Through the Looking Glass: The Culture of Conspiracy in JFK (Part 4)

In creating a counter-myth that would take down the sacred cow of the Warren Commission, Oliver Stone would also have to counter the sacred cows of filmmaking that had made him a darling of Hollywood. For the director, this meant that JFK would chart a course for the unknown and fundamentally change the way he wrote, shot and cut films. In fusing two different source materials, Stone necessarily had to find a way to review the details of the assassination while also presenting the truth as covered up by the conspiracy. From a writing standpoint, JFK is structured like a procedural drama. However, because Garrison lacks a straightforward perpetrator upon which to hang the crime, he is forced to question and detain multiple witnesses and accomplices before settling on the arrest of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Indeed, in setting up a counter to the Warren Report, JFK meticulously sets up the now widely told narrative that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) either did not act alone or was “a patsy”.

Courtroom procedurals often hinge more upon the intricacies of plot than the personal dilemmas of the protagonists. And plot details are of particular importance in JFK where one crime story purposely competes against another. Stone tackles this problem by extensively using flashbacks within the structure of the film. Sometimes these flashbacks are contextualized by dialogue that further clarifies their significance. This is most clearly seen in the numerous instances where Garrison questions witnesses in the first half of the film. But Stone creates the feel of a hidden story by inserting flashbacks within flashbacks or using flashbacks that directly contradict the dialogue of his characters. The use of flashbacks to both undermine lies and support truth are perhaps best seen in the case of the character of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). Ferrie is first questioned early in the film and the numerous lies he tells are instantly exposed to the audience in quick flashbacks. When Garrison’s case goes public, and Ferrie comes clean in a paranoid rant inside a hotel room, the truth is revealed in a dizzying array of flashbacks supporting the character’s claim that the plot to kill Kennedy was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.

One of the intriguing things about the dialogue of JFK is that, for the most part, it’s not really dialogue but exposition masquerading as discourse. Furthermore, as the viewer is exposed to more and more of this pseudo-dialogue, the more we become sensitized to it. It gets to the point that when actual dialogue involving a personal conflict takes place in the film it falls somewhat flat. I think this is why the scenes between Garrison and his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) have always read to me as both contrived and flat within the film; there is simply little room for a personal story in the entangled dialectic of the Kennedy assassination. Indeed, the film is at its most intense and electrifying when the characters quickly present evidence or outline a theory to one another. The now famous X sequence sitting at the half-way mark of the film deftly demonstrates the full breadth of the conspiracy in a rhythm that would be hard to follow were it not for the perfectly timed images that run alongside it.

Indeed, it is JFK’s cinematography and editing where Stone’s mastery of the form can truly be seen and the visceral power of the film understood. In shooting and cutting JFK, it was Stone’s intent to create a film that would operate on “two or three levels”. Using this methodology, Stone sought multiple layers because, in his opinion, “reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” One of the more stirring moments of the film comes as Garrison is reading the Report, itself. Sheltered in his living room, he doesn’t read the testimony aloud. Instead, Garrison talks directly to the Commission as if he were in the room. Throughout the sequence, Stone intercuts flashbacks by the witnesses within Garrison’s own flashback to further add to the character’s anxiety.

Perhaps most striking here is how the director drastically shifts his lighting of Garrison in realtime without cutting away. As if shooting the scene for theatre, Stone shows the audience both the passage of time and Garrison’s growing fear through moving shades of red light and darkness. The scene builds to a few quick frames of the famed Zapruder film and echoes of screams in Dealey Plaza before Garrison wakes up from a nightmare. Everything that comes afterwards speaks to Garrison’s waking up – to the lies, to the truth, and the awful burden now before him. In his words, he’s “been sleeping for three years,” and the rest of the film becomes his ardent effort to wake up the rest of the country.

JFK justifiably won an Academy Award for Cinematography but, in many ways, the Oscar for Film Editing was more well-earned. Stone’s approach was a fundamental shift away from the linear progression he’d constructed in his previous films. The pace of the editing worked to introduce lateral storytelling within the standard procedural narrative of Garrison’s investigation and trial. To assist in this task, Stone brought in editor Hank Corwin who previously had cut TV commercials, saying he chose him for his “chaotic mind” which was “totally alien to the film form.” The prolific application of editing is put to powerful use during the film’s electrifying climax: the unveiling of what really happened in Dealey Plaza before, during, and after the shots rang out.

The Dealey Plaza sequence, dominated by Costner’s increasingly outraged monologue, brings together every single tendril of the conspiracy that Stone had suggested onscreen in a grand unified theory. Stone uses footage from the actual Zapruder film alternately cut with other film from the day and mixes it with his own footage shot on similar stock. The result, for those unfamiliar with the details of the assassination, is the stark and brutal murder of a President as orchestrated by his own advisors. And when Garrison leads the jury through the final path of Oswald, the film no longer poses questions. There are only answers. “It’s all been decided, says Garrison, “in Washington.” And, given all of the evidence that has bombarded the audience, we have little choice but to agree.

In the film’s final moments, however, Stone pulls away from all of these elements. He anchors the closing thesis of his film, that truth must be spoken to power to bring real change, to the performance of his leading man. Costner delivers one of his best performances in these few minutes of screen time. The closing lines of his monologue are shown without cut-aways, without music and without distraction. The honesty of the lines ring out so true that Costner’s voice audibly cracks and tears well up. And yet he does not stop; the final words are too important to be silenced by grief. He pleads to the jury, holding envelopes full of letters and money sent to his office: “because they care, because they want to know the truth, because they want their country back, because it still belongs to us, as long as the people have the guts to fight for what they believe in!”. All of it leading to the final, devastating plea to the audience: “It’s up to you.”

Stay tuned for the final instalment of my blog analysis of Oliver Stone’s JFK coming soon…

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