Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Back, and to the Left

by Jackrabbit Slim

Continuing my look at the major films of 1991, I now turn to JFK, directed by Oliver Stone. I saw it on its opening day, a few days before Christmas, at the Paramount Theater in Columbus Circle. I remember the marketing people handing out pieces of paper and little pencils to ask us what we thought of the film. Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure.

The assassination of John Kennedy is the great American mystery. A forest has been sacrificed to make all the paper for all the books and articles that have been written about it (26 volumes of the Warren Report alone). And still we are no closer to a definitive answer than we were 43 years ago. It certainly is a great subject for a film, but I think Stone makes a few key errors.

One is to make Kennedy too saintly. As years have gone by, the more we learn about him the more his legacy was tarnished. He and his father certainly cozied up to the mob, and there is good evidence that the election of 1960 was crooked (to be fair, there were phony votes for Nixon as well). His sexual proclivities make Bill Clinton look like a Boy Scout, and while that is a failure of character that doesn’t necessarily translate into an ineffective leader, it does when you share a mistress with a major Mafia figure. Secondly, Stone’s entire premise for the motive in killing JFK is his belief that Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam, had he lived. This is disputable. Kennedy was a hard-line cold warrior when elected. And, given all the philandering he did, wouldn’t have been easier to blackmail him, rather than kill him in a conspiracy that must have been known by hundreds of people? Finally, that Stone made Jim Garrison the hero of his film makes it a little shaky. Garrison, many believed, was a zealot and not playing with a full deck. Stone works around this by having Garrison’s character tell us that people are making him look crazy.

I vacillate on what I believe. There are a couple of problems with the lone gunman theory—namely the magic bullet, and that Oswald couldn’t have possibly fired off that many shots with a crummy rifle in such a short period of time. Also, it is well established that Jack Ruby, who offed Oswald, was mobbed up. I did read a book about ten years ago called Case Closed, by Gerald Posner, who answers all these questions and maintains Oswald acted alone. I don’t remember the particulars, but the book was very convincing.

But what of the film? On the extras disc, New York Times report Tom Wicker sums it up best, I think, when he says it is certainly well put together, but he doesn’t consider it art, it is propaganda. Stone has fish to fry and the film is constructed toward that end. It is frequently very stirring, at times irritating. The domestic scenes between Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek are especially clumsy, and recall the funny scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen gets dumped by Carol Kane because of his obsession with the assassination. But I will admit that the twenty or so minute scene toward the end, when Costner makes his speech to the jury and lays out the entire theory, is quite breathtaking.

One amusing footnote: the TV show Seinfeld did a great parody of the film when Kramer and Newman tell their story of being spit on by baseball player Keith Hernandez, and Jerry presents his theory of the “second spitter.” What I hadn’t realized was that Wayne Knight, who plays Newman, was in JFK as one of Costner’s assistants, and is one of the dummy figures in the “magic bullet” demonstration, just as he is on Seinfeld (except in this instance it is the “magic loogie”).


Blogger Count Olaf said...

Saw this in the theater with a friend of mine when i was a sophmore in high school. I loved it. It definitely made me more interested in the Kennedy mystique and what really happened.
Obviously there were some stretches (i.e. - if there really was a newspaper in a different time zone printing the assassination before it happened, I'm pretty sure Oliver Stone would not be the only one to know about it) but I enjoyed the whole thing. So much so that I rushed to see NIXON when it came out. Boy am I still kicking myself over that one...

But images of JFK still resonate in my mind.

When I visited Dallas (well...plano & richardson) for business about 7 years ago, I got lost while exploring Dallas trying to get back on the freeway. I knew the direction to go, just not how to get there. All of a sudden I came out of a road past some buildings and could see the freeway in front of me. It was night time but I could see some grass area to my left and a fence/knoll to my right. I slowed down and turned my body as far around as a I could and realized I was in the exact spot where the motorcade was. Chilling to say the least. Not a soul was around...and then I was on the freeway and gone. It was an instant but I remember going from being lost, to having a sense of awe and wonder, to getting on the freeway to get to my hotel.

What's funny (and sad) is that I probably wouldn't have known where I was if I hadn't seen JFK. I would have been racing to the freeway entrance.

9/05/2006 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hey, so can we get into getting into our favorite theory of who did it?

I think Allen Dulles did it. He at least made it happen.

9/05/2006 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

After I read Posner's book he had me convinced it was Oswald alone, but I'd have to read it again to remember why. Otherwise, I'd go with anti-Castro Cubans, with assistance from the mob and the CIA. But it's tough to buy that the whole Dallas police department was in on it, as Stone claims.

9/05/2006 03:03:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I just treat Stones JFK as one of those 'based on a true story' things. Perhaps some truth, but basically fiction, and the movie's the better for it.

9/05/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

The stuff in Posner's book (which I haven't read but have expounded upon elsewhere by the author and others) plus stuff that was done for more than one CBS News documentary have me fairly convinced that Oswald could have done it alone, which tends to discount many of the conspiracy theories that depend on the impossibility of that.

Back in the '80's there was a local historian who published his research into a little-reported aspect of the assassination--that after his arrest Oswald tried to call someone in Raleigh, North Carolina (where I grew up). The gist of it is that one of the numbers Oswald tried to call belonged to a former military intelligence officer, which sounds like an agent trying to make contact with his controller. Weird.

But one thing that I can't make fit into conspiracy theories is Oswald's attempted assasination of Gen. Walker. Why would some plot to frame Oswald include something as bizarre as that?

Anyway, I haven't found any conspiracy theory that satisfies me. If you go looking for them, you're bound to find some that were never that serious and/or just never played out. There may have been a conspiracy, but I don't think anyone has truly uncovered it. Maybe it's not that every question has been answered, but perhaps the right one has yet to be asked. I recommend the PBS Frontline documentary on Oswald from a few years ago. He seems just weird enough that I can't entirely discount the theory that made the cover of TIME back in the '90's--that he was actually trying to kill Texas governor John B. Connally (who was wounded that day) and failed miserably, the motivation being that Connally signed Oswald's dishonorable discharge as Secretary of the Navy.

And you know, I still haven't seen JFK. I keep meaning to, and I just never get around to it. I saw Stone in a recent interview saying he never meant it to be taken as fact etc.

Once when I was coming into DFW my plane took a nice banking turn and I found myself looking straight down into Dealey Plaza. That was a really weird feeling. I've never visited it on the ground.

9/05/2006 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

out of town for the week, so comments will be brief (will get into The Descent later)

When the film was released, Stone put out a companion book for the film, which included the very heavily annotated script for the movie. Citations for all the claims in the film, etc. I'll look up where the newspaper thing came from when I get home. Stuff presented as fact in the movie was not made up. Based on shaky sources maybe, but not made up.

Great film, one of my favorites.

9/06/2006 09:53:00 AM  

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