Oliver Stone’s JFK

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With the first of two Kennedy assassinations all over the airwaves, and the media cashing in on the 50th anniversary of an American president’s murder, I decided to finally see JFK (1991) starring Kevin Costner.

I’ve limited my exposure to the films of director Oliver Stone. His political philosophy is repulsive — he embraces dictators — so his pictures hardly seemed worth the aggravation. During my tenure at Box Office Mojo, I reported on and reviewed two of his movies, World Trade Center, which dramatizes the monstrous view that there’s an upside to mass murder, and Alexander, a mediocre movie about Alexander the Great which was wrongly ridiculed in the press and turned out to have some very good moments.

So does JFK, which screened at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood with a pre-screening appearance by Stone. As truth-telling, it is dubious, though I am not an expert on the death of John Kennedy and I defer to those who are. As a movie, JFK is, like Alexander, nearly unwatchable in parts. Stone’s frantic emotionalism runs amok, delivering fits, starts and half-starts, more fits, then flashes and fragments, especially during the first hour of this three-hour film.

But in parts it is thought-provoking. Beginning with a speech by President Eisenhower warning about the rise of the “military-industrial complex,” JFK wraps the assassination in a Louisiana lawyer’s (Costner) investigation of a crooked and apparently closeted homosexual (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) who, it is claimed, was an agent of the CIA assigned in conspiracy to plot the murder. JFK grows more insistent. It climaxes in a recreation of the assassination complete with graphic, rarely seen photographs and a courtroom speech by Costner’s character that could have been made by someone in today’s Tea Party. The attorney makes a case and urges the jury to doubt the government, asking: “Is the government worth preserving when it lies to the people?”

It’s a legitimate question, particularly as we near pre-dictatorship and government, led by a president whom we now know is a liar, plots to spy on Americans. There are other moments, too, if one does not take JFK as documentary. With the appearance of Donald Sutherland as a government worker who goes rogue to tell the truth, JFK takes an interesting if implausible turn toward an argument against “just following orders.” The film’s thesis that President Kennedy was killed by factions in government that wanted him out of the way because he wanted peace in Vietnam is less persuasive than doubts it raises about Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) as the lone assassin on November 22, 1963.

I remain unconvinced by Stone’s hyper-drama, which entails circuitous connections of gays, Cubans, addicts, mafia, crooked cops and criminals to three teams that pummeled Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally with bullets as the motorcade passed a plaza in downtown Dallas. At its best, the film, which preposterously compares the assassination to the Crucifixion, raises questions about what Oswald the Communist did and why. It’s hard to keep track of the facts crammed into this movie — with Joe Pesci’s wig all over his head to distraction and everyone swearing like it’s a Tarantino picture — and some of JFK is as campy as one should expect from a leftist filmmaker who cavorts with Communist regimes. But it’s also hard to ignore that the lawyer who believed that Kennedy was assassinated by his own government was a real man named Jim Garrison who was targeted by the IRS, like today’s Tea Party, and electronically bugged by the FBI.

The most interesting scene predates a similar scene in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 pacifist apologia, Munich. The scene comes when Costner’s husband-father-crusader Garrison realizes that a key part of his theory is proven right. His doubting wife (Sissy Spacek, excellent as ever) realizes he’s right, too. As she does, she feels liberated. As Garrison’s partial vindication comes — and most rational Americans should be able to relate to this now — he is struck with horror, feeling deep fear and a suddenly acute awareness of reality at once. Garrison is transformed into the husband he hasn’t been. It’s a powerful scene, done with an intimacy that draws back until the camera holds on a shot which allows the audience to observe a more innocent place and time in American history. It’s a subtle flip on the myth that America lost her innocence when Kennedy was shot; the best Americans sobered up and doubled down on their bountiful benevolence.

“Do your own thinking,” someone urges during JFK, which ultimately lets the viewer do exactly that. If Stone’s overzealous filmmaking gets the best of his movie, as it almost always does, it’s not without poignant scenes and passion for his subject.

Of course, JFK‘s subject is JFK’s assassination, not John F. Kennedy, contrary to the movie’s title. If it were, we’d see that President Kennedy rightly considered himself a lousy president, that he admired fascism (as I wrote here) and conspired to let the 20th century’s bloodiest dictatorship enslave millions of people (as I observed when I read and reviewed this book on the Berlin Wall). Stone is primarily invested here in making a display of his subjectivism, making facts fit his thesis. That’s Oliver Stone. But A is A, facts are facts and there’s still something to think about in his mixed JFK.

When he introduced his movie this week at the Cinerama Dome, Stone made reference to the Church committee in Congress, which foresaw today’s leaps toward totalitarianism. He referred to Arlen Specter, the late Democrat senator from Pennsylvania who was a young lawyer on the government’s Warren Commission investigating the assassination, as “one of the greatest villains of our history.” And Stone denounced our commander-in-chief, the most anti-American president in history, which Stone does on a regular basis. That’s more than most professed idealists bring themselves to do. So the notion that there’s a conspiracy within the government to turn the government into a omnipotent power isn’t just coming from the Tea Party and, as President Eisenhower warned, it is a serious threat to liberty. Especially with the military apparently being purged by Obama.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, goes the saying. People who think America is becoming a dictatorship by deliberate, systematic steps shouldn’t dismiss everything by Oliver Stone, who told the favorably disposed audience — in answer to a question about whether he thinks that he, too, has been marked for death by the state — that he “wouldn’t mind getting out of here pretty soon.”

America is mixed. America is in trouble. America no longer protects individual liberty. In Stone’s mixed, troubled and totalitarian-friendly thoughts, he may have a sense that we’re going down and want to stop it. If so, as warped as his political philosophy is, that’s better than one who knows better and does nothing about what he knows.

Well-crafted, well-written movies are being made — The Lives of Others, The King’s Speech, The Artist  — and JFK is not one of them. More often than not, the market is filled with asinine movies that degrade the culture at a crucial time when the West is coming to an end. JFK, to its credit, is thankfully not one of those. Because, like Alexander, it deals with an issue that matters, it is better than most movies.

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