Just over 16 years ago came a film that follows roughly the same blueprint: Oliver Stone’s JFK. Co-adapted for the screen by Stone and Zachary Sklar, based on books by Jim Marrs (Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy) and Jim Garrison (On The Trail Of Assassins), the Oscar-nominated film is based on a true story. Or, more accurately, it’s based on at least one man’s perception of a true story – his vantage point, so to speak. In any case, JFK is highlighted by a genuine assassination and some equally authentic convolution. And on this Presidents’ Day weekend the film is worth remembering if for no other reason than its rare effect: in reflecting history, JFK writes it, too.
If there’s been a more culturally influential film in the past two decades, I can’t think of it. Philadelphia, which turned homosexuality and AIDS into at least somewhat comfortable living room conversation, perhaps comes close. And Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may prove to be a significant touchstone. But just like people remember where they were when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, people remember JFK. No, we might not recall where we saw the film or with whom. That doesn’t matter. But we remember its thesis, perhaps more than most of us realize.
Want proof? I can offer it in five little words: “Back and to the left.” Okay, sure, for some of you that line triggers humorous images of Seinfeld and the “magic loogey” before it reminds of JFK and the “magic bullet theory.” But repeat the words again. Now what do you imagine? If you’re like me, you see the back of Kennedy’s head blown away, thrusting his torso into the lap of his wife, who screams in horror and then crawls onto the back of the open-top presidential limousine in an effort to retrieve pieces of the president’s skull. But what do those images mean? If you’re like most Americans, they mean a grassy knoll, more than one shooter, conspiracy theories, at least three shots in 5.6 seconds, a government cover-up and a lie.
In his initial review* of the film, Roger Ebert had this to say:
Do you know anyone who believes Lee Harvey Oswald acted all by himself in killing Kennedy? I don’t. I’ve been reading the books and articles for the last 25 years, and I’ve not found a single convincing defense of the Warren Commission report, which arrived at that reassuring conclusion. It’s impossible to believe the Warren report because the physical evidence makes its key conclusion impossible: One man with one rifle could not physically have caused what happened on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. If one man could not have, then there must have been two. Therefore, there was a conspiracy.In those words, and throughout Ebert’s review, you can sense his fervor. Ebert writes that JFK stirs up “urgency and anger,” and, sure enough, you can almost feel the reverberation of Ebert’s keyboard as he punches out words with passion. Thus, Ebert’s review is valuable in two ways: as a snapshot of the film’s immediate emotional impact and as a reminder of the context in which the film arrived. No doubt, Ebert knew as he wrote his review that someone somewhere believed in the findings of the Warren Commission and the exclusivity of Oswald as the assassin, but I don’t think he was resorting to hyperbole when he said he that couldn’t think of one.
JFK capitalized on an overwhelming but disjointed public sentiment that Kennedy’s assassination couldn’t have been carried out by one man. For almost 30 years, the “lone nut” believers had the Warren Commission report. JFK, at last, provided unity for the rest of us. It reinforced our suspicions, it gave voice to our questions and it narrowed our focus. In that way, JFK and An Inconvenient Truth (another movie that I suspect has done more to inspire the choir than convert the wayward) do have something in common: I walked into Gore’s glorified PowerPoint presentation already thinking that global warming was a dangerous reality, but I walked out knowing that it was. JFK works similarly.
Starring Kevin Costner as Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney who brings a case against the Warren Commission in the court of public opinion by taking possible conspirator Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) to an actual courtroom, JFK is driven by a prosecutor who uses the tactics of a defense attorney. Garrison, on behalf of Stone (and sometimes Stone on behalf of Garrison), uses the overwhelming majority of the movie’s 189 minutes to create reasonable doubt in as many ways as possible. In an elaborate game of guilt by association, JFK reaches, oversteps, implicates and confounds. It cares not which anti-Warren Commission proof gets our attention, so long as one of them does, and so it pours its allegations over us like rain. The theories come so fast that we hardly have time to comprehend one before another is upon us. By the time we reach the courtroom for the lecture-filled final act, our defenses have been weakened, our minds are vulnerable.
