JFK Oliver Stone
To what end does a director bear responsibility for the veracity of his or her art?
For any director working with actualities, poetic or artistic license is both a gift and a curse. Positively applied, the director can craft specific nuances contoured to their story, whilst remaining faithful to the truth. Conversely, a director can also malign his or her work through license. Fictions can be altered into facts, facts disputed as fictions. Worse yet, a director can outright distort history to merely further their agenda.
Case in point, Oliver Stone’s bloated three-hour, all-star epic JFK (1991). Stone is no stranger to accusations of twisting history for his own benefit. In fact, he’s perhaps the modern poster boy. Alexander, Nixon and The Doors are just a select few of Stone’s works charged with historical obfuscation. Entire monographs have been published on the subject. Shortly after the release of JFK, Time magazine even published an article entitled “When Artists Distort History” analyzing the pros and cons of Stone’s approach to historical matter.
Equally, it can also be argued that artists have always utilized historical characters and events for their own means: The fall of Troy for Homer, Richard III for Shakespeare. Nevertheless, the fictionalization of history is a poisoned chalice. History can provide the raw inspiration for exciting, thought-provoking works. But go too far and the artist is liable to forever distort their historical template. For example, thanks to Shakespeare, Richard III will forever be associated with regicide and physical deformity, although the latter in particular has been rejected by modern historical scholars as artistic license gone astray.
Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Oliver Stone’s JFK is an example of historical redistribution. Upon its initial 1991 release, JFK forever changed the debate regarding the assassination of the thirty-fifth President of the United States in Dallas on November 22, 1963, particularly in Stone’s disputation of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Yet, despite some convincing evidence much of Stone’s self-proclaimed “counter-myth” was simply that: myth.
Told in a persuasive cinematic language, Stone’s JFK heavily blurs the lines between noted facts and fictional liberties. In Stone’s opinion, this is acceptable. In a 1997 conversation series at UC Berkeley, Stone argued his historical films are simply a dramatic interpretation of events. And perhaps he has a point. No historical feature film will ever be wholly accurate. Yet in JFK, Stone’s dramatic interpretation of history is problematic, partially because of its swollen design.
A bulging, cacophony of information, JFK is a thickly brewed synthesis of paranoid speculation and historical reconstruction. Based on two books, On The Trail of the Assassins by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs, Stone’s film is not a biopic of the slain former President, but rather an amalgamation of various conspiracy theories regarding Kennedy’s highly public assassination. Subsequently, it is former New Orleans District Attorney Garrison (played by Kevin Costner), and not Kennedy, who becomes the film’s crucial focal point; as the film trails Garrison and his late 1960’s re-analysis of Kennedy’s assassination.
Using flashbacks, Stone also traverses through a multitude of alternative perspectives, recounted memories and possible histories. Via some clever editing, the film fuses genuine documentary footage alongside dramatic interludes, faux-archival footage and re-enactments of supposed historical events. Upon the film’s initial release, it was this side-by-side application of fact and fiction, which caused Stone’s film much controversy. Ironically, these questionable elements are also the driving source behind much of the film’s entertainment.
In equal measure this frenzied kaleidoscope of images and information proves to be the film’s Achilles’ heel. There’s far too much crammed into JFK with little discretion toward the film’s overall direction. Unlike Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men (1975), a paranoid conspiracy thriller Stone’s JFK is clearly indebted to, there is no coherent framework here to express the multiple theories and people Stone’s film implicates in the assassination: ranging from the CIA to bitter anti-Castro Cuban-Americans to a clandestine underworld collective of right-wing homosexual hawks based in New Orleans.
Although the overarching theme Stone directs his attention toward is connected to Eisenhower’s famous military-industrial complex (replayed in the film’s opening), the web of possibilities lacks neither genuine connection, nor focus. Despite Stone’s passionate conviction about a hypothetical coup d’etat, JFK feels like an elongated rant, rather than a delicate re-evaluation and analysis of the facts.
The film’s overextended scope carries onto its cast of characters: some real, some composites, some invented. Each has a purpose, but often their relationship to the overall spectrum is murky and unconvincing. Gary Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald is particularly magnificent. Costner’s Garrison on the other hand is particularly troubling. Portrayed as the passionate, solitary Everyman dutifully defending American values, Garrison has the type of Capraseque, pious saintliness previously accorded to James Stewart’s Mr. Smith and Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds in their respective turns in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.
Tellingly, Stone makes scant attempt to dissect Garrison’s own personal and public troubles during the period. There are fleeting nods to his crumbling marriage and his dwindling staff, but the dark accusations of bribery and intimidation are passed off as purely lies prepared by Garrison’s enemies. Stone’s idealization of Garrison ultimately denies the film of a central protagonist as complex and intricate as its theories. Both the audience and the film deserve such an individual. Yet, the existence of such a flawed figure in JFK would surely be at odds with the opposing binary character traits visible between Stone's heroes and villains. And therefore, perhaps many would be less convinced by Stone’s barrage of data and invention and more repulsed by the film's underlying homophobia and brittle historicism.
Then again, by its overloaded, sagging final reels, JFK has long extirpated into bombastic sentimentality, speechifying and grand calls for justice. This should not be surprising. Despite Stone’s conspiracy credentials, he is overly vulnerable toward sweeping emotions and romanticism. The conspiratorial knife’s edge sharpened by Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing’s hyperkinetic editing and Robert Richardson’s seamless cinematography is unfortunately dulled in these dragging latter stages, as the early frenzied paranoia of JFK is undercut in favor of emotional gloss.
Taken as a speculative, paranoid thriller, JFK is often a riveting experience. As a historical docudrama, JFK is a dangerous vehicle to the uninitiated viewer. The film’s elephantine application of myths and hearsay into a binary format is both attractive and repulsive. The supporting characters are certainly colorful and the seductive language is often persuasive; yet the film also suppresses and distorts elements to satisfy Stone’s accusatory thesis, rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves. Stone lionizes his protagonists as genuine harbingers of truth. But it is a fuzzy truth, a disingenuous truth. A “truth” made all the more ironic by the film’s apparent search for the truth.