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“It’s A Mystery Wrapped In A Riddle Inside An Enigma!”: The JFK Assassination In Culture Part 3

November 22, 2013

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) giving the closing speech of the film.

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 (ArgoDjango UnchainedLincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, four of last year’s Best Picture nominees, are prime examples, as are Oscar contenders this year such as The ButlerCaptain 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.

Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) being questioned by Garrison.

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.

Garrison with Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) in Washington D.C.

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!”).

David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) denying he knows Oswald.

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).

Seinfeld parodies the “magic bullet” theory.

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 SundayHeaven and EarthW.), but he also made movies that seemed tired and that the old Stone could have made provocative (AlexanderWorld Trade CenterWall 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.

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