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The legacy of 'JFK' at 30: Conspiracy Nation

As New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, Kevin Costner takes viewers through the looking glass in "JFK."
Warner Bros.
As New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, Kevin Costner takes viewers through the looking glass in "JFK."

The late movie critic Gene Siskel used to describe being a movie critic as “covering the national dream beat.” It’s a terrific description because movies, more than any other art form, get at the hopes, fears, and desires that percolate underneath the surface. Movies as varied as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Social Network,” or “Joker” can tap into the zeitgeist by hitting a raw nerve that we didn’t realize was exposed. At their best, movies don’t so much influence the world as they reflect it. Movies turn our everyday lives into larger-than-life dreams.

For decades, conservative watchdog groups, publicity-seeking politicians, and Tipper Gore’s PMRC have tried to legislate behavior by attacking certain forms of art. Everything from comic books to rock & roll to rap music have been put on trial. In the end, little has been was proven, and we more or less accept that art doesn’t influence behavior. This would seem to extend to movies, too.

Yet, like everything else, there are exceptions to the rule. There are a handful of movies that have exerted genuine influence over the culture. I’m not talking about a movie like “Jaws” and how it affected beach attendance throughout the summer of 1975. Or ”Saturday Night Fever” and how it brought disco up from the gay underground into the American mainstream. I’m talking about the movies that permanently changed the way a society thinks and acts as a whole.

Take a movie like Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory thriller “JFK.” Released in 1991, “JFK” was the wrong movie at the right time. The movie was based on former New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison’s 1988 book “On the Trail of the Assassins,” a streamlined recounting of Garrison’s rather scattered, inconclusive investigation into the Kennedy assassination. In 1969, Garrison prosecuted the only case in the Kennedy assassination by charging Clay Shaw with conspiracy to assassinate the president. He lost the case, but not after ruining Shaw’s reputation. Garrison, a controversial figure who was known for his publicity-seeking tactics, became a folk hero within the assassination-conspiracy community.

In “JFK,” Stone uses the Garrison case as a jumping-off point for his own theories about the assassination. In a masterstroke of casting, Stone cast Kevin Costner as an idealized version of Garrison. This gave “JFK” an instant jolt of credibility. (Imagine Jimmy Stewart at the center of a ‘70s-era conspiracy thriller.) And in 1991, Stone’s prowess as a filmmaker was in full bloom. Mixing dramatic narrative scenes, speculative re-enactments, and documentary footage, “JFK” is a dizzying tour through a historic hall of mirrors.

But “JFK” was problematic the moment it was released. Critics praised it for its aesthetic innovations and dramatic intensity, and it was seen as a directorial breakthrough for Oliver Stone. Roger Ebert chose “JFK” as his best movie of the year. But historians and political commentators objected to the movie on ideological grounds. They charged Stone with being on the wrong side of history by backing Garrison, and they charged “JFK” with being irresponsible for putting out misinformation. Stone’s “JFK” became the flashpoint for the argument over aesthetics versus ideology.

Normally, I am on the side of aesthetics. It’s not what a movie is about, but how it presents its subject matter. An artist should be allowed to reserve the right to interpret history however they want, especially if the history in question is shrouded in ambiguity. But what if the history in question isn’t shrouded in ambiguity? What if the history in question is instead shrouded in false equivalency and misinformation and conspiracy?

At this point I can already hear assassination buffs and “JFK” defenders getting overly excited and ready to dismiss any criticism I might have as Stone-bashing or unwillingness to have an open mind. First, let me state up front that I am a Stone believer. From 1986 to 1999, Stone went on one of the greatest directorial streaks in American cinema. To fully understand how “JFK” came to exist, we must look at the trajectory of Stone’s career.

Not believing what you are seeing has become the main theme of pop culture over the last thirty years.

In 1986, Stone delivered a one-two knockout punch by directing ”Salvador” and “Platoon.” “Salvador” was a live-wire journalistic-polemic thriller that contained James Woods’ finest performance. And “Platoon” provided a catharsis for America. A kind of cinematic memorial, “Platoon” was a one-of-a-kind grunt’s-eye view of Vietnam.

Following the triumphs of those movies, Stone directed a series of movies that felt like dispatches from the frontline of contemporary America. ”Wall Street” (1987) was released the same year that Tom Wolfe’s ”The Bonfire of the Vanities” was published. It looked like the incisive, instant adaptation. Stone closed out the decade with ”Born on the Fourth of July,” the story of Vietnam vet turned antiwar activist Ron Kovic. In that film, Stone’s masterstroke was casting Tom Cruise as Kovic. He took the ultimate representation of all-American ‘80s values and sent him off to war. Released in March 1991, ”The Doors” was a transitional movie. Centered on Val Kilmer’s awesome performance as Dionysian lead singer Jim Morrison, the movie’s pleasures came from its aural and visual aspects rather than its elliptical, sometimes incoherent storytelling. ”The Doors” was a palette cleanser that set the stage for “JFK.”

