Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) arrived at a high point in the director’s popularity and singular cultural station. Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) were all an unlikely blend of star-driven, financially successful, critically recognized production built around strident political moralizing. Stone was direct and oft-debated but undeniably a bankable, culturally significant Hollywood iconoclast as the twentieth century drew to a close. For this alone, JFK was bound to be scrutinized and significant, and the film announces a by turns troubling and fascinating shift in Stone’s method. Almost at once the sober, historical revisionism which had established him is overtaken by manic, speculative sensationalism. More to the point, this film can be seen as the uneasy combination of both impulses. An indelible American experience is graphically depicted and swiftly subject to wild deconstruction and increasingly unhinged interrogation.
Kevin Costner lends his all-American everyman image to District Attorney Jim Garrison’s descent into a mind-boggling web of ineptitude, deceit, double-crosses, criminal influence, and secret government machinations. To follow all the film’s leads and suggestions is to pretty much accept, at least part of, every conspiracy theory surrounding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Oswald was a decoy element of a three rifle execution orchestrated by players from the CIA, the FBI, US military, organized crime, Cuban exiles, hawkish anti-communists in government, and all the way up to Lyndon Baines Johnson angling to control the conflict between North and South Vietnam. This ruffled more than a few feathers in entertainment and the nation at large. From the earliest stages of pre-production the film was plagued by controversy and repudiation. JFK plays heavy on speculation and inference from sources officially dismissed or discredited. But even Stone at one point positioned it as a counter-myth. Perhaps anti-myth is more appropriate. JFK aggressively needles the myriad questions, inconsistencies and eerie happenings that surround the assassination and the official explanation. While many of the hypotheses advanced are certainly outrageous Stone grounds them in unsettling omissions and the plentiful evidence of actual CIA and FBI meddling at home and abroad. It’s hard not to get caught up in the frantic onslaught of hidden meaning and half-truths.
That skeptical attitude has become a twisted part of American identity. No matter the detractors the film was another success commercially and critically. Its hard not to attribute this in some part to widespread mistrust and disillusion regarding the lone-gunman explanation. JFK is the essence of Oliver Stone. In subject and style it becomes a fractured and complex Americanism. It is the uncomfortable and highly volatile coexistence of naive patriotism and weary cynicism. The film, and its maker, are difficult, loud, and full of contradiction. They unceremoniously prod grief and mourning for the sainted potential Kennedy Presidency (a common American reverie). Just below the surface, though, is the stubborn cry of a heartbroken kid. Maybe it won’t fix anything, but he wants justice for the murder of John F. Kennedy and the irreparably damaged dreams of the United States of his youth. Its the pinnacle achievement of a director I don’t very much care for, but there’s something inevitable or unavoidable in it. It is rife with problems and troubling implications: populist mistrust, indirect rage, frustrations and disappointments galvanized around a violent flashpoint. It is constantly imperfect and imprecise, but pointedly passionate, and understandably aggrieved.
dir. Oliver Stone
screens at the Harvard Film Archive Friday Sept. 9 @ 7PM