JFK Provided An Itch That Must Forever Be Scratched
When I was a child, I wanted to be a war historian. I devoured books about the Civil War and WWII, studied maps and battlefield statistics, and watched movies like Glory, The Longest Day and Gettysburg on a loop. When I was at my small liberal arts Quaker college, I had a session with a Quaker "Seer" who told me that in a past life I was probably a soldier in the Civil War. So that explains that, right?
Yet it was the films of Oliver Stone that turned that childhood fascination into a tween obsession. First, it was Platoon, the first war film I ever saw that didn't make war look like it was supposed to be a fun time. Not long after that, it was JFK, his three hour-plus magnum opus about alleged conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the cover up that followed- it was the ultimate beguiling look at American history from a provacateur who knew no bounds. Nobody can come away from this film without having their perspective on 20th century America altered somewhat. After I showed it to my girlfriend for the first time recently, we were both scouring the internet for clues, texting relatives who lived through the events to find out what they thought. Stone turns the viewer into a tin-foil hatter.
Now of course, the official history books tell us that Lee Harvey Oswald took out Kennedy, after firing three shots from the sixth floor window a book depository in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, on that fateful November 22nd. That's the story- but does anybody really believe that's what happened? Even my girlrfriend's mother, who is certainly not a conspiracy theorist, told us "how could he have done all of that by himself?" What JFK considers is, what if it wasn't just Oswald? What if it was a conspiracy that went to the very top levels of our government?
The film follows former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner in one of his finest roles, as he opens a case against alleged CIA operative Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for conspiring to kill Kennedy, years after that fateful day. The cast is a who's who of Hollywood's finest character actors and movie stars, a list that will blow your mind a bit (Jack Lemmon! John Candy! Walter Matthau! Michael Rooker! Gary Oldman! Laurie Metcalf! Joe Pesci! Kevin Bacon! So many more!) Stone had a task before him that few other filmmakers could really pull off- a three hour film combining multiple formats, film stocks, photographic styles, archival footage, relying heavily on exposition and montage- not to mention, among other wild theories, essentially accusing Lyndon Baines Johnson of having been complicit in the death of his predecessor. How could he pull that off? Amazingly he does, resulting in a behemoth of a film that is as rewatchable as All The President's Men or Zodiac. It's a film that simply bites off way more than it can chew, and still manages to succeed.
Even if many of the details are fudged, the overall thesis statement- that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy orchestrated by shadowy CIA operatives, after he repeatedly prioritized democratic processes over their shadow wars in Cuba and Vietnam, is believable. What is unfortunate is that this type of theorizing, often without solid evidence (or even with the presence of fake evidence), has been the focal point of the Russian-led misinformation campaigns that have recently torn apart social media platforms. Aided significantly by our own willing Americans (Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich), conspiracy theories used to be the pets and weapons of the radical left. Now they are the devices of white supremacists who wish to tear democracy apart. What is truly upsetting though, is seeing the manner in which Stone himself has gotten involved- cozying up to, and doing a four part interview series with Vladimir Putin himself. While I have not seen the interviews myself, his interview with Stephen Colbert left a lot to be desired, in which he refused to utter any critique about the murderous demagogue, sadly reminding me a little of someone else we know.
Stone has long had an axe to grind with the U.S. Government, and rightfully so. Every single one of his major films has been some kind of deep dive into a particular American institution, always with a pointed critical lens. He takes on the VA in Born On The Fourth Of July, the Vietnam War in the classic Platoon, the NFL in Any Given Sunday, the corruption of Nixon in Nixon, and most recently, domestic spying in Snowden. At the end of that film, the eponymous character struggles to find something positive to say about America while taking a polygraph test. Is Stone so done with his home country that he is willing to drink whatever kool-aid Putin puts in front of him? It's a long journey from the passionate investigative spirit of JFK, but looking back it is quite easy to draw a direct line from there to here.
Even if today's Oliver Stone is a story of disappointment, JFK inspired in me an enduring fascination in American history, a wise mistrust of the status quo and government, but also the belief that dedicated citizens can change things and do better within the system itself. Like John Williams' wavering, patriotic score, it ultimately believes in the America that elected someone like John F. Kennedy. It seeks to fight and uncover the America that took him down.