“Back and to the left.” For conspiracy theorists (and I mean conspiracy in the simplest sense there), that’s the magic bullet, and it’s the one argument that Stone makes sure has time to resonate. As the “kill shot” is replayed over and again from Abraham Zapruder’s crucial recording, Garrison invokes the phrase five times – just enough that it might produce a Pavlovian instinct that there must have been at least a second gunman on the grassy knoll, just enough for the phrase to imprint on our permanent historical record of the event. In a conveniently unspecific analysis of the assassination, Garrison contends that at least six shots were fired that day at Dealey Plaza, but he’s only actually concerned with two of the three shots confirmed by the Warren Commission: the “magic bullet” shot that produced a seemingly impossible collection of seven wounds in Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally and, of course, the “kill shot.”
The fatal blow, Garrison contends, is “totally inconsistent” with a shot coming from Oswald’s (supposed?) perch in the Texas School Book Depository. “Use your eyes, your common sense,” Garrison urges. The shot must have come from in front and to the right of Kennedy in order to fling his head, and brain matter, back and to the left. Watching the Zapruder film, it’s pretty convincing stuff. Hard to refute. But how many of us stop to ask ourselves what we’re comparing this visual evidence against? To my knowledge, I’ve witnessed (live or via video) exactly one person shot in the head from a high-powered rifle: Kennedy. So my only other frame of reference comes from, you guessed it, movies. And we all know how reliable those are. In Rambo, for example, bullets cause heads to explode like the Death Star in some cases and hurtle bodies about 8 feet in others. With that as my guide, I’m not sure my common sense can be trusted.
Fascinatingly, at least one recent computer simulation of the assassination concludes not only that there wasn’t much magical about the so-called magic bullet but also that Kennedy’s fatal wound had to have been caused by someone firing from the trajectory of the Texas School Book Depository. After a lifetime of buying into JFK’s back-and-to-the-left logic, one viewing of that simulation makes the lone nut scenario suddenly viable. Which brings us to yet another reason JFK has had such a profound impact. Its timing was perfect:
- Twenty-eight years removed from the actual event, America was ready for this story. It’s hard to have an axe to grind against an assassinated president, and it’s nearly impossible to feel anything but sympathetic after almost three decades. Thus, while there were some who felt the need to stick up for the Warren Commission or Lyndon Johnson, for the most part Stone was able to make broad statements about the corruption of politics and war without seeming to make partisan attacks, leaving people receptive.
The film was released in a time of relative peace and harmony. Introduced today, JFK would be seen as a commentary on the Bush Administration, with the rush to find the assassin and close the case being compared to the controversies surrounding Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, or perhaps Road To Guantanamo’s Tipton Three, plus the transference of 9/11 blame from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. Instead, JFK gets to be about exactly what it’s about: the Kennedy assassination.
JFK was pre-CGI (as we know CGI today). Two years removed from the liquid tentacle of The Abyss, JFK debuted only months after the silver, shape-shifting T-1000 thrilled audiences in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Still, Jurassic Park was two summers off, and digital effects were the exception to the rule. Release JFK as-is in 2008 and it would be harder for audiences to trust their eyes. Released within its 1991 context, the film’s awesome application of authentic documentary footage, historical reenactments and hard-to-categorize insert shots weave together for a persuasive whole**.
But JFK is more than a product of its context. It’s also an example of Stone at his most effectively manipulative. Not long after its opening Martin Sheen-narrated history lesson, the picture moves right to November 22, 1963, with President Kennedy and his stunning wife, Jackie, arriving in Dallas, captured in documentary footage that implies a pledge for historical accuracy. The rolling snare salutes of John Williams’ score accompany the presidential motorcade, contrasting a Rockwellian sense of marching band pomp and patriotism with an air of rattlesnake menace and venom. We are treated to a close-up of a smiling Kennedy, as captured by Zapruder seconds before hell breaks loose, and then a shot rings out, and he’s gone.
Garrison’s reaction to news of Kennedy’s shooting is one of several of moments in which Costner seems ill at ease. His “Oh, no!” sounds like the token sadness one extends to a friend who has spilled food down the front of his shirt. But while Costner gives arguably the weakest performance at the center of this sprawling film, the casting is understandable. Costner has plummeted from the A-list, but at the time he put butts in the seats. And though he’s on screen for nearly every minute of the three-hour film, he serves not as a Daniel Plainview-esque focus for our attention but instead acts as our tour guide, rock flipper and snake handler. We’re drawn to Costner’s Garrison not for who he is but for what he shows us: the most colorful characters being Jones’ “butch John” homosexual Shaw; Joe Pesci’s wig-wearing David Ferrie; John Candy’s jive-talking Dean Andrews and Kevin Bacon’s fascism-trumpeting Willie O’Keefe.
