Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Twenty years later: Oliver Stone’s JFK

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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!

Written by nevalalee

December 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

3 Responses

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  1. An excellent analysis of one of my favorite films. Thanks.


    January 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm

  2. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!


    January 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm

  3. The analysis of the film is good, the extremely dubious jump from there to the supposition that Oswald was the loner shooter, despite the titanic avalanche of evidence for the opposite strains credence. So the notorious “magic bullet” has been solved. I’m all ears…

    So far these people have refuted the official version


    Billy Sol Estes, LBJ’s business partner…

    E. Howard Hunt, ex cia-agent

    LBJ’s mistress…

    Barr McClellan, father of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan and a partner in the Austin law firm that represented LBJ



    Ed Hoffman, witness

    James Wagenvoord, the editorial business manager and assistant to Life Magazines Executive Editor, the magazine was working on an article that would have revealed Johnson’s corrupt activities. “Beginning in later summer 1963 the magazine, based upon information fed from Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department, had been developing a major newsbreak piece concerning Johnson and Bobby Baker. On publication Johnson would have been finished and off the 1964 ticket (reason the material was fed to us) and would probably have been facing prison time. At the time LIFE magazine was arguably the most important general news source in the US. The top management of Time Inc. was closely allied with the USA’s various intelligence agencies and we were used after by the Kennedy Justice Department as a conduit to the public.”

    All that plus the physical evidence, the Warren Report shennigans….

    With all that said, the murkiness of the film is an asset.

    Why is all this important? Other than the death of truly great leader – one who was looking into the future for the ‘Butterfly Effects” rather than just dealing with the events of the moment, his death paved the way for the Vietnam war, profiting the backers of LBJ. With his reign came social programs, war plus social programs, a stuttering economy and in 1971 Nixon takes the US off the Bretton-woods agreement that had the dollar pegged to a certain amount of gold. From now on it’s a free-floating currency, a fiat currency, money is printed without any drawbacks. This leads to inflationary spikes in prices, the creation of fractose-glocose as a cheap sugar substitute (a substance that’s not picked up as a satienting food, hence the huge increase in obesity), industrial turmoil in the West and the election of right-wingers (Thatcher and Reagan), who stimulate the economy via freeing the banks from the FDR imposed regulations. No empire in history has coped with a debased currency – they usually start faltering after 30 to 40 years. The end result is always hyper-inflation, and a repeat of the ’30s with the US in the role of militant lead by a lunatic fringe (Republicans).

    Other books of interest are the four volumes of Caro’s biography of LBJ, James Douglas’ ‘JFK: Why he died and Why it matters’, ‘LBJ: Mastermind of JFK’s assassination’, ‘Brothers’ by Talbot.

    Now, I’m wondering what in tarnation King’s book will have to offer to refute a fraction of all that.


    June 21, 2012 at 5:05 pm

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