Directed by Oliver Stone
Despite having never seen this film, my vague understanding has always been that it played fast and loose with the facts. Oliver Stone’s movie challenges the established record of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and being a good little boy I’ve always taken the establishment at face value.
Having finally seen JFK, however, I find it much less inflammatory then I would’ve imagined. It’s not that the movie isn’t bold, because it certainly commits to a certain theory (the Grassy Knoll shooter, among others), but just that I think I kind of agree with main character Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner)? Is it the movie that has changed or the person watching it?
I’ve always been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination. I wrote an essay on the secret service in high school, and I dug into the life and work of serviceman Clint Hill (who’s the one running after the motorcade to push Jackie back into the vehicle), and read multiple books on the murder before eventually visiting Dealey Plaza a year and a half ago.
It wasn’t until I visited the Sixth Floor Museum, however, that I first considered the idea that there’s something to these conspiracy theories. I still regard many such theorists as people grasping at straws, but one detail in the museum mentioned that many of the witnesses to Oswald and any other potential shooters had died in the few years since the assassination. Some of these could be coincidences, but the odds of this many people in this close proximity dying in that amount of time is infinitely small.
Well I should stop there, this is supposed to be about the film, not about my conspiracy theory beliefs, which I’m still not sure about. More than anything the conspiracy theories are fun to ponder when you’re daydreaming, not much different than imagining what you’d do with your lottery winnings or what your desert island books would be.
JFK deals with a New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, and his tireless pursuit of the truth. His obsession with the assassination endangers his own life, and it’s certainly not a crusade that could be considered fun.
The film makes clear what it believes happened that day in Dallas. Stone and company lay out their theory that there were three shooters, Lee Harvey Oswald was only a patsy, and that Kennedy was killed because he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam, thus taking away financial opportunities from some of the wealthiest defense contractors in America.
It’s a thriller not unlike many you’ve probably seen before, but all the deceit, twists and turns and devastating possibilities stand out simply because, depending on what you believe, there’s a chance they could be true. And maybe you categorically deny what Stone’s film sets forth. Maybe you’re utterly convinced the Warren Commission’s findings are 100% true… and while I’m still likely to side with the conventional line of thinking that Oswald was the lone shooter, I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that’s more than willing to consider the alternative. I don’t imagine I’m much different than any other person out there, so that means there’s probably a part of many people willing to consider the possibility that there was a government cover up.
That doubt is important to the movie, which I see as a pretty damning indictment of America as a whole. This is a country that has done some pretty terrible things in an effort to maintain power, whether that’s unnecessary wars on foreign soil (to put in power preferred rulers) or racist, vile domestic agendas from throughout the years. It’s not to say that America is even so different from the rest of the world, just that it’s all about power. As a capitalist country America is in many ways defined by a certain pursuit of power. It’s what is meant to be so wonderful about this country, that anyone can make something of themselves, and yet it’s the dark side of that kind of pursuit that defines much of America’s recent history. It’s the people with power who do awful things to maintain that kind of power.
Beneath that there are plenty of wonderful, well-meaning people, just that when power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, well they can do certain things to push certain agendas that the masses might not agree with. They can also use that power and wealth to dictate a narrative which will soothe the masses, and well you get it.
Now I’m not particularly politically active or even aware, but these are my gut feelings about the country and about power in general. And again, I’m not delusional enough to think I’m all that different from anyone else, so if I feel this way, how many other people do too?
So JFK is about all those things, and it’s about one person trying to push back. I think Garrison is a heroic figure, but that isn’t to say that every person challenging a dominant line of thinking or ideology is automatically heroic. Kyrie Irving is an NBA player who has expressed a belief that the earth is flat. From what I recall he cited in his “research” various Instagram accounts, and “Instagram Research” is an oxymoron. Irving has since backtracked on that claim, saying not that the earth is necessarily flat, just that he’s trying to get everyone to do their own research, to ask their own questions. Now I think that is reckless behavior… but… well sh*t… is it that much different than Jim Garrison’s quest to examine the thing that he thinks needs to be examined?
Maybe it’s not any different, just that I’m more inclined to believe one person, not just because of his beliefs but because of how I think he’s gone about obtaining them. I can see the research on full display in the 3.5 hour director’s cut of JFK and I don’t see the minutes upon minutes of digging Irving has done.
It’s a strange, compelling thing to think about… all that we take for granted and what we sometimes suddenly decide to no longer take for granted. It can be a slippery slope because we want to take certain things in good faith, to believe in certain authoritative systems because they’re all we have. I’m not sure there’s any single stance you can take on this, because there are plenty of things I take at face value and other things in which I question, almost just out to stubborn pride and ego, the conventional thinking. Maybe it all just says more about the person doing the questioning than the thing being questioned.
Up Next: Quiz Show (1994), Big Fish (2003), Everybody Knows (2018)