugher; 2010; Columbia*
Seven Days in May, W: Rod Serling (from the novel by Charles W. Bailey II & Fletcher Knebel), D: John Frankenheimer; S: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March, Edmond O’Brien, Martin Balsam, George Macready, Andrew Duggan, Ava Gardner; 1964; Paramount
Shooter, W: Jonathan Lemkin (from the novel Point of Impact by Stephen Hunter); D: Antoine Fuqua; S: Mark Wahlberg, Michael Pena, Danny Glover, Kate Mara, Ned Beatty; 2007; Paramount*
Slacker, W, D: Richard Linklater; S: Richard Linklater, John Slate; 1991; Orion Classics
Sneakers, W: Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes, Phil Alden Robinson; D: Robinson; S: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, Ben Kingsley; 1992; Universal
Stakeout, W: Jim Kouf; D: John Badham; S: Richard Dreyfus, Emilio Estevez, Madeline Stowe, Aidan Quinn, Dan Lauria, Forest Whitaker, Earl Billings, Ian Tracey; 1987; Touchstone*
Watchmen, W: David Hayter and Alex Tse (from the graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore); D: Zack Snyder; S: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode,, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino; 2009; Warner Brothers*
When Harry Met Sally, W: Nora Ephron; D: Rob Reiner; S: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Steven Ford, Harley Jane Kozak; 1989; Columbia
Winter Kills, W, D: William Richert (from the novel by Richard Condon); S: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Belinda Bauer, Richard Boone, Ralph Meeker; 1979; AVCO Embassy
Yuri Nosenko, KGB, W: Stephen Davis; D: Mick Jackson; S: Tommy Lee Jones, Josef Sommer, Ed Lauter, Oleg Rudnik; 1986; BBC*
Zoolander, W: John Hamburg, Drake Sather, Ben Stiller; D: Stiller; S: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, David Duchovny, Jerry Stiller; 2001; Paramount*
“The Magic Bullet”, Angel, W, D: Jeffrey Bell (created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt); S: David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Alexis Denisof, J. August Richards, Amy Acker, Vincent Kartheiser, Andy Hallett, Gina Torres, Patrick Fischler; Air Date: 4/16/03; Network: The WB*
“Question Authority”, Justice League Unlimited, W: Dwayne McDuffie (created by Gardner Fox); D: Dan Riba; S: The voices of George Newburn, Jeffrey Combs, Amy Acker, Chris Cox, Dana Delany, Clancy Brown; Air Date: 6/25/05; Network: Cartoon Network
“The Grown Ups”, Mad Men, W: Brett Johnson and Matthew Weiner (created by Weiner); D: Barbet Schroeder; S: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, John Slattery, Rich Sommer, Mark Moses, Jared Harris, Talia Balsam, Elizabeth Rice, Alison Brie, Christopher Stanley; Air Date: 11/1/09; Network: AMC
“Love Among the Ruins”, Mad Men,W: Cathryn Humphris and Matthew Weiner (created by Weiner); D: Lesli Linka Glatter; S: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Talia Balsam, Elizabeth Rice; Air Date: 8/23/09; Network: AMC
“The Boyfriend, Part 1″, Seinfeld, W: Larry David & Larry Levin (created by Jerry Seinfeld and David); D: Tom Cherones; S: Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards, Wayne Knight, Keith Hernandez; Air Date: 2/12/92; Network: NBC
“Everything Must Go”, Wild Palms (mini-series), W: Bruce Wagner; D: Peter Hewitt; S: James Belushi, Dana Delany, Robert Loggia, Kim Cattrall, Angie Dickinson, Ernie Hudson, Oliver Stone; Air Date: 5/16/93; Network: ABC*
It’s tough to tell these days if a “trend” in pop culture, especially in movies, is genuine or manufactured by the media for the sake of a good story. After all, there are several hundred movies released every year, and while studios are always trying to copy past successes, each movie goes through a long gestation period for the most part, so its place in a “trend” can be accidental. Plus, as I mentioned before, the media, especially these days, will report or imagine a “trend” because they think it’ll sell their story. Nevertheless, while it may not have qualified as a “trend”, there was an interesting, and welcome, development in movies in the latter part of 1992. At first glance, such movies as The Waterdance, Passion Fish and Lorenzo’s Oil (the latter recently in the news when one of the real-life people involved in the story died) might merely seem as made-for-TV movies released in theaters. The first two movies were both about paraplegics struggling to readjust to life, while the last movie was about the parents of a sickly child trying to find a cure for his disease, and taking on the medical establishment to do so. Yet instead of following the pattern of the average disease-of-the-week movie (which all three movies resembled on paper, even if only Lorenzo’s Oil dealt with an actual disease), these movies didn’t coast on their good intentions, but dealt with their subjects with honesty and tough-mindedness, avoided preachiness, and embraced complexity instead of trying to present a simplistic account (they even had humor, though in Lorenzo’s Oil - the most emotionally wrenching of the three, and my personal favorite of them – the humor was more fleeting). If you cried at these movies, it felt earned, instead of making you feel as if you’d been jerked around. Along with “disease-of-the-week” movies, another made-for-TV movie staple at that time was the disaster-of-the-week movie. Just as those three movies trumped their format, Peter Weir’s 1993 movie Fearless (not to be confused, of course, with the 2006 Jet Li movie of the same name) was a disaster movie in name only. In point of fact, it’s as much a ghost story as a disaster movie.
