Update 2018: JFK is such a wonderfully misunderstood film, and one that opens itself up so heroically to criticism. For instance, it would fit so well into Frederic Jameson’s analysis of post-modernism as the cultural logic of capitalism, where any semblance of truth, social fixity, or totalizing connection between layers of society is totally unmoored, leading to a dangerous relativism that occludes how capitalism reinforces its own social structures. In this criticism, post-modernism dreams a liberation from the social structures that bind us, a dream that dangerously inclines toward individualistic narratives where we all control our own futures, where no social structures confine us, where truth doesn’t constrain our options and is simply a ruse. The form of relativism JFK traffics in – nothing is true or fixed, everything is a lie, etc – veers toward a vision of uncertainty that would probably veer for Jameson toward hiding, rather than revealing, how capital and the oppression caused by capital is the truth which creates and limits possibility, which master-hands reality, which decides who wins and who loses, etc.
It’s easy to disown JFK along these lines. Except that JFK’s abiding well of skepticism for classical guarantees of legitimate truth are heavily tied to both its conscious critique of capitalism’s manipulation of fact and its visual and aural explosion of the capitalistic technologies and visual regimes – tv, film, media – which technologically and stylistically embody modernity and construct reality. Perhaps this makes it more of a modernist film – aware of social totality but skeptical of our ability to visualize it – than a post-modern destruction of any true social totality. But there’s something so conniving and devious about Stone’s vision that it seems to simply decompose the distinction between modernism and post-modernism altogether, as though suggesting that one can argue that truth exists and that truth doesn’t exist and that this is no contradiction. Or that it is a contradiction, and that the best films, Stone’s or otherwise, live within contradiction rather than beyond them.
Frederic Jamerson’s classic analysis of the “conspiracy” aesthetic also applies to JFK, at least on the surface – it’s easily one of the most infamous and infamously perturbed conspiracy films of its decade. Conspiracy stories fail, of course, for Jameson, because oppression isn’t a conspiracy masterminded by a select few autonomous higher-ups conscious of all their actions but a much knottier, more tangled social fabric. Media which can only imagine a conspiracy controlling us visualize the forms of oppression which shape society but can’t surpass the limited view that there are a handful of individuals to “blame” for this oppression.
Nominally, JFK also falls prey to this critique, but its relativistic mise-en-scene, heterogeneous, fragmented audio, and impossible sense of perspective all suggest, at a formal level, something far more perplexed, garbled, and impossible to pigeon-hole than the conspiracy that opiated-masterpiece Kevin Costner’s character divines out of his rattled brain. Playing with its own reality as much as ours, the film offers no incontestable position of mastery over its narrative environs, and it never treats its story as one inarguable truth replacing the one we thought we knew. It does not simply “give us” a conspiracy to explain the JFK assassination; rather, it effuses a skeptical energy, cultivates an inquisitive tendency, handing us a piecemeal truth that the form of the film is already actively questioning and contesting as it is being given to us. It asks us to question its own pessimistic conspiracy as much as we are meant to question the prior optimism of mid-century Americana that the JFK assassination itself dissolved into the ether. Antsy to the bone, Stone’s film seems to be wriggling away from us as it is being composed in the first place.
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 assumption that film should only bear witness and testimony to reality, especially historical reality. 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, of what actually happened, and of the film’s relationship to historical investigation.
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, a self-canonizing and self-flagellating deconstruction of cinematic deceit and illusion. A cinematic magic trick. It is a work dedicated not to resurrecting any truth about the events of December 1963 but, rather, 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 or more truthful than 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 it 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 whirling 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 objectively-framed history with another, 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) 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. 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, by his media which he is not above but apart of.
Because it is Stone, of course, JFK is also a display of intellectual exhibitionism, a hot-house of visual and aural effusions that dare us to play along as he dances around the past. 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. It is 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?