Monday, August 4, 2008

The Great Movies: "JFK"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Oliver Stone, 1991

I'm deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories in general, and you should be too. When tragedy is linked to shadowy, sinister forces, the case usually hinges on the testimony of people describing what they heard and saw during a few seconds of surprise and terror, conditions under which humans simply do not have the capacity to perceive and remember events with any accuracy. Often, and notably with the oddly popular "alternative" theories put forth about the destruction of the World Trade Centers -- an event, if ever there was one, requiring no alternative explanations -- they show a depressing naivete about the physics of objects under extreme conditions of speed, stress, or temperature. And, most theories postulate a cabal of the kind of well-dressed, impassive, implacably evil villain that only really exists in filmed entertainment.

But the single most problematic aspect of conspiracy theories is that they involve conspiracies -- that is, that they hypothesize sizable groups of people who join together to keep an important secret, and keep it until the grave. This doesn't really jibe with an everyday experience of human nature. It's damned hard to keep one's own secrets, and exponentially harder for two people to keep a mutual secret. Could a massive, generation-defining catastrophe requiring the knowing participation of hundreds really be kept under wraps? I sure don't see how.

However, an awful lot of strange things happened in Dallas on and around November 22, 1963. The very least you can say is this: the astonishingly sloppy treatment of evidence and procedure shown across multiple agencies and organizations during the run-up and response to the Kennedy assassination has created vastly fertile ground for speculative scenario-spinning. Decades of theorists have created a massive library of alternatives to the notoriously weak and unconvincing Warren Report.

Oliver Stone's sprawling JFK is a layman's tour through the strange world of Kennedy assassination theory. Interjecting archival materials freely into the filmed drama, and recreating period environments so beautifully that it is not always easy to tell which is which, the film offers an engrossing reenactment of its central event. Or, more properly, many engrossing reenactments, as several different hypothetical scenarios are depicted over the course of the film. Even the strict Warren Report version is given its own fair, literal depiction, demonstrating that it is just, just barely within the realm of possibility.

The only completely safe statement you can make, having watched the film, is that the assination of John F. Kennedy did not go down like the lead character in the movie thinks it did. For one thing, the movie allows into evidence a confession that never actually happened, makes simple composites out of multiple complex characters, and refers to sinister peripheral events that, since the making of the movie, have since been shown never to have happened. Also, Stone clearly wonders whether Kennedy was killed because of the threat he represented to the "military-industrial complex" -- the opening scene is newsreel footage of Eisenhower's Farewell Address, in which the concept was first articulated. Yet most historians today, if I've been reading accurate summaries, are deeply skeptical that Kennedy's administration posed any threat to the military-industrial complex whatsoever. Finally, the movie proposes a conspiracy so broad and so complex as to represent an impressive chunk of the national population. That's a lot of people keeping discipline about a very, very juicy secret. Not bloody likely.

Where the movie excels, though, is in creating and sustaining an air of sinister unease. It is, without a doubt, a significant predecessor of The X-Files and the mild paranoia that hung like smog over the culture of the 1990s. Stone also provided a public service, I think, in pointing out the myriad genuine, disturbing questions left hanging by the essential non-investigation of the Kennedy killing. The blurring within the film between historical fact and speculation, between archival and filmed material, is a fitting means to portray one of the great enigmas of American history, a tragedy about which, both in its legend and in its actuality, facts and truth have a way of seeming to bend, twist, and disappear like smoke.

Plot: A New Orleans District Attorney becomes obsessed with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Oodles of his witnesses get rubbed out, but he doesn't, which seems like fuzzy thinking on the part of the sinister forces mustered against him. But never mind, he soldiers on heroically against the odds, and digs up all sorts of disturbing connections and absences of documentation. Eventually, there's a big trial.

Visuals: Zowie! This is an amazing movie in terms of its visual and sound design. There is enough straight narrative content to keep you oriented, but extensive screen time is given over to non-narrative audio-visual collage. By turns mysterious, exciting, haunting, and suspenseful, these many long episodes are powerfully evocative yet entirely coherent.

Dialogue: Often in the form of long speeches about how, or why, a character thinks something might have been done. This is rendered tolerable, though, by making most of the expository bits into voice-over of a reenactment of the action being described.

Prognosis: One more thing about this movie -- it's eight hours long. No, wait, that's Empire. JFK is only three and a half hours long. That's a sizable investment of time, and to it you should add at least an hour you will spend on the Wiki looking into the facts, fictions, fancies, and reactions to the thing.

JFK isn't quite like any movie I've ever seen, though, and it may be worth watching for that alone. It is thought-provoking, entertaining, long, beautifully made, and very long. Recommended for anyone with a stout attention span and a few hours to kill.


Anonymous said...

You're right about how we should be skeptical of all of these conspiracy theories in general. I gotta wonder, though, who's making all of these theories and putting them out there? What is their agenda and are they well-organized? Is there a cabal of former English and Geography majors out there secretly writing these things up to obfuscate and distract us from what's really going on?

Yankee in England said...

This is one film I don't mind watching more than once. It comes on every now and again. Saturday specials and such. It is so complex that each time it is like watching it again. I agree about all those secret being hard to keep. I also think there are just too many unanswered questions.

Chance said...

anonymous just blew my mind.

M5K, where do you get the Great Movies list from?

Michael5000 said...

@Anon: Have you been drinking?

@Yank: I agree. Too many unanswered questions. In general.

@Chance: Me too. The Great Movies list is from the Roger Ebert book, "the Great Movies." The story of the project is here, and the list itself is here.