Certainly, when we first meet Max Klein (Jeff Bridges), there’s something a little off about him. As we hear the sound of a plane that’s crashed (as well as the faint sound of emergency vehicles), we see Max carrying a baby, and leading a group of people through a smoke-filled cornfield. But while the others are walking as if they were in a daze (which, of course, they are), Max is walking purposefully (if carefully). As they reach the end of the cornfield, they (and we) see the full devastation of the crash, along with the firemen trying to put out the fire, stunned maintenance workers looking on (a few get down to their knees and cross themselves), and rescue workers trying to tend to other passengers. One rescue worker sees Max and the others, gives a yell, and runs over to them, asking if they’re okay. Max indicates to Byron (Daniel Cerny), a young boy who’s been walking with him, that he should go with the rescue worker; Byron doesn’t want to, but Max insists it’ll be all right, and points out he has to return the baby to its mother. As Max starts walking towards the wreckage, we hear part of the plane is about to explode, and we see rescue workers dragging away a woman, who’s screaming because she wants to go back and get her baby (when the plane does go up in flames, the woman is shattered). As Max reaches another part of the plane, a paramedic asks if he in the crash. Max looks at him blankly for a second, denies it, and says he’s just trying to find the baby’s mother. The paramedic directs him to an area where an inconsolable woman is sitting with a friend of hers. Max thrusts the baby in front of the crying woman and asks if it’s hers. The woman becomes overjoyed, takes the baby, and hugs it.
His job done, Max now wants to get out of there. He tells a startled cabbie (who’s filming the wreckage) he wants to go to the nearest hotel. In his hotel room, he takes a shower, looks at himself in the mirror (as if he were inspecting himself), and says, “You’re not dead,” as if he doesn’t quite believe it. A little later, he sits by the side of the road in a car he’s rented, and after doing that for a little, he drives off. Turning on the radio, he goes past all the stations covering the crash until he finds a Spanish-speaking station playing music. He sticks his head out the window, turns the music up, and looks like someone without a care in the world. Eventually, Max looks up Alison (Debra Monk), an old girlfriend he hasn’t seen in about 20 years. We see more evidence he’s changed; where he was once deathly allergic to strawberries, he consumes a whole bowl of them in front of the startled Alison (he even asks for them after initially ordering strawberry pancakes). This obsession with “forbidden” fruit (which is how Max refers to the strawberries), as he gently deflects Alison when she attempts a pass at him.
Eventually, the police do track him down, as does a representative of the airline, who offers to pay for his train ride back home. To her astonishment, Max says he wants to fly, and fly first class. So, of course, when he does, he’s accompanied by Dr. Perlman (John Turturro), a psychologist hired by the airline to counsel the crash victims (he specializes in dealing with trauma victims). Max, however, is completely indifferent to him (when they meet later in the movie, Max tells Dr. Perlman, “I haven’t give you a moment’s thought since we first met”). At home, Max is reunited with his overjoyed wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) and son Jonah (Spencer Vrooman). He seems happy enough to see them, but is distant, especially since Stephen Brillstein (Tom Hulce), a lawyer, is there. Brillstein is representing the survivors of the crash, as well as the families of the victims (these include, as it turns out, Nan Gordon (Deirdre O’Connell), the widow of Max’s business partner Jeff (John De Lancie) – they were both architects). Though Max accidentally slaps Dr. Perlman when he orders him out (Brillstein and Perlman were about to get into a major argument), he still barely takes notice of him; on the other hand, he’s contemptuous of Brillstein, particularly when he thinks Brillstein is asking him to lie (Brillstein is driving Max to break the news to Nan, and when Max thinks he’s being told to lie, he screams so loudly Brillstein has to pull the car over). At Nan’s, Max is appropriately gentle, saying all the right things (that Jeff loved her), and the next day, when Byron, his father (Randle Mell), and a bunch of reporters are waiting outside as Max tries to put Jonah on the bus for school, he acts the same way (he’s happy to see Byron, and tells his father how brave Byron is). However, Max seems cut off from everything else. When Laura asks him the night he comes back, as they’re going to bed, why he didn’t call, Max replies, “I thought I was dead.”
