Twenty-five years later and it would take a flotilla of steamrollers to drive over the knotty indiscretions and lapses in logic that stitch (or don’t) Oliver Stone’s JFK into an argument, leading to the common critique of this much-maligned film that it accomplishes nothing so much as a conspiracy nut’s wet dream power point about the JFK assassination. That argument is airtight but misdirected, laboring under the mistaken assumption that film bears witness and testimony to any indexical relationship to reality, especially historical reality, at all. As most pro-JFK critics have retorted, this is the part where I would say “it’s only a movie” and wipe the slate clean to judge Stone’s film as mere fiction, thus neutralizing the question of whether it is history in the first place (bluntly, it doesn’t matter).
However, that too strikes me as a lapse of logic and a woeful misreading of a film that is not historically neutral and indifferent but very deliberately anti-objective in its treatment of history. Watching the film a quarter decade later, Oliver Stone’s giddy kaleidoscope of filmic styles and camera stocks and his stunningly arrhythmic editing feel less like a one-way descent into a hot-house of conspiracy nuts than a case that any filmic depiction of JFK’s assassination, mired in any simulacra of factual obligation, will nonetheless resort to historical opacity and fragility when need be. Which is to say, JFK is not a failure as history or a success as historical fiction but a masterpiece of historiography. It is a work dedicated not to resurrecting any truth about the events of December 1963 but an interrogation of cinematic objectivity when brandishing historical know-how altogether. Oliver Stone has played a great many tricks over the decades, most of them on display emphatically in JFK itself. But the greatest of all is convincing people that he believes his own film is somehow above the Warren Commission report it so vehemently ripostes.
Roughly approximating a story recounted by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in his book On the Trail of the Assassins, Oliver Stone’s JFK is not really the story of Garrison’s attempt to uncover the truth behind the JFK assassination (Garrison taking an explicitly pro-conspiracy stance). It’s more like the divine fervor Garrison felt about his argument, embodied in Stone’s highly subjective aesthetic prism. The screenplay, partly written by Stone, is several tons of heavy machinery too much to handle if you are as drunk as you’ll need to be to believe any of it as fact. A more respectable film would have two paths to deal with it. Either avoid all of this conspiracy jargon wholesale by not being made. Or, if the film absolutely needed to be made, the likely path would almost certainly be to tastefully manicure and preserve it through the cinematic rules of quiet continuity editing and framing that does not draw attention to how overtly stylized, and thus dubiously constructed all of this is.
Not Stone though: JFK plunges right into history’s innards and swirls it right around like a maelstrom, confronting government lies with Stone’s customary missionary zeal and bristling acrimony. Making no bones about either neutrality or timid liberal middlebrow coffee-table history, Stone is potently aware that this is sensationalism at its finest, and he treats the film as such. He raises as much Cain as he possibly can, letting the needle of discontinuity filmmaking snag wherever it can, swinging the camera and the style around until one can only meaningfully confront it as fluorescent Op-ed, almost phosphorescently proud of its film-crazed artifice. Which is to say, rather than linearly stitching together events into a clarified, codified argument, Stone’s hysteria-infused, cocaine-addled style asks us to descend into the murky maelstrom of speculation. He capsizes American history and raises a social panic that one feels bodily in the alchemy of Pietro Scalia’s sublimely undomesticated, nearly anti-continuity editing style that treats cinema and history with a meat grinder, smashing events around one another like a back alley brawl with the past where no one can emerge fully sane or assured about the veracity of historical representation ever again.
While Scalia is vigorously stapling images together like recombining DNA fragments or splicing together animals into his own unholy amalgam, the film in turn stirs the editing with Robert Richardson’s every-shade-of-gray cinematography (switching between film stocks on the fly) as JFK mashes together every style but the kitchen sink. We have actual historical imagery, Stone’s own recreations of historical imagery, diegetic flashbacks from individual character perspectives, and the nominal diegetic present/reality of the film, all jostled around in 16mm, 35mm, and video camera like the film is throwing depth charges into the idea of historical stability or our ability to accurately categorize which image applies to which reality or version of the tale. While most progressive do-gooder films take the scenic route, preserving their supposed objectivity like a Liberal waxworks show designed to correct one view of objective history with another (see the criminally turgid Mississippi Burning), JFK is of a different cinematic species. Rather than stumbling lead-footedly around events like sacrosanct objective truths, JFK playfully reconfigures conjecture and grandstanding into a whiskey-swilled rollercoaster of tentative truths, provisional memories, contingent images, and cinematic imaginations provocative not because they represent a cohesive vision but because they contradict, inveigle, and contort. For Stone, truth is a harried, hurried, terrifying obscure process of self-contradiction and interpersonal contest, not something to be handed to you or guaranteed but provoked.
If the screenplay is filled with monologues of historical twaddle that often fail to do their due diligence with regard to research, Stone films them like a carnival barker winking at the audience about his own subjectivity and pinballing all over the fact or fiction spectrum. (Importantly, JFK treats the two not as a dichotomy but as a dialectic). The free-spirited whirlwind of jittery, ever-motile editing and the dynamic, volatile switch-ups in film stock (which induce skepticism as Stone films both recorded history and his own obvious recreations in the same quasi-historical home-recorded 8 mm stock) feel like a street threat to the dialogue, the style almost explicitly meant to distract us from the speciousness of the film’s claims. This being the core of the filmmaker’s critique of American policy with regard to cover-ups, the palpable discontinuity of the editing – history thrown off the cliff into historical speculation and then beaten to death – insinuates that Stone is not asking us to accept his version of the tale at all. Instead, he is enlivening his audience to how the media (including his own film) douses history in a flash-bang grenade of style to cope with its own fragility. Pugnaciously aesthetical and ever-addled, Stone is thinking by doing, mimicking the style of the cover-up to test the might of his audience to distrust the information handed to them by the media.
Because it is Stone, of course, JFK is also a display of intellectual exhibitionism, a self-aggrandizing hot-house of visual and aural effusions that dare us to play along as he dances around the past and thins the membrane between reality and fiction. It is history as playground, Stone exhibiting his uniquely Wellesian gift for smirking all the way. That said, the smile is not untroubled, nor is it purely a display of confidence that Stone has found the truth. He is not thumbing his nose at us in superior knowledge but asking us to critique historical media by critiquing this film in front of our eyes. While editing traditionally stitches together a narrative, in JFK it is always stabbing holes, doing double-duty as both an all-access pass or skeleton key to the past and a door-closing variant at the same time, fraying the clean, demarcated edges of truth and fiction until the two are nigh indistinguishable. Rather than a realist view, it is a work of expressionism, impressionism, modernism, and cubism all wrapped up in one, not a factual statement of an event but a constantly interrogating cross-hatch of attempts to complete a picture that was originally sketched in disappearing ink. It is a poetry of visual reconsideration and hesitation that glances at the unknowable violence of history and memory and releases its frustration figuring out the past in splintered effusions of pure style. He’s giving us the runaround by spinning nonsense into gold. JFK is Stone’s hell-bent plea: are you seeing this? And, more importantly, are you believing it? It’s like writing historiography with lightning.