It’s easy to look back on the last thirty years and dismiss paranoia-as-pop-culture as something that’s always been present. But it’s simply not the case. It owes a narrative debt to film like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and of course, All of the President’s Men. But there is no mistaking that conspiracy in our culture can be viewed as that which preceded JFK and that which came after. Watching it now, on the film’s 30th anniversary, it’s not hard to see why. In many ways, it represents Oliver Stone at the peak of his directorial powers; exercising both narrative and cultural authority over the topic of his film with undeterred confidence. Looking at Stone’s early career, though, it’s hard to see the same artist who would go on to make JFK.
Stone was largely a screenwriter in his first forays with many of his films being schlocky genre or horror films. But after the success of Scarface, Stone would release two hit films in 1986: Salvador and Platoon. Both firmly planted the agitprop seeds that, years later, would sprout JFK. Both films tackle the spectre of a historical war alongside the culpability of American involvement and both embrace a gritty realism paired with unapologetic cynicism. These works garnered the director critical praise as well as a pair of Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director for Platoon. At the time when Hollywood was enthralled with light comedies, period pieces and genre films, Oliver Stone quickly established himself as a director with conviction.
He would follow up the success of ’86 with a stint of hit films released year after year: Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors. Although each film diverges wildly in its subject matter, the underlying theme of distrust in the American Dream is a constant. From Bud Fox’s realization of Gecko’s immorality to Ron Kovic’s rejection of patriotism to Jim Morrison’s reverence of counter-culture, every one of Stone’s heroes are destined to become enemies to the very America that they call home. Insofar that many of Stone’s heroes are based on actual historical figures, it is intriguing to look at Costner’s Jim Garrison as the apotheosis of this figure; a lone crusader surrounded by enemies who seek his defeat by first confronting him with the death of the American Dream.
Oliver Stone famously stated that one of his main goals in making JFK was to give a rebuttal to the established narrative of the Warren Commission. Believing it to be a “great myth”, Stone set out to create what he called “a counter-myth”. To do this, Stone needed a narrative upon which to hang the exposition of his conspiracy theory. He would find it in the now famous case of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison versus Clay Shaw. But Garrison’s account of the investigation in his 1988 book On the Trail of the Assassins would not be the only source he drew from. Although Garrison’s book established the historical backdrop, Jim Marrs’ 1989 book Crossfire: the Plot that Killed Kennedy provided the real story for the film. Herein lies just one of the reasons for the power of JFK: it fuses two differing historical documents about the assassination of Kennedy. While Garrison’s account follows the personal experiences of the DA to prosecute those responsible for Kennedy’s murder, Marrs’ account is a deep dive into the larger conspiracy at work. Marrs’ book examines both the central players in Dealey Plaza as well as the darker operators outside of Dallas and close to Washington.
This is the reason one can’t help but watch JFK and see two different films struggling for dominance. The standard narrative arc of Garrison sees him wounded and propelled by Kennedy’s death; a familiar inciting incident that Stone lampshades when Garrison speaks to the jury of the assassination’s parallels with Shakespeare. “We’ve all become Hamlets in our country,” Stone wrote as Garrison, “…children of a slain father-leader whose killers still possess the throne.” Confronted by an adversary that threatens his reputation, family, and sense of self, it’s clear that Garrison is typical of many of Stone’s filmic heroes. But within JFK, there really is no single antagonist except for the conspiracy, itself. But how do you personify something that, by definition, is shadowy and without form? How do you give meaning to the names and faces attached to the plot? Why should we care about Ferrie, Ruby, Oswald or Shaw?
Stay tuned for the next instalment of my blog analysis of Oliver Stone’s JFK coming soon…