Sleeping Dogs
Michael Joshua Rowin on JFK

In Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a passionate JFK conspiracy buff garrulously delves into the particulars of his obsession, even plugging the assassination book he’s currently writing (working title: “Conspiracy A-Go-Go”), for a young woman who looks visibly bored and uncomfortable. In 1991, audiences at Slacker probably chuckled, as they still do, at this man’s fiery, quixotic enthusiasm for a mysterious event long since passed on into myth. But history can never be easily laughed away: The same year of Linklater’s debut saw audiences responding quite differently to Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory tour de force, JFK. Utilizing Hollywood conventions while indulging in experimentation and also placing itself in a classical dramatic tradition, JFK is filmmaking and storytelling at its best—at the time of its release Stone accomplished his goal, powerfully dredging up the unresolved pain and unanswered questions of one of America’s most traumatic moments. JFK was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time, arousing both admiration and ire because of its transparent politics and fueling a fact-checking industry that has most likely not seen its like for a single film before or since.

Fifteen years after its initial release, the impact of JFK has not lessened. Not because of its main political thesis (Kennedy was assassinated due to his eminent withdrawal of troops from Vietnam) nor, certainly, from uncovering hard evidence of a conspiracy (which has still never been proven). Instead, JFK’s impact lasts through the post-9/11 era for its startling courage to locate government corruption in its ultimate object: war. Stone’s canny ability to fudge evidence and resort to manipulation cannot detract from his significant macroscopic claims, discovered by intelligent instincts and firsthand knowledge of war as a Vietnam vet. That’s why I’m not going to waste space debunking the convoluted—almost to the point of incomprehensibility—conspiracy theories presented in JFK, a task already taken up by a devoted crew of anti-Stone enthusiasts (e.g., The JFK 100: One Hundred Errors of Fact and Judgment in Oliver Stone’s JFK and The Assassination Goes Hollywood. It makes more sense to view JFK as a loosely—very loosely—fact-based Shakespearean ode to the Machiavellian twists of political power and influence, one containing a paranoia now more applicable to the bald-faced, open book conspiracies of our age than the crackpot, pot-smoked theories of yore. And that’s what makes it a modern classic.

JFK dramatizes New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s unsuccessful quest in 1968 to convict Clay Shaw, a prominent member of New Orleans high society with suspected CIA connections, on charges of conspiracy in the murder of the President of the United States five years before. Garrison and his team used the case to investigate the assassination and challenge the official record—as put forth by the Warren Report—purporting Lee Harvey Oswald to have acted alone in killing Kennedy. But Garrison couldn’t prove a thing and Shaw’s trial was an embarrassing debacle. Why would Stone use this event as his source material? As with JFK himself, Garrison makes a perfect martyr, one obstructed by the System at every turn while seeking the Truth. Besides that, Stone’s films generally introduce main topics as points of departure, not subjects to be strictly adhered to. JFK is structured like a figure-8, beginning with Kennedy’s assassination, moving out to the far reaches of conspiracy fodder, delving into the reasons that one might transpire, then back to the possible conspiracy at hand, and ending with the trial, where the event of the assassination itself comes back into the light. A torrent of accusations, facts, and re-creations fly by onscreen during JFK’s three and half hours, and the result is exhausting. Thankfully, Stone’s films are masterfully edited—the disorienting yet exhilarating shifts in space and time, occurring rapidly and abruptly, keep the action flowing, our senses stimulated. Stone could have come across like Linklater’s conspiracy buff, all bluster; instead, he proves himself a brilliant storyteller and—as if the Julius Caesar and Hamlet references weren’t hint enough—builds enough of an epic to make the plot to kill the President a tragedy of betrayal on par with the darkest, direst plots in Shakespeare.

Again, this is potent filmmaking, and few Hollywood blockbusters of the past 20 years are even fit to challenge JFK in terms of art, drama, and sheer entertainment. But film is also a medium of trickery, and Stone is well aware. JFK is a smoke and mirrors act, albeit a brilliant one, that seamlessly blends documentary footage and re-creations, scripts the film from Garrison’s subjective position to exclude alternate views and build composite characters. (Stone often relies on slippery slope thinking when it comes to evidence: first presenting a truth, he’ll then sneak in exaggerations and then complete speculation which are then, through syllogistic logic, considered fact by the viewer. But even as a mounted argument, the case for conspiracy as presented in JFK is simply too much—the final conclusions drawn by Garrison, as portrayed by Kevin Costner, are so convoluted and overwhelming in their farfetchedness that even the most generous viewer (but perhaps not the most dedicated conspiracy buff) will feel reluctant to simply concede the point to Stone. So what are we left with? JFK is, after all, a political film, one offering an alternative, liberal history of the late Fifties to the late Sixties—there should be at least some progressive substance behind the cinematic pyrotechnics.

There’s one scene in JFK that rises above the chaos to assume particular importance. It comes at a little more than halfway through and gets at the heart of what any political film worth any attention should get at. Garrison meets with X (played by the inimitable Donald Sutherland) at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A retired pentagon “black ops”—or top-secret operations—agent, the self-monikered X wants to speak off the record about what he knows of the Kennedy assassination and its cover-up. X relays his story in captivating detail: how he was mysteriously ordered on a routine assignment out of the country right before November 22, 1963; how this assignment kept him from one of his regular duties, overseeing the protection of the motorcade in Dallas on that fateful day; how a high-ranking official told the additional security for the president to stand down; how the various occurrences on Nov. 22 that deviated from normal procedure during a presidential visit to a major U.S. city point to a black op put into chilling effect for the purposes of a coup d’etat.

