Even today, Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories show up so often in film, it’s really an Oliver-Stonish disservice to pick it out for criticism. Still, the myth of the Warren Commission remains a potent subject. If one has to name the film best known for taking it on, then it still must be Stone’s JFK.
The official story of the lone gunman certainly deserved a healthy bit of skepticism from its inception. Yet did even the most corrupt right-wing ideologist deserve the assault-of-the-senses that Stone created? One has to admit to a lot of ambivalence; the film gives us theory after theory, but no resolution. Cinematically, JFK is a truly reckless drive. It’s joyfully deconstructive and self referential (unless one is crazy enough to think Stone magically found footage of Jack Ruby confessing to being a part of THE CONSPIRACY). The film turns the murder of Kennedy into nothing less than a parable about the rise and fall of the United States and its empire. Strangely, the problem of the film – its cartoon history of corrupt officials, assassinations, phony wars, and bureaucratic deceit – transforms JFK into one of the most entertainingly misleading movies of all time.
Many critics on the right attacked JFK for its allegedly subversive anti-Americanism. If anything, JFK is choking on patriotism and the fear of American innocence being violently perverted by some mysterious junta. If this isn’t Capra, Capra never existed. Of course, there are differences. The old-time sentimentality had Donna Reed while Stone packs in dead bodies, foul language, dizzying camera angles, and enough Shakespeare to last a lifetime – and that’s just in the first hour of a three-hour pummeling session that makes the radicalism in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X almost trite by contrast.
Even talking about the “story” of JFK misconstrues its essential purpose. Stone reconstructs district attorney Jim Garrison into a selfless, truth-seeking soul and the Constitution’s greatest believer. It’s not exactly the real Jim. In any case, the film is largely fantasy as Garrison’s attempt to find justice becomes a springboard for Stone to deconstruct American history and the JFK case from almost every vantage point. Bizarrely, the logic is self-refuting. The film refers over and over again to Eisenhower’s famous speech on the military-industrial complex, but that makes no sense since Eisenhower authorized coups and interventions into Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia!
The film is on pretty dubious political grounds given the massive public record of JFK’s anti-Communism. The entire film is making use of some serious moral authority for problematic purposes. The mass murder of so many Vietnamese (one to three million by some estimates) deserves better treatment, although in all fairness, Stone at least acknowledges the evils committed there in Heaven and Earth (1993). Even many JFK conspiracy buffs pay that no mind. Since this is not a sociology essay, this deserves separate treatment.
Here the context matters, since this is a film very much of the early 1990s as Stone reads the Kennedy assassination as being essentially about domestic, not foreign, fascism. The main shock troops being the FBI and the Dallas police obstructing Garrison at every turn. The CIA turn out to be the obligatory super-villains, and Pentagon generals round out the cast of the conspirators. The oddest thing is that the film is paranoid itself. Every frame packs so much information, facts, and conjectures, one thinks Stone believed he might be killed before the film ever got released.
Stone acts or believes he truly is standing up against an array of omnipotent censors. In fact, upon being released and even before, the vast majority of people believe and still believe some kind of conspiracy is behind the assassination. Unfortunately, this kills the movie as no “characters”, even in the most generous sense, exist. Except for Gary Oldman’s memorable and unforgettable performance as Oswald, everyone is turned into some mechanical robot merely filling out a functional role. No character emerges that comes close to the potency of, say, Gordon Gekko or even Ron Kovic, and the lack of genuine characterizations makes it difficult to latch onto any deeper meaning.
This isn’t to say the actors are boring. On the contrary, perhaps the most intense confrontation appears early as John Candy (in a sinfully overlooked appearance,) and Kevin Costner almost fight one another publicly. The entire cast is perfect, from Kevin Bacon to Garrison himself in an ironic cameo. The issue is in creating Hamlet without the prince himself. All one gets are riveting episodes of scenes, one after another, in a 24-style manner. No real narrative logic ties anything together in Stone’s postmodern thriller.
There’s no disputing the sheer effectiveness of many parts of the film – such as the (in)famous “magic bullet” theory. Given the film’s politics, it’s hard to approve of it unless one is going to seriously argue through ALL of its points. That might take hundreds of pages. One should then stipulate NOT to believe virtually anything in the film, but to consult outside sources. As for the film itself, it’s a joyride and makes even Natural Born Killers appear tame.
JFK may lean too much on visual clichés and cheap tricks, an addiction to hyperactivity Stone can’t seem to ever totally give up on. Still, on balance, in its restrained moments, this is a provocative film. Putting aside a couple of the more unforgivable scenes – the absurd homosexual-fascist party featuring pre-digital “porn” is too ridiculous to bother dismissing and the Mr. X episode is beyond gratuitous – it’s hard not to join in on Stone’s obsessions. He makes archival research into a gladiatorial joust of epic proportions. Serious history? No. And it shouldn’t be considered that. Even as entertainment, there is too much dangerous blurring of lines that shouldn’t be blurred. Still, aesthetically, though over-the-top to the extreme, this is a thrill ride. On that score alone, JFK has to be seen. It’s a lot of fun. Dangerous fun. But fun nonetheless.