Once More, Down the Rabbit Hole: Revisiting Oliver Stone’s "JFK"
By Chris WallaceNovember 22, 2013
AFTER MONTHS SPENT down the rabbit hole investigating the assassination of President Kennedy, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and his office have arrived at a point of such bizarre contradictions, that only allusions to Alice and her Wonderland make sense. “We’re through the looking glass here,” Garrison says. “Here white is black and black is white.” Over dinner in the clubby back room of Antoine’s in the old French Quarter, the dilating light on Garrison’s glasses and his martini coupe suggests the dawn of a migraine, or hallucination. Flashes from the team’s research shard their conversation, haunting them, a potent red pill taking effect. “Any of you want to quit?” Garrison asks a few scenes later. “Dumb question, put your hands down.”
Seen from this side of the looking glass, and well beyond the point of no return, the evidence the team has compiled can no longer be ignored, explained away in comfortable lone-gunman scenarios, or dismissed as paranoid conspiracy. What they must begin to consider is a Wonderland in which members of the CIA and military intelligence conspired to murder their commander in chief, then aided in the event’s cover up. This thesis, which is threaded through the Grisham-esque plot of Oliver Stone’s film JFK, scandalized and offended critics upon its release in 1991, and offered politicians an opportunity to deploy some vicious sound bytes. George Will of The Washington Post called the movie “a three-hour lie […] he may be an intellectual sociopath.” Newsweek ran a cover story called “Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted.” And sitting MPAA chief Jack Valenti compared Stone to Hitler propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
If I had been aware of any of this pre-release controversy at the time as a middle-schooler in Los Angeles, it would have only whetted my appetite for the movie. But unlike the tragic time stamp of JFK’s assassination for a previous generation, I don’t remember where I was when I saw JFK. There was no epiphanic impact. Instead, what I now consider to be to be among the greatest American studio movies made in my lifetime hit me slowly, feeding my head with its heavy doses of paranoia, conspiracy, and exquisite film craft. For years after, I would put in the VHS — and later, the DVD — of JFK to watch as I fell asleep, to dream byzantine plots, pursued by shadowy conspirators, a moral crusader on the side of the Truth.
For a kid just beginning to come online, beginning to prod the gooey subjectivity of what he’s been told, JFK acted as a kind of Inception kick, throttling me up through layers of institutional dogma into some new nebulous space of wondrous doubt. And this act of going beyond the looking glass was and is still thrilling to me. It got so that whenever I wanted to feel the hard-edged world around me lose shape and opacity, I would pop in the movie. And it still works today. Surprisingly, for a 22-year-old work made in a medium whose artifacts usually age about as well as daisies, JFK remains vivid and affecting. Stone’s mixing of film stocks — and his recreating of reportage-style footage to mirror the archival footage he uses — feels as fresh as ever alongside today’s “reality”-pursuant films. The resulting tapestry of footage, for which Bob Richardson won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, is a Dantean layering of consciousness, shuffling together waking dreams, nightmare, and memory in its strange, fading processes.
In editing these many distinctive layers of film, Stone is able to weave a very complicated story of historical investigation with zip and clarity. But this temporal and imaginative mixing also affords him room for the film’s trippy Rashomon detailing — dropping in subliminal notes, editorializing, and depicting unattributed fantasy sequences. When, for example, John Candy’s hepcat lawyer Dean Andrews claims never to have met the industrialist and alleged CIA agent Clay Shaw (aka Clay Bertrand) about representing Lee Harvey Oswald, Stone cuts to him sitting in Bertrand’s office, kowtowing and laughing.
Throughout the movie, the performance of an actor (playing someone who is either being truthful or acting) is interspersed with dramatizations of the events the actor describes. When the two tracks differ, as in Candy’s terrific scene, the performances begin to shimmer. We, the viewer, become privy to the juxtaposition of the characters’ deceit with the thrill of Garrison’s discovery of their lie. When, on the other hand, a character’s testimony to Garrison is proven by the dramatized cutaways (notably in the series of witnesses whose testimony to the Warren Commission is altered or ignored), the moments are shaded with dread — and shaded by the massive, unknowable shape of the conspiracy.
