Twenty years later: Oliver Stone’s JFK
Twenty years ago today, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released in theaters, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon that seems all the more peculiar with the passage of time. It wasn’t merely the fact that such a dense, layered film was a big commercial hit, although it was—it grossed more than $70 million domestically, equivalent to over $130 million today—or that it had obviously been made with all the resources of a major studio. It’s that for a few months, even before its release, the movie seemed to occupy the center of the national conversation, inspiring magazine covers, a resurgence of interest in the Kennedy assassination that has never died down, and memorable parodies on Seinfeld and The Simpsons. In my own life, for better or worse, it’s had a curious but undeniable influence: many of my current literary and cultural obsessions can be traced back to three years in my early teens, when I saw JFK, read Foucault’s Pendulum, and became a fan of The X-Files. As a result, for several years, I may have been the only teenager in the world with a JFK poster on his bedroom wall.
Of course, none of this would have happened if the movie itself weren’t so ridiculously entertaining. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the merits of JFK, but these days, I believe that it’s a genuinely great movie, one of the few recent Hollywood films—along with Stone’s equally fascinating but underrated Nixon—to advance and build upon what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. It’s hard to imagine this now, in the days of W and Wall Street 2, but there was a time when Oliver Stone was the most interesting director in America. At his peak, when he was in the zone, I don’t think anyone—not Scorsese, not Spielberg—could match Stone for sheer technical ability. JFK, his best movie, is one of the most expertly crafted films ever made, an incredibly detailed movie of over three hours that never allows the eye to wander. In particular, the cinematography and editing (at least in the original version, not the less focused director’s cut available on Blu-ray) set a standard that hasn’t been matched since, even as its use of multiple film stocks and documentary footage has become routine enough to be imitated by Transformers 3.
Watching it again earlier this year, I was newly dazzled by the riches on display. There’s the film’s effortless evocation of New Orleans, Dallas, and Washington in the sixties, with the local color of countless locations and neighborhoods picked up on the fly. There’s the compression of the marriage of Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald into five sad minutes—a compelling short film in itself. There’s Donald Sutherland’s loony, endless monologue as the mysterious X, which covers as much conspiracy material as a season’s worth of The X-Files. There’s the astounding supporting cast, which has proven so central to the Kevin Bacon game, and the mother of all courtroom speeches. And most unexpectedly, there’s Kevin Costner, at the height of his stardom, providing a calm center for all this visual, narrative, and textural complexity. It’s safe to say that JFK would never have been made without Costner, whose considerable charisma does more than anything else to turn Jim Garrison, one of the shiftier characters in recent memory, into something like Eliot Ness.
And that’s the problem. JFK is magnificent as cinema, but ludicrous as history. There’s something frightening about how Stone musters such vibrant craft to such questionable ends: in the years since, nearly every point that the movie makes has been systematically dismantled, and if Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is any indication of the cultural mood, it seems that many of us are finally coming around to the realization that, as unthinkable as it seems, Oswald probably acted alone. It’s perhaps only now, then, that we can watch this film with a cool head, as a great work of fiction that bears only superficial resemblance to actual events, and whose paranoid vision of history is actually less strange than the truth. JFK needs to be seen, studied, and appreciated, but first, one should watch Zodiac, or, even better, Errol Morris’s beguiling “The Umbrella Man,” posted earlier this month at the New York Times website. Morris is working on his own movie about the assassination, and if this sample is any indication, it’s the corrective that JFK, for all its brilliance, sorely needs. As subject Josiah “Tink” Thompson says:
What it means is, if you have any fact which you think is really sinister…Forget it, man. Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale!