Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK (1991): The Gullibility of Oliver Stone

It was fifty years ago today that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated.  I cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that Lee Harvey Oswald was the gunman, but Oswald’s behavior during the relevant time period was suspicious.  For example, sending a note that he intended to “blow up” the FBI just a few weeks before Kennedy was killed or within an hour after the assassination fatally shooting a Dallas patrolman by the name of J.D. Tippit.

So we come to Oliver Stone’s 189 minute JFK – released to theatres almost 28-years after the assassination that brings us no closer to an understanding as to what happened on November 22, 1963.  I’ve heard many commentators in the past weeks speak of the Kennedy shooting as the “end of innocence” in America.  Stone obviously subscribes to such a theory seeing that he holds John F. Kennedy in such esteem.  However, Stone does the fallen president no favors with his fairy-tale depiction of what occurred.  In Stone’s mind, there would have been no Vietnam fiasco had Kennedy lived, corporations would have been kept in check and never profited from the war, and there would have been transparency concerning security agencies like the FBI and CIA.  Oliver Stone appears to believe he can speak of credibility and the search for truth while at the same time fudging the facts.
 The action in the movie revolves around New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s 1966 investigation of the assassination.  I’m not sure what Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) would have made of Stone’s film.  Seeing that Garrison was so skeptical of the Warren Commission’s report, what would he have felt about a film that theorizes that it could have been LBJ, Castro, J. Edgar Hoover, the Mob, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secret Service or any number of CIA agents directing what occurred? 
In Stone’s retelling, Garrison was a good family man whose zeal for locating the truth upsets his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) and many of his own staff.   The media members, who obviously must be in on the conspiracy, ruthlessly attack Garrison for his wasting of taxpayer money.  Some witnesses refuse to testify.  One witness dies (though not before telling Garrison about a CIA Operation nicknamed “Operation Mongoose).  Yet conversations with the mysterious man named X (Donald Sutherland) convince Garrison that he is on the right track.  It all eventually leads to the trial of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) that takes place in 1969.
The closest we come to hearing about what happened is Garrison’s theory that there were three gunmen at Dealey Plaza, and six shots were fired instead of the three cited in the Warren report.  Though jury members allegedly believed a conspiracy occurred, they acquitted Shaw of all charges because not enough evidence existed to connect him.
While I know it was not intentional on the part of Stone, even if the courtroom scenes in JFK were accurately depicted I would have gone along with the jury in acquitting Shaw as well.  I wouldn’t have come away convinced that there was proof of a conspiracy.  Even for those that have not followed one of the most written about happenings in American history, this film does not convince.  How would Garrison or X ever have known or demonstrated all that they claim to have been true?
The film is just too long to be entertaining, but I wouldn’t be much taken with the movie in any case.  For mere movie viewing, the courtroom scene is probably the best portion of the film.  Garrison has a field day discussing the magic bullet theory (in the film), which apparently the real Jim Garrison never addressed in the actual trial.  And while Garrison keeps repeating how Kennedy’s head goes back and to the left to the jury during showings of the Zapruder film, he sort of neglects to mention that Kennedy’s head also at one point goes forward.
We have quite the impressive cast for a film that doesn’t succeed.  Besides those we have already mentioned, we have Gary Oldman as Oswald, Kevin Bacon as a male prostitute and witness, Ed Asner as an FBI agent, and Joe Pesci as  David Ferrie (the co-conspirator who dies before he can be a witness for Garrison).
John F. Kennedy exuded optimism while in the Oval Office that is sadly missed.  Some would say that optimism was the part of the innocence that was lost that day.  However, we can’t mistake the naiveté and faked earnestness of someone like Stone for the real innocence that we need. 
Kennedy presumably demonstrated toughness when facing down Khrushchev.  He likely was very shrewd in picking Lyndon Johnson to be his Vice-President – who according to Stone may have had Kennedy killed.  (Without Johnson, Kennedy may never have been President.)  He may have been timid in not further pursuing civil rights legislation – most of which only came into being when Johnson took office.  He also may have begun the escalation of America’s presence in Vietnam.  Presidents always have been and probably always will be complicated characters with a mixture of virtues and flaws.
November 22, 2013
© Robert S. Miller 2013