This is how Stone builds his case to align the viewer, at least emotionally, with Garrison — a technique for which he has been regularly and loudly attacked. Maybe the most remarked upon instance is when, during Jack Lemmon’s harried description to Garrison of the shady world he knew in New Orleans before the assassination, Oswald makes an appearance at David Ferrie’s CIA–sponsored training camp for anti-Castro Cubans at Lake Pontchartrain. There is no evidence anywhere to support this vision, but there it is, prompting a series of conclusions by its mere suggestion. In the Director’s Cut DVD commentary, Stone defends this decision, claiming dramatic license. He is merely suggesting one of many possibilities, he says.
To this day Stone remains an eloquent and outspoken defender of these choices, which of course begs the point that he still has to be. In the build up to its re-release on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, he has reiterated his claim that JFK presents a factual, historically accurate counterprogramming to the published findings of the Warren Commission.
Beginning not with the hit, but with Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address in which the outgoing president warned of the growing power of the military–industrial complex, Stone’s film cuts right to the quick of Ike’s fears, highlighting in a black and white montage the CIA’s belligerence in the Bay of Pigs, and the joint chiefs’ battles with Kennedy over Russia. In his address at American University from June 10, 1963, Kennedy is heard trumpeting a call for peace. “What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” he says. To this end, Kennedy will, on October 11, sign National Security Action Memorandum 263, “effectively putting a stop to the Vietnam war,” Garrison is later told — and effectively putting a stop to the industrial gains resulting from the war, we understand. But, just four days after the assassination, on the day after the state funeral, this plan was countermanded by Lyndon Johnson, in National Security Action Memorandum 273, which recommitted to the conflict in Southeast Asia. Once this motive for the operation is established, the plot and “the plot” become merely a question of (excuse me) execution.
In order to prove the conspiracy, Garrison says in the movie, he must first prove that Oswald did not act alone. To illustrate this, Garrison thoroughly demolishes the ludicrous magic bullet theory put forth by Arlen Specter, and then, vitally, subpoenas Abraham Zapruder’s then unseen document of the day in Dallas to show that the fatal shot came from in front of the president. (Garrison repeats the words, “back, and to the left,” over a chilling loop of Kennedy’s head exploding, again and again, “back, and to the left.”) His conclusions are laid out most directly in his closing arguments:
“Treason doth never prosper,” wrote an English poet, “What’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” The American public have yet to see the Zapruder film. Why? The American public have yet to see the real X-rays and photographs of the autopsy. Why? There are hundreds of documents that could help prove this conspiracy. Why have they been withheld or burned by the government?
Each time my office or you the people have asked those questions, demanded crucial evidence, the answer from on high has always been “national security.” What kind of “national security” do we have when we’ve been robbed of our leaders? What “national security” permits the removal of fundamental power from the hands of the American people and validates the ascendancy of invisible government in the United States? That kind of “national security,” gentlemen of the jury, is when it smells like it, feels like it, and looks like it, you call it what it is: Fascism!
I submit to you that what took place on November 22, 1963 was a coup d’etat. Its most direct and tragic result was a reversal of President Kennedy’s commitment to withdraw from Vietnam. War is the biggest business in America worth $80 billion a year.
The President was murdered by a conspiracy planned in advance at the highest levels of the United States government, and carried out by fanatical and disciplined Cold Warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s covert operations apparatus — among them Clay Shaw here before you. It was a public execution and it was covered up by like-minded individuals in the Dallas Police Department, the Secret Service, the FBI, and the White House — all the way up to and including J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, whom I consider accomplices after the fact.
The assassination reduced the president to a transient official. His job, his assignment, is to speak as often as possible of this nation’s desire for peace, while he acts as a business agent in Congress for the military and their hardware manufacturers.