On December 20, 1991 “JFK” was released and the world changed. Stone tapped into the nervous, jittery energy of the ‘90s. This was the time when the Boomers came into power and social media was in its embryonic stage (Usenet groups). The belief that information should be free coincided with the acceleration of the culture wars.

In the 1990s, Stone made a series of movies that examined the contradictory impulses of that time. ”Natural Born Killers” (1994), a visionary howl of rage, remains the most prescient critique of our all-media-all-the-time culture. “Nixon” (1995) transformed the life of the disgraced 37th president into the greatest Shakespearean political drama ever made. And ”Any Given Sunday” (1999) is a hip-hop football epic that is both exciting and exhausting in its depiction of men navigating modern-day corporate America. Along with Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone was the most important filmmaker of the ‘90s.

What happens when not believing what you’re seeing spills over into the real world?

Okay, but what about “JFK?” Its effect on the culture was immediate and long-lasting. A year-and-a-half after its release, Abraham Zapruder’s amateur film of the assassination went from being a haunting image of history to a brutally effective character detail in Wolfgang Peterson’s crackerjack assassination thriller ”In the Line of Fire.” That same summer, Ivan Reitman’s Capra-esque comedy “Dave” had Stone playing himself in a fun cameo where he tells Larry King the only explanation for the change in the president’s behavior is that he’s been replaced by an impostor. Of course, the joke in the movie is that he’s right. In 1997, Richard Donner’s action-comedy ”Conspiracy Theory” saw Mel Gibson as a motormouth government-assassin-turned-cab-driver who lives in a world of conspiracies. (One of his more humorous conspiracies is that Oliver Stone is actually a disinformation agent for the CIA.)

On television, ”The X-Files” combined science-fiction with a conspiracy procedural. The tagline for the show was “The Truth is Out There.” Shows as varied as “24,” “LOST,” ”Rubicon,” ”Homeland,” ”House of Cards,” ”Designated Survivor,” and “Killing Eve” wouldn’t exist without ”JFK.” The best series of the last decade, ”The Americans,” was so indebted to Stone’s conspiratorial style that the showrunners attempted to get Stone to direct an episode. Movies ranging from ”Fight Club” to ”Requiem for a Dream” to ”From Hell” displayed a twitchy paranoia that could be traced back to “JFK.” Even franchises like the Matthew Bourne movies or “Taken,” or the latter-day installments of the Daniel Craig Bond movies or the ”Mission: Impossible” epics present a world where everything is controlled by a cabal of shadow governments. Not believing what you are seeing has become the main theme of pop culture over the last thirty years.

But what happens when not believing what you’re seeing spills over into the real world? “JFK” was problematic nearly from frame one. The movie opens with a broad yet concise overview of the Kennedy administration, including everything from the Bay of Pigs invasion to the slow escalation in Vietnam to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The brilliantly edited extended montage is given an extra dimension of credibility by having Martin Sheen narrate it, and by John Williams’ swelling percussive score, which keeps the tension tight. Within this sequence Stone inserts his first conspiracy detail into the movie. It involves Rose Cheramie (real name Melba Christine Marcades), a drug user with a history of stints in and out of mental hospitals, who was found passed out on a Louisiana highway on November 20, 1963. She was taken to a hospital for observation. At one point she off-handedly warned of an attempt to assassinate the president. Cheramie would go on to say she was pushed out of a car by both Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald, despite no evidence the two men ever knew each other. Two years later, Cheramie was found dead on a highway. An investigation revealed she was the victim of a hit-and-run accident, but assassination buffs insist on filing her death under the category of “mysterious deaths.” Stone dramatizes the Cheramie incident by having her scream out from her hospital bed, “These are serious f**king people! Please help!” And like that, a free-floating anecdote that assassination buffs point to as “fact” of something more sinister afoot is given more credibility than it deserves.

The movie’s first big conspiracy sequence occurs at roughly the 20-minute mark when Garrison, having “woken up” and realized there was a conspiracy, takes two of his investigators (played by Michael Rooker and Jay O. Sanders) on a walking tour of the intelligence community of New Orleans. Garrison recounts Oswald’s activities during the summer of 1963, and hangs most of his theory on the detail that a building where Office of Naval Intelligence officer-turned-private-investigator Guy Banister (Ed Asner) works out of has two addresses, including one that Oswald prints on his homemade “Fair Play for Cuba” handouts. Garrison makes a huge leap from that address to assuming Oswald was some kind of ex-Military-man-turned-pro-Castro-sympathizer-turned-anti-Communist assassin.

