On this day three decades ago, Oliver Stone released JFK, arguably the most controversial film of his career and the movie that most aggressively showcased his penchant for stylistic excess and narrative hyperbole. It’s one of the few Hollywood movies ever produced that directly led to the passage of a federal law, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, and its influence on subsequent conspiracy thrillers (The X-Files especially) was seismic. Pretty impressive for a film propping up a flimsy conspiracy theory that has been almost entirely discredited by historians and fact-checkers.
Don’t worry, I am not going to argue that because of the numerous historical, forensic, scientific, and logical inaccuracies presented in the film, JFK is therefore a bad movie. In fact, cards on the table, I actually think it is the best thing Stone has ever been involved with, one of the gold standards of film editing, and one of my ultimate guilty pleasures. Yes, as silly as it sounds, one can feel guilty about loving a movie that was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two. I know Stone is full of crap here, and yet every time I start watching JFK, I am instantly spellbound all over again.
I want to instead ruminate on the recent release of JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, and what it says about Stone’s relationship with this popular conspiracy theory… and ours. Yes, in case you missed it, there is a thirty-year anniversary follow-up documentary where the JFK director digs in his heels and tries his best to answer the criticisms directed at his classic thriller. Spoiler alert: he does not succeed.
He once again, for example, cannot get over the “magic bullet” theory, a claim originating from Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht, who is, surprisingly, still alive and interviewed in this documentary to repeat pretty much the exact same presentation delivered in the climactic trial scene of the original movie. He doesn’t address the observation that his description of the bullet’s path was based on early inaccurate approximations of President Kennedy and Governor Connally’s relative positions when the second bullet struck. He doesn’t acknowledge that the bullet was not in “pristine condition” when it was discovered. Nor does he explain why all subsequent ballistic demonstrations with far more advanced forensic technology have only repeatedly confirmed the Warren Commission’s findings “that the same bullet which pierced the President’s throat also caused Governor Connally’s wounds.” No, he just… makes the same argument again. And just like Kevin Costner’s Garrison, he fails to counter what he insists is a “preposterous explanation” with a more credible one as to how the President and the Governor were wounded that day. That’s most of JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass; just doubling down on claims made in the original movie.
But credit where credit is due – the Warren Commission’s investigative process was flawed and often ill-informed! And putting Allen Welsh Dulles on the commission just two years after he was fired from the C.I.A. by the man whose murder he was investigating was pretty sketchy! A lot of mistakes in the initial reporting have been revealed in the records that have been piecemeal declassified. But pointing out the weird coincidences and flawed recollections of a major tragedy is one thing; constructing a credible argument that therefore, this major tragedy was actually the result of an elaborate secret plot far more convoluted than the official story is another. If this sounds familiar to 9/11 Truthers believing they’ve “proven” George W. Bush orchestrated that attack by observing the towers fell down weird – as if skyscrapers, planes, bullets, and human bodies will always behave 100% predictably under catastrophic stress – congratulations, you’ve just cracked open how conspiratorial thinking works. It’s Underpants Gnomes logic: Step 1) Pick apart problems in the Warren Commission, Step 2) ???, Step 3) Lee Harvey Oswald was framed and President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy!
I’m not going to refute the documentary point-by-point, because virtually nothing he argues here is meaningfully different from the arguments made in JFK and those were thoroughly debunked years ago. My aim here isn’t a review of the documentary (which is maybe a one-and-a-half-star movie if I’m feeling generous), or even a review of the original Oscar-winning film (which I’d still award a perfect four stars… I’m sorry! It’s just so well-edited and shot!), but to honestly confront Stone and his generation and their collective hang-ups over this event. I want for us to be brutally honest about his continued obsession with this one assassination even as the rest of the country has moved on to confront far more pressing crises.
Stone was 17 years-old when our 35th President was assassinated, and while it’s unfair to paint all Baby Boomers with the same emotional brush, I can’t help but suspect a large portion of his generation agrees with him that the root cause of all of America’s modern problems can be traced back to that fateful day on November 22nd, 1963, because that was the day when they marked the end of their childhoods. That if only “They” (honestly, the single most devastating criticism of Oliver Stone’s entire JFK assassination crusade is that he has never, not once, made it clear who he’s accusing of actually committing the crime) hadn’t killed him, we would have built a true Camelot here in America, and we’d have ended our presence in Vietnam sooner, and the shame of Watergate, the breakup of the New Deal Coalition, and the “Reagan Revolution” would have been avoided. It’s a sentiment that persists to this day with films like Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, and in a way, I understand why a young adult navigating the 70’s and 80’s would look back on the Kennedy years with a sense of nostalgic longing.
But nostalgia has a nasty habit of distorting the truth, and the truth is that the portraits of John F. Kennedy as some Great Leader Gone Too Soon are as deceptive as the Hope And Change my generation pinned on Barack Obama during his first campaign for President. Yes, Kennedy was without question the superior choice for President in 1960, and his public support for Dr. King and the Freedom Riders was a key moment in the Democratic Party’s transformation into the multiracial, inclusive coalition that it (mostly) is today. But we should not forget that it was his decision to invade South Vietnam, and there is no credible evidence to suggest that he had any intention of ending the war before his victory conditions were achieved. He was the one who authorized napalm and chemical weapons that were deployed against the Vietnamese, many of them civilians, which the country is still suffering the aftereffects of to this day. His single-minded fixation on assassinating Fidel Castro led to a crisis that brought us closer to World War III than at any other point during the Cold War. With the help of his brother, he expanded the scope and authority of the insidious COINTELPRO he inherited from Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy wasn’t “dangerous to The Establishment,” he was The Establishment. A better part of it, to be sure, but not the faultless hero leading us to utopia. And if there really was a secret plot from the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. or some rogue element of the government to kill President Kennedy to halt his agenda, they failed miserably. Upon taking the oath of office, Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated himself to accomplishing every single one of his slain predecessor’s unfinished New Frontier goals – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, putting a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, cutting the poverty rate in half, Medicare and Medicaid… what did “The Establishment” gain from killing Kennedy if they opposed him for policy reasons?
Nothing, of course. Because in the original 1991 film, Jim Garrison is correct when he observed that “individual human beings have to create justice,” but he meant that to mean one specific individual human being. In reality, individual human beings have to take collective responsibility for ensuring that justice prevails, and that means putting away our hero fantasies and acknowledging that the future is in our hands. Stone refuses to confront the myths of his formative years. We can still enjoy the dynamite movie that resulted from this refusal, but we don’t have to make the same mistake when looking back on our own.
What are your thoughts on JFK? Let us know!