Through the Looking Glass: The Culture of Conspiracy in JFK (Part 1)

There is a moment in the movie JFK (1991), Oliver Stone’s opus on the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy, where the film pauses from the pace of its narrative and points the attention of the protagonist squarely upon the viewer. Taking place mere moments before the credits roll, District Attorney Jim Garrison—played by late-eighties, all-American icon Kevin Costner—looks directly into the camera to meet the gaze of the audience. “It’s up to you,” he pleads.

I first saw JFK with my two best friends from high school. It was Christmas Day and I was back home during the holiday break of my second year of university. Up to that point, the closest I’d come to considering the alternate reality of a conspiracy theory was an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about the Roswell UFO crash. Or the alleged crash. Being a Canadian, and born in the early 70s, the assassination of Kennedy was a historical event before my time. I succinctly recalled where I was when Challenger had blown up, but Kennedy’s death had simply been another lesson in my Grade 11 history class.

I walked out of JFK a convert.

The spectre of secret history beckoned. That there was an unknown story running parallel and counter to what I’d been taught in textbooks and TV became an obsession. The Internet wasn’t yet online. So, I devoured books on the assassination. I made weekly pilgrimages to the reference library to find ever more obscure texts. This quickly lead me to other tantalizing stories buried from the eye of conventional history yet obvious to those who sought the truth. At the time, I was in my undergrad at theatre school. I had entered with aspirations of being an actor like Costner whose work I’d admired from films like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams.

JFK changed all of that.

I saw more creative power behind the camera than in front. No longer content to simply be an actor playing a part in stories, I changed my major to directing and dramaturgy. I began to dig into the hidden architecture of storytelling. Not unlike Garrison’s scrutiny of the untold plot of the conspirators, I obsessed over the hidden beats, structure, and composition of stories. Where was the inciting incident? What motivated the primary character and who or what was acting against them as an obstacle? Similarly, my interest in science fiction like Star Wars and Star Trek began to wane. After seeing JFK, I became fascinated with darker tales rooted in reality and tinged with the politics of corruption. I read the works of William Gibson and Thomas Pynchon while turning my eye towards the tropes of speculative and noir fiction. The moral grey of anti-heroes became much more compelling than the black and white of Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk.

I was, indeed, stepping through the looking glass, as Costner says in the film. I wasn’t going to look back. To mark the 30 year anniversary of the film’s release, I’ll be taking a closer look at JFK and the film’s impact on myself, on our culture and the conspiracy-laden era we live in today. Stay tuned to my blog for more…

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