JFK (1991)

Dir. Oliver Stone. Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Joe Pesci

I was looking through the Wikipedia article for The Da Vinci Code recently, and I was surprised/not surprised to find that there’s a Wikipedia page for “Criticism of The Da Vinci Code.” Without really reading the article, one can guess at its contents – I was more disappointed to find that there isn’t a section on the page which discusses Dan Brown’s deliciously maladroit prose. What’s also disappointing is that it’s one of those Wikipedia pages which catalogs a significant number of people who have just missed the point. If you’re going to read works of fiction, you have to have some understanding of genre. I tell you the truth (to steal someone’s catchphrase): if it were a meticulously researched tract, you would not have found it in the entrance to a Barnes and Noble.

The Da Vinci Code is probably the best example of the past fifty years of this issue of fundamentally misunderstanding genre. It wasn’t a bestseller because it was a well-crafted and well-written page-turner; it wasn’t a bestseller because it was saying something new and controversial; it was a bestseller because it appeared to be tipping a sacred cow, something which most people accepted as fact – in this case, that Jesus of Nazareth was not celibate but a married man with children. The novel takes that cow-tipping moment and it becomes a serious of controversial statements that make people turn pages: that there is a “Holy Grail” involved, that it was built from Mary Magdalene’s ladyparts, that everyone but you seems to have known that already. Never mind that this is a novel, by definition a work of fiction; never mind that everyone from the Coen Brothers to the people who made The Blair Witch Project had thrown “This is a true story” in front of a fictional piece to make people blink a little less. Lose your minds, y’all! Take the cross!

So why is it that every time I watch JFK, I immediately start thinking about the next time I’ll watch it? And why is it that I have a hard time going to sleep afterwards? Isn’t its ethos the same one sitting around The Da Vinci Code?

Let’s get this out of the way real quick. JFK is a work of fiction. Obviously, it is a work of fiction based on landmark historical events, far more relevant to contemporary Americans than, say, the potential offspring of a carpenter from Galilee would be. It is a work of fiction which works very hard to address even tiny objections to what we’ll call the New Orleans theory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (The one that springs to mind for me first is when Jay O. Sanders starts talking about the abscission process of a particular type of tree which probably obscured the view of any shooter in the Texas Book Depository, much to the presumed chagrin of J. Edgar Hoover.) But it is a work of fiction.

It is worth noting that Jim Garrison plays Earl Warren. This is about as subtle as Oliver Stone gets, and it’s about as subtle as someone’s brain on the back of a car: Garrison plays the guy, who, in the contention of the film, has his name on the biggest hoax in American history. Genre matters. Even when it’s compelling, or when it’s historical, fiction is still fiction. Whether or not there’s some seed of truth in it is a discussion for evangelists and auteurs who are more convinced of what truth is than the rest of us are.

There’s something deeply appropriate, though, about beginning this discussion about genre and fiction and JFK with a novel with Christological implications. When the people writing the Gospels were so doing, they weren’t writing down literal historical fact, and that wasn’t their intention: the goal was to write down what should be true. Thus the weird genealogies in Matthew and Luke, or the increasingly elaborate baptism of Jesus across the other Gospels, from the perspective of Marcan priority. I don’t know what Oliver Stone – and to some extent, I imagine this is even true for my understanding of Jim Garrison – thinks is true about the assassination of John F. Kennedy; JFK is the story of what should be true, or at least what feels true. And at its heart, the film is arguing very simply that Kennedy’s death was not the work of one troubled guy with a bolt-action rifle and a view from a warehouse.

JFK is the story of Jim Garrison (Costner), a man who is positioned by the film as being in the right place at the right time. That place is New Orleans, where he works as the D.A. Despite being 500 driving miles from the place where JFK was assassinated, Garrison believes that he has a potential lead in his lap in the person of a Lee Harvey Oswald acquaintance, David Ferrie (Pesci, between Goodfellas and My Cousin Vinny). Ferrie, a true eccentric who counts among former positions “defrocked priest,” “would-be cancer curer,” and “anti-Castro guerrilla,” can’t give any good alibi to Garrison. Garrison turns him over to the FBI; the FBI holds a weird press conference in which the D.A.’s office is singled out for Ferrie’s questioning occurring at all; three years pass before Garrison, opening up his Warren Report, realizes he’s been had.