For pursuing this line of investigation, Garrison is, perhaps unsurprisingly, much maligned throughout the film. And one gets the sense that Stone empathizes with his hero’s martyrdom for the truth — his vilification in the press, his discrediting — figuring that history will vindicate them both. During a fight between Garrison and his wife, Stone says in the DVD commentary that the scene closely mirrors a fight he had with his own wife at the time. “Hard thing when a man or a woman finds that their partner doesn’t believe them,” he says, describing the action. “This is a replay of one of the fights I had with my wife at the time, and I think I was probably going through similar emotions writing this.” Then, echoing Garrison’s side of the argument, Stone adds “Somebody’s got to have a mission to do this country justice, to make it better.” So if in defending his movie and himself from their many detractors, Stone sounds a bit like he has a persecution complex, well, he does.
If we have learned anything from the movies, it is that obsessive crusaders for the truth have little time for humor. Stone’s movie is no different, throttling along with all the earnestness of a holy warrior. But compared to, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a better, if chillier and less scrutable movie about conspiracy, JFK is remarkably accessible, almost too much so. In spelling out every little note, underlining every wad of evidence for the dull or distracted viewer — using with proficiency that same Rashomon-like replay — Stone can feel exasperatingly pedantic. When Lee Bowers, a key witness in the Warren Report played in the film by Pruitt Taylor Vince, testifies to seeing men in uniform holding something to their mouths behind the fence at the grassy knoll, Stone cuts to a court bailiff (or someone) dragging on a cigarette, answering a viewer’s question before it can be formulated, before then cutting forward to 1966, to Bowers’s body, dead after a single car crash on a quiet road. After a few of these we could be forgiven for wanting to imagine something — anything — ourselves. But maybe the purpose of movies is to do that for us, to imagine, with great specificity, things we dare not let ourselves think of.
“What we all dread most is a maze with no center,” Father Brown says in one of G.K. Chesterton’s stories. Borges believed the “metaphysical detective story” of Citizen Kane to be just that maze. And Oliver Stone’s JFK is a maze built of a seemingly infinite number of Citizen Kanes. Every thread, every dark, paranoid alley Garrison and his team uncover gives out onto another, still more shadowy mystery (and a Rosebud destroyed to cover it up). And when the going gets crazy — and the Kennedy mystery is the crazy Mardi Gras of American history, making the paranoid dreams of Thomas Pynchon and James Ellroy look tame by comparison — it is something of a relief that Stone, and by extension Garrison, thinks the unthinkable for us.
By the time he meets with Donald Sutherland’s Mr. X, toward the end of the second act, Garrison is so paranoid (or, we might say, far enough through the looking glass) that he can begin to imagine a SPECTRE-like group of these old white men meeting behind closed doors to bitch about Kennedy — military, intelligence, and even LBJ. “And it begins like that, in the wind,” Mr. X says:
As early as ‘61, they knew Kennedy was going to change things. He was not going to war in Southeast Asia.
Like Caesar, he is surrounded by enemies and something's underway, but it has no face. Yet everybody in the loop knows.
This is as close as the movie gets to fashioning a cabal of former oil- and Bonesman who plot the coup d’etat (“You just get me elected, and I’ll give you your damned war,” Johnson says to the group of geezers in Garrison’s fantasy), but in that moment the seeds are planted for a dozen other dramatized conspiracies, from the X-Files syndicate on down.
More whistleblower-movie than straight detective story, JFK feels, in the era of Snowden and Manning — both of whom Stone resolutely supports — as freshly ripped from the headlines as an episode in a Dick Wolf serial. Its treatment of the intelligence community is a wonderful achievement, upending the romantic Hollywood image of spies, and particularly the CIA, by recasting them as either balding thugs in bad ties and BluBlockers, in the case of the operatives (see: Hunt, Howard E.), or, in the upper echelons, as WASPy bureaucrats with Nietzschean wills to power and Heisenberg glasses. (And it is rather interesting to note that Howard Hunt, in his “deathbed confession,” seemed to corroborate Garrison’s findings.)
But another reason the movie stands up so well is its capacity to undermine the structure of narrative, to unwind the fabric of a myth, effervescing in the viewer’s mind as it melts down first conventional wisdom, and then its own. JFK sets in motion a chain reaction of doubt that, once loosed, is difficult to halt. And, despite Roger Ebert’s defense of the movie upon its release, the dazzling dissolution of a popular myth does not a counter-myth make. As much as Stone might hope that his movie reinstalls a new system of truth, a new system to believe in, it is too effective in making us question everything. Thus, the film causes us to question it, and so undoes its own postulation. But, in a way, that is what JFK is really about.