In truth, Max acts like he’s on another plane (if you’ll pardon the expression) of existence. To get away from those reporters, he runs away, runs across the crowded freeway, and yells to the sky, “You want to kill me, but you can’t!” Later, when he and Laura are meeting with Nan in Brillstein’s office, and Brillstein is trying to make sure Nan is taken care of, Max insists on saying the cold truth at first, and though he eventually relents, he runs out of the building onto the roof, and starts dancing on the precipice. And while he has dreams about the crash (where we see he was scared of flying), he acts like he isn’t affected. As the befuddled Dr. Perlman admits, “(Max) thinks the crash was the best thing that ever happened to him.” In desperation, Dr. Perlman tries to pair Max up with Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), the woman we saw screaming for her baby at the beginning of the movie. Since the crash, Carla has become completely inconsolable, only going outside to go to church, and her husband Manny (Benicio Del Toro) is frustrated about not being able to bring her out of her depression. And when Dr. Perlman has a meeting with all the survivors (except for Max, who most likely refused to come), Carla ends up yelling at the flight attendant (Cordis Heard) who told her just to hold on to her baby (we see, in Max’s dreams, Carla trying to strap Bubble (her baby) in, and the flight attendant, who’s harried and afraid, telling Carla this). Carla accuses the flight attendant of killing her baby, and when Dr. Perlman tries to intervene, accuses him of only wanting people to say nice things.
Max, on the other hand, is able to get through to her. He tells her about his father dying of a heart attack in front of him, which made him stop believing in God. That doesn’t stop him from going with Carla to church, or asking her to accept the fact nothing bad will happen to her as long as she’s with him (“So, what are you telling me, that there’s no God, but there’s you?” she asks skeptically). She does get upset with him when he says they’re ghosts (as he’s driving her back from church), but otherwise, she does feel safe around him, even letting him talk her into doing things like buying Christmas presents for Bubble and his father.And in the most wrenching scene in the movie, when Carla tearfully confesses the guilt that’s been weighing her down all this time – she thinks it was her fault Bubble died because she let go when the plane landed – Max, after a moment of panic, comes up with the solution; he takes a toolbox out of the trunk, puts Carla (who’s so grief-stricken at this point she can only repeat the “Hail Mary” prayer over and over) in the backseat of his car, tells her to hold the box as if it was Bubble (she initially resists, but then takes it even as she cries and continues to pray), gets in the car, and drives it into a brick wall (the use of the intro to U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name” makes the scene all the more powerful). When Brillstein hears about it, he assumes it was a suicide attempt (when Carla says Max was trying to show her something, he quips, “What, that brick walls are hard?”), but to Carla, it proves there was nothing she could have done, and it finally releases the overwhelming guilt from her shoulders (if not the sorrow). As Carla tries to explain to Laura when he visits her, she feels as if Max is an angel sent to her. Laura, who was initially wary of Carla (Max, after meeting Carla for the first time, tells Laura, “I have an overwhelming feeling of love towards (Carla)”, but while Dr. Perlman says it’s just Max wanting to save her, Laura isn’t sure), responds, “(Max)’s not an angel. He is a man.”
If the film were only about how Max saves Carla, it might have stayed in made-for-TV territory, even with the wrenching honesty Weir and writer Rafael Yglesias (adapting his own novel) bring to the material. But Weir and Yglesias are smart enough to show what Max’s behavior is costing his family and himself. It’s not just the fact Max won’t open up to Laura about what happened, it’s that he seems to feel he’ll be giving something up about himself if he changes back to what he was before the crash. In a heart-to-heart talk Laura tries to have with Max after dinner on the day he danced around on the roof, she tells him their marriage has been good (even when she hated him), and asks him to let her in to what he’s feeling. When he refuses, Laura angrily wishes she had been in the plane with him. As for Jonah, Max complains about him playing video games with “fake” deaths, insisting he shouldn’t be protected from the real world (Jonah, in turn, is freaked out by Byron, who always comes by and insists on talking about the crash). When Max goes so far as to throw away Jonah’s video game after a Thanksgiving dinner, Laura tells Max she’s willing to end their marriage to protect their son. And while Max may think he’s guided by some kind of spirit – right before he runs across the freeway, he sees sunlight reflected towards him, and seeing that same light on the plane right when the captain announced they were going to crash made him not afraid anymore; finally, when Carla makes her tearful confession and Max is at a loss, he looks to the sky – that’s left ambiguous as well. As Dr. Perlman points out, what Max is doing is similar to Vietnam vets he treated who felt they were invincible, and it’s cutting Max off from everyone; even Carla eventually tells him he needs to help himself.