Once Garrison starts reading the Warren Report, he’s hooked. Leads weren’t followed. Improper techniques were used in questioning witnesses. The conclusions are shoddy. He’s aghast. He has the report out for hours, practically immune to whatever else is happening in the house. His complaints at the dinner table about it feel dated in a post-9/11 world; I always wait for him to cry out something along the lines of, “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” somewhere in his rant about all of the Warren Commission’s flaws; that holes-poking style of rant, in the age of the blogosphere and Twitter, has more in common with “ethics in gaming journalism” and “meet me in Temecula” than it does with Sherlock Holmes whispering feverishly to himself while Watson squints nervously. (It’s not even just Garrison who does it; Assistant D.A. Susie Cox’s close reading of a doctored photo of an armed Lee Harvey Oswald standing outside his house feels uncomfortably close to the fringes of 9/11 truthers doing the same thing to pictures of the Twin Towers.)

For all of the awkwardness we can read into them now, the questions which Garrison brings up at the dinner table and in his study and to the chagrin of his wife, Liz (more on her later), are not questions that I think even supporters of the Warren Commission would find that it answers satisfactorily. And while Kevin Costner sitting in a bunch of bright red light and intoning, “Ask the question” is not exactly the stuff thrills are made of, it lays the necessary groundwork without losing us entirely. It’s these questions that the movie wants us to ask, at any rate, even if the answers in the canon, writ large to the point of infallibility by a Higher Power, don’t provide clear explanations.

Over three hours, nouns start to proliferate. Lee Harvey Oswald and Texas Book Depository and Dealey Plaza and Jack Ruby mutate into Guy Bannister and David Ferrie and Clay Bertrand/Shaw, who mutate into Willie O’Keefe and the Grassy Knoll. By the time we know Mr. X and the Zapruder Film, it should be hard to keep all of this straight. The screenplay, written by Stone and Zachary Sklar, is like Aaron Sorkin in a wheelchair; conversations zip along at a million miles an hour even if no one trots down the hallway past interns. It seems like this should be, at best, unwieldy. (Sometimes it is. It’s hard not to giggle a little bit while Joe Pesci dances around the room in his weird wig and drawn on eyebrows screeching about riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas.) Yet on my first viewing, to say nothing of later ones, it was easy to keep track of who was who and how they were connected.

The movie is about as good a way to get to Kevin Bacon in Six Degrees thereof as any other I can think of. Kevin Costner, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, and Tommy Lee Jones are in leading roles, while Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau, John Candy, and most importantly, Donald Sutherland dot the landscape in virtual cameos. Character actors abound: Vincent D’Onofrio, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Rooker. Wayne Knight and Laurie Metcalf escape from their once and future sitcoms. Kevin Bacon, of course, is here. Martin Sheen, of all people, provides an introductory voiceover. And Gary Oldman is forgettably forgettable as Lee Harvey Oswald. This is a type of dual genius in casting, in which everyone is recognizable. In this kind of film, you have to have people you recognize, or otherwise you’re going to be lost in the middle of a Game of Thrones episode trying to figure out who’s who. And maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “What in the Sam Hill is Tommy Lee Jones doing in that wig?” or maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t know the name of the guy playing Bill Broussard, but he sure does have a distinctive voice,” but it’s a great way to keep track of who’s who.

The casting also works on Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman, but for utterly different reasons. Costner was probably the biggest male movie star of the time, which, if that’s not an indictment on Bush 41’s America, I don’t know what is. Part of what bedevils me about his early ’90s success is that he is so boring. Did people go to see a zillion movies with a guy that boring starring in them? His voice and face and his manner are just so unsparingly dull.  And Oldman, for my money the best actor in the film, slouches and mumbles his way in black and white for so long that he’s almost unrecognizable in a role where he looks just like himself. It’s a sensational performance. Costner and Oldman, their dullness and anonymity, are important. The viewer gets information at the same rate that the principals do, and for that reason, it is easy to impress our own images on top of those two. We see ourselves as Costner’s Garrison, I think, discovering and uncovering at a rapid rate – think of the seemingly interminable array of new facts from Mr. X (Sutherland) which even Garrison hadn’t guessed at beforehand. And we can put whatever mask we want to on Oldman’s Oswald, which, of course, is the point.