X suspected a cover-up even just after the assassination, but states ominously, “There was something deeper, uglier.” Then Garrison asks, almost naively, “I never realized Kennedy was so dangerous to the establishment. Is that why?” X responds: “Well that's the real question, isn't it? Why? The ‘how’ and the ‘who’ is [sic] just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia. Keeps ’em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents ’em from asking the most important question: Why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?” X proceeds to give a history lesson learned from the inner sanctums of power. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy’s National Security Action Memos (X helped draw up the particulars) detailed the new role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in taking full responsibility for “all covert, paramilitary action in peacetime,” a splintering of the CIA’s power which was met with shock and resistance in Washington. That action, along with JFK-initiated budget cuts in the armed forces, depleted the military-industrial machine. X puts this in perspective: “Find out the Defense budget since the war began: 75 going on a 100 billion, nearly 200 billion will be spent before it’s over. In 1949 it was 10 billion—no war, no money. The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.”

Kennedy was killed, according to X, because his policies dictating the imminent withdrawal of advisors (this had already happened before his death) and troops from Vietnam acted as the last straw for the Pentagon and the corporations—Bell Helicopter is specifically named—that seek profit from war. The movie quotes Lyndon Johnson as declaring, before he reversed Kennedy’s policies, “Just get me elected, I’ll give you the war.” Of course, the last part of this history lesson reeks of lefty mythologizing. Whether Kennedy wanted to end the Cold War (as X claims), or even withdraw from Vietnam is pure speculation, based on only a few concrete presidential actions whose potential trajectories have been guessed at for decades. Stone idealizes these trajectories, and JFK’s martyrdom becomes unashamedly pronounced when Garrison, after his conversation with X, meditatively stands over the Eternal Flame as John Williams’s lugubrious score performs requiem duties.

But X’s dialogue resonates long after the liberal self-pity washes away: “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is for war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.” Name another Hollywood fiction film that cites Defense budget figures to demonstrate the scope of the military-industrial complex. Name another that so explicitly implicates our democracy as little more than a system of manipulation for those who can lucratively benefit from its “organizing principles.” However awful the implications of JFK’s claims—that our own government would kill its leaders, that our destinies are guided by shadowy groups in smoky rooms dividing up the map—the reality is far more frightening. Conspiracy theories actually soften the blow by explaining away our responsibility as aware citizens. As of now, it’s all happening in front of our faces. George W. Bush directly lied to bring this country into war. No secret networks, no staged events, just some sloppily faked evidence and fear baiting. The torture and Downing Street memos aren’t black ops, but visible public record.

How do those in power get away with their corruptions? The media. Even the outlets considered “left” by right-wing sources engage in PR for the status quo, hammering home the same talking points, diverting public attention from the culprits and the sources of power. The blockbuster cover-up is a rarity; the small inoculations—like letting our public officials off the hook after open displays of out and out incompetence or corruption—constitute the real crime. That’s where Stone, using the medium of film, both succeeds and fails in attempting to provide a remedy. JFK draws a large-scale picture of government that may seem reductive and simplified, but nonetheless, unfortunately, remains frighteningly on target. Due to Stone’s obsessive fetishism regarding the JFK case, however, the questions leading to this conclusion amount to little more than trivia. Imagine how much more potent Stone’s agitprop would have been had not the deeper, darker implications of JFK gotten lost in a fog of minutiae and speculation. Who knows, maybe had Stone truly revived Sixties-era ideals of lucid anti-war dissent there wouldn’t be such timidity and apologetic compromising on the part of the left when speaking out against what is now becoming—since the beginning of the American occupation of Iraq—a more accepted concept of preemptive war. Negative stigmas attached to conspiracy theories have also been, by unfair association, attached to the very real outrages committed by our own government. JFK undoubtedly played no small role in this cultural phenomenon.

But there’s still JFK’s lingering effect. I didn’t mean to suggest earlier that the film’s actual relevance rests on a few lines of dialogue. Sutherland as X provides the straight-to-the-jugular truth about our society’s bloody foundations, but the entire atmosphere of the film is suffused with the feeling that behind the monumental events that shape history there’s Something More. And that Something More is what makes JFK politically vital. It’s an honest to goodness major motion picture that urges its audience to take history seriously, to study the past, to resist the popular attitudes of apathy and blind faith in government (“Don’t take my word for it,” X tells Garrison, “Don’t believe me—do your own work, your own thinking”). And it does so with the aim of reintroducing its audience to the war-mongering self-interest taken for granted in our cynical age. Many have called Stone “irresponsible” for his grandiose designs—and yet he’s more responsible than the majority of filmmakers who dismiss politics, whether consciously or ignorantly. If Stone resorts to bombastic tactics, well, the man has never been a friend to subtly or an enemy to theater. His heavy-handedness and grandiosity keep us from calling him a great filmmaker; yet also make his films, JFK best among them, the most engaging works of American paranoia since that genre’s post-Watergate heyday. When even the clearest realities seem to confound the public, someone has to shout them from the rooftops.