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. Continue reading