The best performances in the film belong to Gary Oldman as Oswald and Donald Sutherland as a Deep Throat clone called “X.” The resemblance of Oldman to the actual (or accused, if you prefer) assassin is uncanny, but Stone drives the point home with meticulous reenactments of well-known events. Jack Ruby’s hit on Oswald isn’t just choreographed as it played on TV, it’s revealed to us over TV. I admit it’s gotten to the point that I can’t tell where my memories of the actual Oswald end and Oldman’s Oswald begins.
Sutherland, meanwhile, playing a walking amalgam of rumors, urban legends and conspiracy theories, makes us forget his character is just barely based on reality. He appears in the film for what amounts to a 16-minute conspiratorial orgy and sheds the deliberate delivery that typifies many of his performances in favor of relentless yet measured oration. The change is so dramatic that it’s as if Sutherland got an acting tip from George Lucas circa Star Wars: Episode IV: “Faster and more intense!” Whatever the case, it works.
And before the end, so does Costner’s performance. His handling of the final 33-minute argument that begins with the magic bullet theory, segues to a challenge of the Warren Commission’s Oswald timeline and wraps with pleas for patriotic duty may not be transforming (Costner is little more than himself with a weak Southern accent and a pair of glasses that he all too frequently adjusts), but its entirely sincere. Before Garrison’s turn at the soapbox is over, he’ll quote Hitler and Tennyson, Kennedy and Lincoln, and meanwhile, to Stone’s credit, all but his associates will sit in bored detachment (including the judge), smoking to pass the time between “Give me a break!” eye rolls. In the end, finally argued out, Garrison looks up to his jury and then beyond them, peering through the fourth wall and into the eyes of the audience. “It’s up to you,” he says.
In that moment, more than any other, Stone’s boat-rocking intent is revealed. Earlier in the film, in the midst of X’s verbal bombardment of dubious circumstantial evidence, Garrison speaks for the audience when he says, “The size of this is beyond me.” And that’s by design, too. Time and again, Stone overwhelms us, changes direction and knocks us off balance. By the end, he hopes our lifeline will be “Back and to the left” and the movie’s hypothesis about what those words signify. And for many of us it is, or was.
Even if you disagree with its conclusions or its truthfulness, you have to respect JFK’s persuasiveness and approach. Stone has won three Oscars (Midnight Express as a screenwriter, Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July as a director), but JFK marks the pinnacle of his filmmaking career. In the years after JFK’s release, Natural Born Killers would spark controversy and Nixon, which owes a lot to the often overlooked Woodward & Bernstein book The Final Days, would provide a fascinating glimpse into the insecure paranoia of the man who brought forth the Watergate scandal. But JFK is Stone at his best: bold, bombastic, passionate, earnest, manipulative and genuinely provocative. It’s a symbol of what makes us both love and loath Stone, often at the same time.
“A picture speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it?” Garrison says to the jury near the end of the picture. JFK is overwhelming evidence of that sentiment: in a neat irony, the better the case can be made for Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, the more impressive this film’s Jedi-like power over moviegoers becomes. “Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth,” X tells Garrison at the end of their sit-down at the National Mall, and that’s accurate as well. But whether this film’s truth is history’s truth, perhaps no one knows for sure anymore. Perhaps we’re just suckers.
* In 2002, Ebert added JFK to his Great Movies library. In that essay, he doesn’t back off his previous statements, but he’s no longer going for the jugular. Still, he concludes: "JFK is a brilliant reflection of our unease and paranoia, our restless dissatisfaction. On that level, it is completely factual."
** Here’s an example of JFK’s deliberately confusing, hypnotically convincing approach. The following 22 screenshots cover only 11 seconds of film, as Costner’s Garrison mentally reenacts the assassination. Interspersed with shots of Garrison in the Texas School Book Depository, Stone and his editors utilize genuine Zapruder film footage (frames 16 and 22), black-and-white reenactments (frames 4 and 10, for sure), color reenactments (frames 9 and 12, for sure), unclassifiable insert shots (frames 3, 18 and 20), shots that might be archival material or reproductions (frames 2, 6, 7 and 14) and a black screen (frame 21).