The Most Important Value We Have: JFK (1991)
In Oliver Stone’s JFK, the opening five minutes are of real, authentic images and newsreel footage. Or so you think. The film offers an exposition-dump of America’s recent history leading up to the film’s central focus, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, but it isn’t as ordinary as it seems. As the sequence goes on, Stone and editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing begin to pepper in stills, people, and moments that are manufactured and created for the film we’re watching, and the manipulation is practically unconscious, and for anyone unfamiliar with the JFK assassination, it could resemble real-footage. Stone complicates this by juxtaposing constructed imagery with real incidents, such as the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Collectively, JFK begins by blatantly visualizing the action of being fooled, and how the government’s history may be rigid after it occurs despite its delicate set-up. Stone is a conspiracy theorist, and the easiest way to force an audience member into his skeptical mindset is to show what we might miss without even realizing it. By handing us a lie, Stone’s film begins with its own special truth – watch closely and trust nothing.
It’s fitting that this film follows the trials and plights of District Attorney Jim Garrison, wrestling with the idea of actual law-enforcers, defenders, and crusaders of justice being misled. Those who care about the structure and well-being of the country found the JFK assassination unsettling in more ways than one, precisely because not only was the country heading into darker waters, but the government could possibly be deliberately antagonistic in pursuit of ulterior motives. This is not a movie to use as evidence of a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination, rather it’s a catharsis for seeking the truth and a vivid collection of theories to further insist memory’s tendency to fail, trick, and deceive. Stone’s film is insanely, almost deceptively, entertaining, especially if you’re one for puzzles and piecing together a mystery. The pain and anguish of a lost leader soon becomes jumbled in with the minutiae and danger of chasing any lead, no matter how ridiculous. Like Zodiac, which took quite a few cues from Stone and company, the length of the film morphs into detachment, as the president becomes a case and a pawn in a larger game of uncovering the uncoverable.
Some of it feels like dress-up, especially if you have a knack for recognizing celebrity faces. JFK has one of the grandest all-star casts in any movie, featuring players such as Kevin Costner, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Vincent D’Onofrio, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, and more (whew, I’m out of breath). It’s truly an achievement of ‘spot that actor’, and yet each role is intricately cast and fully-formed. In a way, this movie is about faces, and what you saw and when on that fateful day. Its electric narrative stems from the differing viewpoints and dead-ends of the same moment in time, all leading towards various disparate conclusions. JFK is a masterclass in editing because there isn’t a path not taken. Every stone is overturned. The scope is colossal and majorly confusing, yet it plays like music, because every question, whether it has an answer, leads back to the same confrontation with a country eating itself whole.
Stone breaks down the idea of America becoming less of a place and more of an institution, and the capacity for dehumanization going beyond the realm of comfort. With race riots, Martin Luther King, and a growing women’s movement, citizens were spreading a voice that the US was reluctant to fully embrace (something that America is not too fond of today either), but Kennedy was doing it anyway, and Stone utilizes the assassination to portray the incomprehensible waves of the establishment fighting back and striking the people of America where it hurt. Vietnam soon after bloomed into a prosperous business-model and a death-call for thousands upon thousands of young human beings, and the suggestion of JFK’s death being a catalyst is almost too obvious to point out, whether there was a conspiracy or not. This movie is angry about that and a great many other things (one being the impenetrable change of command that allows people like the mysterious know-it-all ‘X’ peace and prosperity), but the hope sticks. That change, no matter how small, reveals a push for understanding and a conscious recognition of the forces confining us. In a key moment, X and Jim Garrison are sitting on a bench near the Washington Memorial, and rather than it being a liberating sight and a symbol of our ingenuity and progress, it oppresses the frame, flattens it out, and towers over the characters. They are being watched. And so are we. The fight continues.