Monday, November 3, 2008

Politics & Movies Blog-a-Thon: JFK

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-Thon being coordinated at The Cooler blog by Jason Bellamy.

The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone's film, JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.

JFK presents the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person's point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that implicates the most powerful people in the United States government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.

Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.”

Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser for the film.

Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”

The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation" and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted to the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence

The normally wooden Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film, that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman’s delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars . . . the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.

Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.

Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far.” In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant.” A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.” Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade.
JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing. JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public is still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.


SOURCES



Fisher, Bob. “The Whys and Hows of JFK.” American Cinematographer. February 1992.

Petras, James. “The Discrediting of The Fifth Estate: The Press Attacks on JFK.” Cineaste. May 1992.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.

8 comments:

  1. Hey,
    Great look at possibly my favorite Oliver Stone film. Thanks for the link to my poll as well. It is already turning out to have some surprises (like U-Turn getting more votes than Wall Street and so on)...thanks again and well done on the post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. U-TURN getting more votes than WALL STREET?! That's crazy! Thanks for the nice comments. Yeah, I think that this is my fave Stone film - altho, sometimes I go with NIXON, depending on my mood.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey J.D. Great write-up. I love this film. It's one of my favorite Oliver Stone films. I find this subject so fascinating. There are so many theories, some plausible and some not, about what happened that day in Dallas and in the following days. It was interesting to see Stone's take on it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah, I love this film too for the reasons you mentioned. So much is not known about what really went down and why leaving it up to endless speculation. I doubt we will ever know for sure why Kennedy was killed and who did it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hey J.D.-

    Man, love the researched bits you did for this. You'd think, living in Texas, that I would know that Stone actually shot from the book depository, but I didn't.

    Great thoughts and facts. I'd like to revisit this now b/c I didn't like this initially, but that was quite some time ago.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hey Fox, thanks for the nice words!

    Yeah, it is amazing that Stone actually got permission to shoot scenes in Dealey Plaza AND in the Book Depository. And it certainly gives the film a whole other level of authenticity.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I used to like this movie. I still admire its photography, editing and score. I still enjoy the casting, and the humor. But after reading RECLAIMING HISTORY by Vincent Bugliosi (author of HELTER SKELTER and the recent THE PROSECUTION OF GEORGE W. BUSH FOR MURDER), I have other thoughts about the film.

    I leave it to you to search out Bugliosi's book, which is by far the most comprehensive tome on the subject of JFK's assassination and its ultimate investigation. Bugliosi's aim is to convince everyone once and for all that Oswald was and was the ONLY killer there at Dealey Plaza on that day.

    I've always suscribed to the notion that SOMEONE else was involved. But not anymore. Bugliosi convinced me to forget the nutjobs trying to make more out of a tragedy than there is to make, and often for their own gains.

    Anyway, in the book, Bugliosi tears Stone a new one for being the number one distributor of false accusations. After he sets up hi case, Bugliosi leaves us no alternative but to be convinced of Stone's (and Garrison's) irresponsibility. There is no way we can walk away from Bugliosi's perfectly researched book (which took him 20 years to finish) without having a new opinion not only of the JFK assassination, but on the movie it spawned.

    It's sort of a shame. I still see JFK as an expertly made piece. But now I also see it as putrid agitprop of the lowest order.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for your comments, Dean. I haven't read Bugliosi's book but I would like to. I really enjoyed the one he did on the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

    I think the key to Stone's film is that you can't take it as historical fact. He never said that what is depicted in the film is what happened. Stone said that his film was a countermyth to what he saw as a myth perpetuated by the Warren Commission Report.

    Over the years, I've come to see the film as a very expertly put together political thriller but certainly not historical fact.

    ReplyDelete