From that point on the movie dives into a black pool of conspiracies that suggest nefarious dealings without much concrete evidence. There’s Dean Andrews (John Candy), a sweaty, overbearing ambulance-chasing lawyer who would do or say almost anything in order to be part of the action. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, he claimed to have been contacted by someone to possibly represent Oswald in Dallas. (He later recanted his story.) Then, there’s David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) a squirrelly fringe character that Stone positions as a key figure in American history. According to “JFK,” Ferrie was not only in Oswald’s military unit but a member of the C.I.A. and knew both Banister and Jack Ruby. (He’s like the Forrest Gump of the Kennedy assassination.) Ferrie changes his story so often that he can only be described as “unreliable.” Stone introduces the character of Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a composite character of several witnesses who claim to have seen Oswald with both Ferrie and Clay Shaw. Stone also goes into tangents about those famous photos of Oswald holding the rifle and how they were “doctored” (they weren’t), and contradictory eye-witness accounts of the assassination. Stone dramatizes Julianne Mercer’s claims that she saw a pick-up truck the day of the assassination with both Ruby and Oswald in it. (This testimony was later debunked when it was discovered that the truck belonged to some construction workers working that day.) There’s the woman in the red coat, Jean Hill, who claims she heard four to six shots and was later rushed into an undisclosed room by two men in suits and told not to talk about what she saw or heard. The sequence taps into the audience’s fear and suspicion of unseen forces that are beyond our control.

And then we get the ultimate walk-and-talk sequence as Garrison meets with Mr. X (really Fletcher Prouty as played by Donald Sutherland), and are provided with cinema’s most elaborate information dump. What Mr. X lays out is a labyrinthine plot involving politicians, wartime military generals, and ammunition manufacturers all not saying what they mean. Stone never makes clear how the maneuvering of power brokers in Washington is related to fringe characters like Ferrie and Shaw. Instead, he creates a swirl of fragments, half-truths, and wild speculation so dizzying that we eventually become convinced “something” is not right, even though there’s no reason to think otherwise.

The real villain of “JFK” is “they,” as in the unseen forces that seem to be pulling all the strings. We in the audience are made to constantly feel that “they” are against us. On the night King is assassinated, Garrison and his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) get into a domestic quarrel. At one point, Garrison says, “My eyes have opened…now King. Don’t you see this is related to this? Don’t you think this has something to do with that? Can’t you see?” Later, when Robert Kennedy is assassinated, Garrison wakes up his wife and says, “They killed Robert Kennedy. They shot him down.” Liz says, “Both brothers. They killed both of them.” Of course, we all know that the killings of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy have no connection to JFK’s assassination. They are part of the seeming random chaos of a tumultuous period in American history. Yet, on a primal emotional level we are convinced that these events are connected. That’s what “JFK” taps into: the impulse to make connections when none are there. It used to be seeing is believing. Not anymore. Now, it’s not believing what you see.

The movie concludes with Garrison’s extended summation to the jury. The summation consists of Garrison’s multiple conspiracy theories and Stone’s conjecture. The dots are never fully connected. It’s all insinuation and inference--inconclusive. The centerpiece of the sequence is Garrison’s (and by extension, Stone’s) deconstruction of the Zapruder film. Stone has Garrison slow down the film frame-by-frame and lay out a case that six shots were fired, not three. He also makes a case that shots (including the fatal head shot) come from the front, not the back. (“Back, and to the left! Back, and to the left! Back, and to the left!”) The sequence is so compelling you can’t help but be convinced “something” happened. But what?

The French film director François Truffaut once said that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie. He claimed that the sheer size of movies naturally endorsed everything they showed. While I don’t fully subscribe to Truffaut’s thesis, I get his point. Movies are the most literal of all art forms. They are also the most emotionally overwhelming. Until very recently they were larger-than-life. Art, books, music, even theatre exist on a human scale. Movies don’t. We believe what we see. That’s what makes Stone’s “deconstruction” of the Zapruder film so insidious. It convinces us that we see something that doesn’t exist. In Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK,” the definitive investigative text on the assassination, Posner dedicates an entire chapter to breaking down the Zapruder film shot-by-shot in order to show there were only three shots. But that doesn’t matter in “JFK.” It is almost incidental that the jury found Shaw innocent in less than an hour. What matters to Stone is that the audience is convinced. “We” are the real jury for “JFK.” This was the moment Conspiracy Nation was born.

