A Creation Myth for the Sixties: Does Oliver Stone’s JFK Still Hold Up?

Photo: Warner Bros.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person once upon a time who, hearing that Oliver Stone was making a movie called JFK starring Kevin Costner, assumed that it would be a biopic, with Costner playing the fallen president. When I eventually found out that the movie was going to be an investigation into the assassination itself, with the crusading New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as its hero, I felt disappointment: Who wanted to watch another courtroom drama? We had courtroom dramas coming out our ears in the late eighties and early nineties.

I needn’t have worried. Stone’s film turned out to be more than a legal procedural. First and foremost, of course, it was a controversy magnet. Stone endorsed (more than endorsed — magnified and dramatized and even melodramatized) Garrison’s elaborate conspiracy theory that Kennedy had been killed by a massive cabal involving the military-industrial complex, the U.S. intelligence apparatus, shady Southern businessmen, Lyndon B. Johnson, “the homosexual underworld,” and a host of other players who were peeved at the young president’s efforts to roll back the American war machine and the nascent military effort in Vietnam. The film portrayed Garrison as an earnest, Capra-esque hero who just wanted his country back from the war mongers.

But in many ways, Garrison was just a vessel. The real attraction in JFK was the film’s densely packed, kaleidoscopic whirr of mixed-media imagery – golden-hued cinematography cut with newsreel cut with fake newsreel cut with still shots cut with flashbacks cut with re-creations. Here was a stylistic breakthrough and a historical document all in one, a movie that wanted to change both cinema and the world. And it spilled forth a torrent of information. The cumulative frenzy of Stone’s argument — the impenetrable hugeness of it all — was part of the spectacle.

And many of us, myself included, became conspiracy theorists, at least a little bit. After JFK came out, polls showed that around 80 percent of the country believed that Kennedy had been the victim of a conspiracy. Even those who didn’t buy the entirety of Stone/Garrison’s putsch allegation had to admit that there was something fishy about the lone gunman theory. Admittedly, I was an impressionable teenager at the time, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another non-documentary that was this convincing, that literally made me change my mind about a world-historical subject.

So, then what happened?

Time happened. All that frenzy, all that anxiety turned out to be for naught. The years passed. Nobody “disappeared” Oliver Stone. He went on to make other movies — many were middling, though one, Nixon, was a masterpiece — and JFK began to recede into the past. It became just another movie. Worse, it became a kind of punch line. Kevin Costner went from being one of America’s biggest stars to being a bit of a joke himself. LBJ’s reputation underwent an overhaul, so that the onetime face of the Vietnam War became viewed by many as a progressive hero. (Remember how Hillary Clinton repeatedly and approvingly invoked his name during the 2008 Democratic primaries?)

Conspiracy theories, so popular in the wake of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers and Iran-Contra, fell out of fashion and eventually became the domain of 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers and other crackpots. Some of Costner’s monologues from the film now seem like they could easily be worked into the most extreme tea party screeds. (“[W]e might just as well build ourselves another government like the Declaration of Independence says to when the old one ain’t working … just a little farther out West.”) I’m sure Stone stands by the film, but in his recent, massive Untold History of the United States, the Kennedy assassination gets just one brief paragraph: “[B]ullets from one or more assassins cut Kennedy down on the streets of Dallas,” Stone and co-author Peter Kuznick write, adding, “We may never know who was responsible or what the motive was.” That’s a far cry from the intellectually secure, combative filmmaker who in 1991 defended JFK’s allegations with all his might, and who published a densely footnoted version of the film’s script.

And yet …

Recently, I’ve found myself returning to JFK. I don’t buy any of the conspiracy theory anymore, but watching it again, I’m struck by how personal a movie this is. It might be a courtroom drama, but it doesn’t have the sober, deliberate accumulation of evidence that one would expect. Consider the oxymoronic perfection of one of Costner’s final lines: “Do not forget your dying king,” he says to the jury (right before he looks right at us, the audience). “Show the world that this is still a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Let’s all mourn our king so we can show the world we’re still a democracy!

JFK is a deeply confused movie, but there’s a searching quality to the confusion that marks it as a genuine work of art. Here is where Stone — the onetime all-American boy whose eyes were opened by Vietnam, the fire-breathing right-winger who became a committed lefty — lays bare his contradictions. He’s the knowing cynic who still wants to buy into the idea of America. When Costner talks of “the secret murder at the heart of the American dream,” his words resonate beyond the specific subject at hand. The movie isn’t re-litigating the assassination; it’s re-litigating the entire sixties. Stone may have mountains of footnotes and documentation for his script, but JFK is basically an emotional Boomer freak-out.

Reappraising the film in 2002, Roger Ebert wrote: “The film’s thrust is not toward truth, but toward frustration and anger.” Stone’s frantic accusations — “This was a military-style ambush from start to finish … a coup d’etat with Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings!”— may come off as totally paranoid, but it’s a paranoia we understand, and maybe even share. The more our culture sees the death of Kennedy as a symbol of where it all went wrong, the more we might feel like it should have been a conspiracy. Perhaps because of the inherent asymmetry of the Kennedy assassination: the idea that one nut could take away so much from an entire country.

Near the end of the film, Costner invokes Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King alongside John F. Kennedy, “men whose commitment to change and peace would make them dangerous to men who are committed to war, also killed by such lonely, crazed men – men who remove our guilt by making murder a meaningless act of a loner.” In many ways, this is the paradoxical heart of Stone’s film. JFK is an attempt to give Kennedy’s actual death the weight its symbolic import demands. The movie is, in essence, a creation myth for the sixties.

Oliver Stone’s JFK: A Creation Myth for the 60s