Film Review: JFK (1991)

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 23, 2015


It was shockingly bad. One had known the contours of the story going in, but even bracing oneself for a Grassy Knoll enterprise will not prepare one for how sheerly dull and ludicrous is this film. Add to that the two-hundred minutes running time, and it is unbearable.

I have no idea why it was felt that faux-Southern accents were the necessary accompaniment to every character in this film, but this was one distraction. Bad hair was another. Joseph Pesci’s hairpiece did at least turn out to be a wig in the storyline, but that could not rescue the fact that he had been in Home Alone just the year before (one quite understands why director Oliver Stone had come to Pesci as a last resort). Tommy Lee Jones however was adorned with a criminal hairpiece throughout and we were supposed to take it as real. Kevin Bacon’s association with this visual atrocity is nothing short of a mystery. The film’s lead, Kevin Costner, is mostly let down by the script, but when compared with the role he had played earlier in the year in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, his character here somewhat fails. These artistic faults however are mere spots on the film’s sun when its story is considered.

Costner plays the New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who was known for having been driven somewhat crazy and using dubious interrogation methods when he became convinced that the conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy involved more than just Lee Harvey Oswald (played here by Gary Oldman). Needless to say director Oliver Stone presents Garrison as the one sane man among a gallery of crooks and killers. The film centres around Costener’s character and his small crew of investigators who re-open the investigation into the assassination in 1966 after Garrison reads the Warren Commission, the report completed in September 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. The technical details are much too tedious—and convoluted—to go into, but suffice it to say that Oswald firing from the Book Depository could not have caused the damage to Kennedy that was inflicted, and two other teams of assassins, working for various agencies of the U.S. government, fired the lethal shots, and Oswald was their patsy.

The entire film is an effort to shift the blame from the very-Left-wing motivations of the actual Kennedy killer to the Right-wing; from the Soviet Union and its ideological sympathisers (of whom Stone is one), to the anti-Communist, U.S. national security types. One way the film does this is by blatant distortions of history. One such distortion is that Kennedy, a Cold Warrior who ran to the Right of Richard Nixon on national security in 1960, specifically on Cuba, is transformed into a figure something more like Jimmy Carter, warning of an inordinate fear of Communism and looking to find common ground with the Soviets, deescalate tensions, and pull back America’s global military presence. The other major distortion is civil rights: Kennedy is presented here as much more sympathetic to that cause than he really was—and much more popular among Black America than he actually was. Had Kennedy been as relentlessly in favour of “change” as presented here, then there would have been no need for the March on Washington in August 1963.

In the real world of terrorism and assassination, telling who did what, why, and for whom can actually be a real problem, and shooters are often unaware of the implications of what they are doing, or which cause it is meant to further or discredit. But such conspiracies are directed by a small number of people. What is being suggested here is much grander than that. In his closing remarks when he brings charges against one of the supposed-conspirators, Garrison spells it out: using cut-outs like businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), the Mafia, and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles, U.S. government accomplices here would have to include the Dallas police department, the secret service, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House, with the new President Lyndon Johnson and the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, as accomplices, at least after the fact. Even if the United States did work as Garrison postulates, with the President as the “business agent for the military and their hardware manufacturers,” the U.S. government is not just the President, as he just outlined. It posits the existence of a ruling class that is wholly psychopathic: that for a percentage profits, they are willing to live in a country where the President—and thus all of them—can be assassinated at any moment. The idea that somebody along the way wouldn’t leak is hysterical. And of course, in the film, people do leak. That’s how Garrison unravels the plot, because lots of low-level, insignificant people—a male prostitute in prison, a clerk in a CIA office—do know about a conspiracy to kill the President, but never thought to tell anybody, or were too scared to tell anybody, until Garrison asked them.

The problem with conspiracy theories—the thing that defines them—is that they are immune to evidence: all contrary evidence is taken only to prove that the source proffering it is also in on the conspiracy. By two-thirds or so of the way into the film it begins to feel like the Truman Show: Who, other than Garrison, doesn’t know about the conspiracy to kill the President? For the conspiracy theorists, things like Operation NORTHWOODS are taken as proof that the U.S. government is capable of these grand conspiracies. It somehow escapes notice that NORTHWOODS was rejected by President Kennedy as an idiotic scheme that was sure to be exposed. It’s the same with that other conspiracist favourite, the “Business Plot” of 1933 to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was exposed in exactly the way such things are supposed to be in a free society: the conspirators tried to enlist Smedley Butler, who had inter alia tried to bring decent governance to Haiti and who had something like the stature Colin Powell did after the 1991 Gulf War, and Butler went to the press, destroying the plot and having several of its members put on trial. The hysterical hatred and fear of government, not dissimilar to the views of people like Ron Paul or those who admire the treacherous Edward Snowden, is what drives the story here: government’s malevolence is a given, proving it is quite secondary.

The film’s money shot—when all subtlety is dropped—is Garrison’s closing speech:

What kind of national security do we have when we’ve been robbed of our leaders? What national security permits the removal of fundamental power from the hands of the American people and validates the ascendancy of an invisible government in the United States? That kind of national security, gentlemen of the jury, is … fascism! … [W]hat took place on November 22, 1963 was a coup d’état. Its most direct and tragic result was a reversal of President Kennedy’s commitment to withdraw from Vietnam. The war is the biggest business in America worth $80 billion a year. President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned in advance at the highest levels of our government and it was carried out by fanatical and disciplined cold warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s covert-operation apparatus. … It was a public execution and it was covered up by like-minded individuals … Tennyson wrote, ‘Authority forgets a dying king’. This was never more true than for John F. Kennedy, whose murder was probably one the most terrible moments in the history of our country.”

I was born just under a year before this film was released so I can’t share in the Boomers’ kitsch about Kennedy, though I suspect that had the Camelot darling lived he would not now be the idol of the liberals. But “fascism” is the key word here: the contention of people like Oliver Stone and Noam Chomsky is not that the United States is equally as bad as her enemies, whether it is the Soviet Union or Islamic militancy, but that she is worse. This is deeply, deeply silly, and Stone turning up in Moscow to blame the West for the crisis in Ukraine and to support Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas is where “thinking” of this kind leads. And that is the ultimate take-away of the film: it is cretinous, to be sure, but also sinister, disseminating an acute cynicism about the Free West that ends up translating into an utter credulity about the West’s totalitarian enemies.

2 thoughts on “Film Review: JFK (1991)

  1. Pingback: Assad and Academics: Disinformation in the Modern Era | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: Who Killed Kennedy? | Kyle Orton's Blog

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