While critics and directors have long appreciated Bridges’ talent, it took a while for audiences and the Academy to recognize how good he was (he finally won a Best Actor Oscar in 2009 for Crazy Heart). Part of this is because, for the most part, he refused to take roles that merely traded in on his looks (even The Last Picture Show, where he played the Big Man on Campus, cut him to size somewhat), part of is because he mostly eschewed bib-budget tentpole movies (with occasional exceptions such as the 1976 remake of King Kong, the two Tron movies, and Adrian Lyne’s glossy thriller Jagged Edge), preferring to take more offbeat fare, but mostly, it was because he never seemed to be straining for effect, and usually made it look easy. That’s carried over through his best performances, from The Last Picture Show to boxcar racer Junior Johnson in The Last American Hero to The Dude in The Big Lebowski, among others, and his work here, which is still my favorite performance of his. Even in the flashback to the plane ride before it crashed, when Max is at his most uptight, Max never overdoes anything. He never asks for audience sympathy, even when he eventually asks for Laura to save him. And he plays up the dark humor in the role, as when he tells Carla the car they’re in is safe and he’s a safe driver, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be killed. Even then, he never overdoes it. Rossellini and Perez have more showy roles, but even they get to show a more subtle side. For Rossellini, it’s when Dr. Perlman visits her where she works (she teaches dance to young girls). When Laura sees him, she cajoles Dr. Perlman into pretending to be a tree so the girls can rehearse for their pageant. The girls pretend to be the wind blowing up against the tree, and as Laura and the girls repeat this action, Rossellini gives a small smile to indicate how much she enjoys the doctor’s slight discomfort. In an interview Perez gave when the movie came out, Perez mentioned how much she liked the role because it allowed her to be silent, and that’s never more apparent than in the scene where Carla and Max are in the mall, right before he suggests they buy presents for Bubble and his father. She sees a woman with a baby that’s about Bubble’s age, walks up behind the woman, gently touches the baby, closes her eyes, and breathes in, as if she’s taking in how the baby smells. As the woman walks away, Max, concerned, walks up to her, and Carla quietly says, “Maybe I am a ghost.” During awards season (Perez was the only one nominated for the movie, for Best Supporting Actress, though she lost to Anna Paquin for The Piano), the two clips of Perez they showed most often were the scene where Carla tells Max he needs to save himself, and when she confesses her guilt to him, but as powerful as those scenes are, that mall scene is equally fine. Turturro is also good at playing a man who’s probably essentially decent but is out of his depth with Max and Carla. The one performance that came under fire when the movie came out was Hulce’s, but while there’s no denying the role is a caricature (Brillstein will say something, then admit, “I know; I’m horrible!”), he is basically looking out for his client’s best interests as well as his (as when he warns Max Nan might get nothing).
Like Bridges, Weir tends to get overlooked. Part of this is how infrequently he works these days (The Way Back, which opened for an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of 2010, is his most recent film, and his previous film, Master and Commander, came out in 2003), but also because he isn’t an easy director to categorize. He has his sentimental side (which came off well in Witness, one of his best films, but not so well in Dead Poets Society and Green Card), but mostly, he seems unafraid of the contradictions that many mainstream films shy away from, as he demonstrates in films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, The Truman Show and this (along with Witness, my favorite films of his). Along those lines, this is the rare movie about redemption (as well as salvation) that doesn’t deal with them in sentimentalized terms, but in ways that are intellectual and yet emotional, and that combination is another hallmark of his best work. Finally, his films tend to have amazing images that, at their best, don’t overwhelm the story, but fit right in. I’ve described some of them in this movie (Max going across the highway), and then there’s the plane crash, which comes at the climax of the movie; it manages to convey the full horror without being exploitative. It, along with what’s being intercut with the crash (Max finally reacting to the horror he went through) brings Fearless to an ending that is as resonant as anything else in the film. It’s also why the film transcends what it could have been; a disaster-of-the-week movie.