CineMe 1991: JFK


1991: JFK

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar

JFK-poster“They might even push it back then.  Hell, it may become a generational affair, with questions passed down from father to son, mother to daughter.  But someday, somewhere, somebody will find out the damn truth.

For my generation, it was the Challenger disaster.  For the younger crowd, it was 9/11.  But for my parents, the go-to day for remembering where you were and what you were doing was the day John F. Kennedy was shot.  My mother would vividly describe one of her teachers slamming his fist on his desk and shouting, “Damn it!” when the news was announced.  Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, which had a sense of good and proper resolution from the war in the Pacific, JFK’s assassination has always felt like an open wound.  There’s the idea of this moment marking an end of innocence for post-war America, and the sense of unfulfilled promise left by Kennedy’s untimely death.  But Lee Harvey Oswald’s death before he could stand trial gnaws the most.  It robbed us of the one man who could have possibly made sense of it, who could have allowed us a focus for our grief and anger, and who could have answered so many of the questions that have hung over the case for the last fifty years.

And if you think Oswald dying before he could do any of that is more than just coincidence, allow me to introduce you to Oliver Stone.  You two have a lot to talk about.  Which is appropriate, because Stone’s JFK really does feel like a conversation.  Two of its most memorable scenes — Jim Garrison’s meeting with a Washington informant simply called “X” and Garrison’s epic summary of the assassination and the conspiracy he believed carried it out — are nothing more than one person having a long talk with someone else, and by extension, the audience.  There are no action scenes, no typical suspense tropes (despite Wikipedia referring to it as a “political thriller”); it’s an epic, fascinating, brilliantly edited info dump that isn’t afraid to throw every possible theory about what really happened in November of 1963 against the wall in the hopes that something sticks.

And I think that’s where a lot of people miss the point of JFK.  They get lost in trying to prove or denounce every scrap of conjecture Stone engages in here.  A lot of it does make sense, even if at times it veers a little too far into certainty as opposed to speculation.  But I don’t deny that Stone believes a large portion of what depicts here.  It’s just that I don’t think his main goal is to make you believe it too.  There’s a moment early in the film, just after Garrison and his team watch Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby, where someone says, “Somebody just saved the Dallas DA a pile of work,” and Garrison says they have plenty of real cases to work on in New Orleans.  For all intents and purposes, their interest in who killed Kennedy is over the minute the prime suspect is dead.  They can all move on.  It’s only three years later, when Garrison hears Senator Russell Long cast doubt on the Warren Commission’s findings, that the seed begins to grow.  And later, when X is laying out his theories for why he believes there’s a conspiracy, he tells Garrison, “Make arrests, stir the shit storm, hope to reach a point of critical mass that’ll start a chain reaction of people coming forward, then the government will crack.”  Throughout the film, the story is driven forward by people who just won’t take the accepted answers at face value.

And that’s Stone’s modus operandi right there.  Keep pushing.  Stir the shit storm.  Throw things at the wall in the hopes that something sticks.  To him, this is something that’s been allowed to stay dormant for far too long, while we calmly accept the official version and get on with our lives.  And he thinks it’s time we stopped doing that.  It’s not really even about the Kennedy assassination in particular, but with blindly believing the government line when it comes to anything.  With JFK, Stone isn’t interested in providing answers.  He wants to get us asking questions.


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