There’s a wonderful monologue in The History Boys, in which Frances de la Tour finally gets to spout off on why teaching history is not so enjoyable for women as it is for men: “What is history?” she asks before dropping the mic: “History is women following behind with the bucket.” The History Boys, which by its title rather gives away its gendered perspective, manages to salvage some of its masculine scopophilia with that piece of self-awareness, but JFK, alas, lacks that happy knowledge. The weakest parts of JFK, by miles and miles, involve Sissy Spacek as Jim Garrison’s wife, Liz. This is not Spacek’s fault in any way. The word “thankless” was made to describe her role in this film; it is beyond Natalie-Portman-in-Star-Wars-level thankless.

I don’t understand why, if you’re going to do what Oliver Stone (and Zachary Sklar) do to conventional readings of history, why you wouldn’t just continue down that path and tear up what’s inconvenient to the telling of a generally interesting story. JFK is one of those rare commercial films which gets over 200 minutes. This movie could be brought down to the 180 minute mark without too much trouble if they just removed Garrison’s family. All they exist for is for vague sympathy – Jasper, the most human of the little children, is not exactly up to lisping about the Good Ship Lollipop – or to prove how important the investigation is by presenting, conversely, how unimportant they are. What’s incredible is that Liz actually rises/falls to this occasion once Robert Kennedy is assassinated. This comes after she does little more than chew out her husband for missing out on their family’s life because of his personal obsessions (which, I mean, what woman doesn’t say that all the time, right?), generally shrewing her way along for the better part of a three hour and twenty-six minute film. Aside from Metcalf’s Susie Cox (who has two major scenes of Oswald-exposition and gets shut down occasionally for postulating too frequently), there are no other women of note in the film. I get that this is a historical drama, based on actual people. It’s the same reason that black people barely even speak in this film – it’s a white perspective on the death of a white president. It’s merely interesting that a film based on a speculative and creative hypothesis doesn’t bother to be nearly as speculative or creative about gender roles or race.

A final consideration, which I’ve already brought up earlier but still can’t get over: isn’t it terrifically interesting that this film makes Jim Garrison its main character, focuses on how he brings Clay Shaw to trial and, more importantly, subpoenas the Zapruder film, makes the names “David Ferrie” and “Clay Shaw” more odious to its viewers than “Lee Harvey Oswald,” and the film itself still doesn’t take Garrison’s theory seriously? The film begins with Dwight D. Eisenhower telling off the “military-industrial complex,” and its best scenes – its most detailed, its most frightening, its most gravitating – are those of Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X talking at Kevin Costner while interspersing the black and white of military higher-ups ensuring Kennedy’s death and Lyndon B. Johnson’s coup d’etat, the faded stock footage of Vietnam and Dallas. The film, while it keeps up with the New Orleans theory throughout, still turns its head away from Jim Garrison in the fourth act; even if we didn’t know that Jim Garrison was playing Earl Warren (which I sure as heck didn’t know before I looked at the credits), it would be crystal clear that the people writing this movie thought he was a little out there. At least his reputation is still fine with people watching Laugh-In.

1991 is an interesting year in film history, especially from the distance which we’ve gained. The best-reviewed mainstream animated film between Snow White and the rise of Pixar in Beauty and the Beast; a Big Five Oscar winner in Silence of the Lambs; a film theory darling in My Own Private Idaho; the last Star Trek movie featuring the TOS cast in The Undiscovered Country; an early Coen Brothers statement in Barton Fink, the slate of ambitious if ultimately uninspiring literary adaptations ranging from The Prince of Tides to At Play in the Fields of the Lord; and, of course, a film with a cast of thousands and Frankenheimer/Pakula sensibilities which almost single-handedly reopened the case of the JFK assassination. And if we’d all understood genre a little better, we’d still have to wait until 2038 to read the files.

3 thoughts on “JFK (1991)

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