It is about the terror we experience when, after questioning the institutions we have believed to be our bedrock, we find ourselves unsupported in space — Wile E. Coyote before the free fall. It is about the paralysis that fear can instill in us, the way power fosters that fear and fans it into a paranoid frenzy, so that it may operate unseen and unmolested in that vacuum. It is about the greed and cynicism of that power, and what it will do if left unchecked. Ultimately, it is an American fable about our raging inability to confront the Wonderland around us, a grail quest down a terrifying rabbit hole.
Movies, of course, are our modern myths, and Stone has, at times, called this one his Godfather (and Nixon his Godfather Part II), but his saga may have a better cast, and better performances than Coppola’s mafia opera. Not only does JFK have two of the grandest monologues in modern movies (Costner’s closing statements as Garrison, and the electrifying 14 pages of text delivered by Donald Sutherland’s better-than-Deep Throat deep-throat, Mr. X), the variety and scope of performances by its Avengers-style super-group cast is unmatched, anywhere, in any canon. Kevin Costner, fresh out of his Dances with Wolves skins and Oscars tux, gives Jim Garrison all of the righteous, if understated, indignation he has left over from previously playing Elliot Ness. And still, Tommy Lee Jones nearly limps away with the movie, his Clay Shaw a deliriously droll monster in a white suit and curls. (He should have won the Oscar for which he was nominated.) Any and all awards are deserved by Joe Pesci for his wildly unsprung David Ferrie, and especially for his explosive motel room meltdown (“Who did Kennedy? It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! Even the shooters don't fuckin’ know!”). Gary Oldman’s performance as Oswald, too, may be the most underrated of his career, and the only one without which the entire movie would crumble. It is almost unthinkable, as Stone has pointed out, to imagine the scenes with Jones, Pesci, Oldman and Kevin Bacon taking place today (unless maybe in a movie about that last trip to Vegas), but the cascade of cameos is just as awe-inspiring: from Sutherland, to Jack Lemmon, to Ed Asner, Walter Matthau, John Candy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Brian Doyle Murray as Jack Ruby, and even Garrison himself playing Earl Warren.
And these guys are playing with some good material. Aside from the monster monologues, and a steady stream of references to Lewis Carroll and his Alice, the screenplay is littered with wit (though only one bit of humor, from Pesci, in his first scene) and literary allusions. Garrison’s long-delayed court case against Clay Bertrand is compared, by a member of his own office, to the big tuna in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea — a great haul, picked to the bone before it can be taken in. Garrison, who rather strangely seems to expect that his staff read their Shakespeare, says, upon first talking with Clay Bertrand, “One may smile and smile and be a villain — goddamnit we got one of ‘em!” During the trial he says that America has become a country of Hamlets, “children of a slain father–leader whose killers still possess the throne.” He rather grandiloquently finishes with a bit of Tennyson — “authority forgets a dying king” — and implores the jury not to forget theirs.
This final flourish on which the film closes, Stone says, is “an appeal to think, an appeal to question, an appeal to defy.” Almost 40 years have passed since Garrison’s case, 22 since Stone’s film, when Costner’s Garrison shouted, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” In the interim, we have been witness to another startling crime, the response to which, has, again, been the acceleration of war. Subsequently we have again either taken the blue pills, to wake up in our beds and shop the memory away, or tumbled down still another rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. But as the appeal in JFK reminds us, the sensationalism of 9/11 and 11/23 are distractions (indeed, this may be why Stone went against all expectation and his own track record to make his straightest most sober film ever in World Trade Center). We are reminded again of the necessity, of our duty in simply, soberly holding to account those who are responsible for these crimes, and of putting the center back into the maze.
Chris Wallace is an Angeleno adrift in New York. He writes novels and contributes regularly to The Paris Review Daily and The New York Times among others.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Jerry Stahl and the drugs that make us who we are, for better and mostly for worse.
Who killed Kennedy? His evil father!
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!