I said earlier that “JFK” was the wrong movie at the right time. At the time of its release “JFK” was viewed as the latest installment in Stone’s ongoing meditation of the key psychic traumas of the last 25 years. It was, but it was more than that. “JFK” wasn’t just about Vietnam and Watergate. It spoke to a greater sense of disillusion that had occurred since that time. Watergate beget the energy crisis which beget the Iran hostage crisis which beget Reagan which beget the recession which beget the Savings & Loan scandal which beget the Iran Contra affair. “JFK” was released at the right moment for audiences to confirm their suspicions. “JFK” looked back at a pivotal moment in history and said, “Look! This is where it all started to go wrong!” What is so tricky and disturbing about “JFK” is that it’s right in pinpointing the Kennedy assassination as the moment when things started to go sideways. What it gets wrong is to assert that everything is connected in one big, shadowy, elaborate plot. The Kennedy assassination is really the dawn of a new chapter in media. It’s the moment when we stopped believing what we see.

What was “JFK”’s impact on the public? The immediate response was for Congress to pass the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. This committee involved a panel re-examining over four million documents, conducting new interviews, and digitizing photographs and audio tapes in order to be preserved in the National Archives. In 1998, the findings of the committee were released. Over 60,000 previously redacted documents were made public. And it was concluded that Oswald acted alone. Yet, the findings were not given much fanfare. Ever notice how the media gives more attention to the announcement of new documents being unsealed than they do the actual content of said documents? Whenever new Kennedy assassination documents are unsealed rarely is anything made of them when they re-affirm that Oswald acted alone. There’s a sense of disappointment that there’s no smoking gun. For assassination buffs, all these newly revealed documents don’t prove anything except that “they” are still hiding something. Like Mel Gibson’s cab driver says in “Conspiracy Theory,” “A good conspiracy is an unproveable one.”

"Stand for the Truth......but whose truth." by gerrypopplestone
licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
"Stand for the Truth......but whose truth." by gerrypopplestone

The lasting impact of “JFK” is far more damaging. It unleashed Conspiracy Nation. Conspiracy theories swirled around everything from Vince Foster to Whitewatergate to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Then, in the wake of 9/11, conspiracy theories really ramped up with 9/11 Truthers. This was followed by the swift-boating of John Kerry, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis. Sometimes conspiracy thinking had an inverse effect. Instead of seeking the truth, it blotted it out--like Bush II’s National Guard service record. Or, claims that Sandy Hook and Parkland were false flag events. Then, you had birtherism, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Hillary’s e-mails, her server, the Russian hoax, the Ukraine hoax, the Corona hoax, anti-vaxxers, QAnon, and Stop the Steal rallies. All of this leading to the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

It is healthy to question information that is presented to you. You should research and find out for yourself if what you’re seeing and hearing is accurate and true. But what happens when people question everything but don’t accept what they see or hear? Questioning everything can easily turn into believing in nothing. And believing in nothing is not a political stance. That’s nihilism. It’s what about-ism. Conspiracy thinking is circular thinking; it never fully connects. It’s the new fascism.

But what about “JFK” as a movie? Thirty years on, “JFK” is still a knockout piece of filmmaking. Stone creates a tapestry of fact, fiction, and memory that is almost hallucinatory in its power. It’s like ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” crossed with ”Blow Out” for the post-modern Media Age. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is at times eye-popping in its clarity. The Oscar-winning editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia is breathtaking in its precision. (The groundbreaking vertical editing style used in “JFK” allowed for more emotional and story information to be conveyed in a matter of a few frames.) And the ensemble cast is unimpeachable; John Candy is sweaty, sleazy, and charming as Dean Andrews; Kevin Bacon has a ”Midnight Cowboy”-like swagger as a street-smart hustler; Gary Oldman is properly detached and cool as Oswald; Joe Pesci (coming off his triumph in ”Goodfellas”), is mesmerizing as the scared and paranoid David Ferrie. Costner does a terrific job of mixing Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart as he guides us through a shadow world. And Tommy Lee Jones is sinister, enigmatic, and vulnerable as Clay Shaw.

There’s no denying that Oliver Stone has made a terrific (and convincing) piece of propaganda entertainment. And that’s why, in the end, “JFK” continues to haunt us. We are at a moment where half of the country is drowning in conspiracies and the other half is trying to stay afloat by adhering to the facts. In “JFK,” the only thing that no one in the movie questions is that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The rest of the movie is comprised of alternative facts.

Aaron Aradillas is a San Antonio-based film critic and journalist.