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Cinema: Film-making as a form of activism

Cinema: Film-making as a form of activism

In the history of American cinema, few film directors have persistently tackled political and historical controversies as Oliver Stone has — his body of work can be taken as a critique of the post-war American experience. Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Heaven and Earth (1993) dealt with America and Vietnam. Salvador (1986) commented on US involvement in Latin America. The Doors (1991) explored the counter-cultural milieu of the 1960s. Wall Street (1987) and its 2010 sequel, Money Never Sleeps, tackled the culture of capitalism. JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), and W. (2008) delved into the lives and politics of three American Presidents, while Natural Born Killers (1994) deconstructed the media’s obsession with violence and celebrity.

Of all these films, none has attracted as much attention as JFK, which was savaged in the mainstream US media long before it was even completed — a perhaps unprecedented type of reviewing. The film was lambasted as a work of propaganda, Stone was compared to the Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and the making of the film was described as “evil” and as an act of “contemptible citizenship”. What were the reasons for this reactionary vitriol?

JFK opens with an excerpt from US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech of 1961, in which he warns against “[…] the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” The film then goes on to explore various theories regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy using New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s probe in the late 1960s as a focal point.

For almost three and a half hours (the length of the Director’s Cut), we follow Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) as his investigation takes numerous twists and turns. In the end, Garrison loses the trial he brought against New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for complicity in the assassination, but not before the viewer is subjected to a huge quantity of information and speculation regarding the killing of Kennedy. While different theories are touted in the film, JFK suggests a conspiracy involving various branches of the US government, who murdered Kennedy because of his desire to rein in organisations such as the CIA, withdraw American troops from Vietnam, and end the Cold War.

The media frenzy around *JFK*

This thesis proved too much for the mainstream press. Months before the film’s release, a copy of an early draft of the script was acquired by a writer for The Washington Post, and for months afterwards Stone and Garrison were pilloried by numerous magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek and The New York Times. As Stone remarked: “these defenders of history had very little to say five years ago when it was suggested in the motion picture [Amadeus (1984)] that Mozart had not died peacefully, but had been murdered by a rival and second-rate composer. Where were all our cultural watchdogs when Peter Shaffer was distorting history with Amadeus?”. But, as Stone knew, there was a great deal of difference between JFK and any other historico-political film.

Still alive at the time of the film’s release were numerous people who had worked for the Warren Commission (the investigative panel set up by the government which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, and whose findings were attacked by Stone and Garrison). Some thought Stone was undermining faith in government institutions. Others who attacked him were journalists responsible for reporting (or misreporting) the assassination and its aftermath.

Barbie Zelizer, in her scholarly book Covering the Body:The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press, 1992), details the incompetence of many journalists of the time, and describes their inflated notion of self-importance in the wake of the assassination: “Journalists saw themselves taking on expanded roles of cultural authority, and acting in new and different ways as social, political, and ultimately historical arbiters. […] Rather than contextualise their activities as assisting in the making of the historical record, journalists began to see themselves as its makers.” If this is a true assessment, it is unsurprising that journalists would attack Stone for his foray into history and indictment of the orthodox narrative.

One of the most common attacks on Stone was for his alleged alteration and omission of historical facts. This charge was true — Stone did modify and selectively interpret the historical record for his film. But unlike a work of pure propaganda, Stone aired different, mutually contradictory theories. In one memorable scene reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Oswald’s alleged shooting of a police officer is depicted from three different angles using three different actors. Stone also admitted that he had not solved the case or possessed the truth, and described the film as a counter-mythical “paradigm of possibilities” to stand against the mythical tale spun out by the Warren Commission.

As such, Stone was not endeavouring to be a documentarian or cinematic historian (as was often alleged), but an artist attempting to comment upon and understand history and how it is created — something not altogether unreasonable, given the failure of most journalists and historians to approach the subject with an open mind.

To take an example at random, one can look at historian Martin Gilbert’s A History of the Twentieth Century (TPS/HarperCollins, 1997-1999). In the more than 3,000 pages of this multi-volume history, the Kennedy assassination is dealt with in just a few paragraphs, and the standard, passing mention of the lone assassin glosses over the complexity of the case. Stone’s film is not mentioned, of course, though the author deemed it necessary to mention the 1964 premier of Fiddler on the Roof.

Even the noted intellectual Noam Chomsky, in the unintentionally ironically titled Understanding Power (The New Press, 2002), seems unable to countenance a conspiratorial perspective, and, in the belief that nobody should care, dismisses the “self-destructive” efforts by independent scholars as “complete nonsense”. A student of history would do better to pick up an old Encyclopaedia Britannica (such as the 15th edition of 1989), to find a more balanced position — the entry for Lee Harvey Oswald describes him as the accused assassin, and points out the highly debatable nature of the evidence.

What Stone achieved with the film

The aura of authority effervesced by scholarly tomes released by reputable publishers can be quite misleading. The alteration, selection, and biased interpretation of facts is not restricted to artists: journalistic and historical writing is replete with inaccurate and propagandistic works by establishment historians and unorthodox mavericks alike. This is not to say that JFK is more authoritative than various non-fictional books on the subject, or that a motion picture and a book are equivalent.

A dramatic film, which by its very nature is forced to condense and alter events in order to project a coherent narrative, is more likely to be imprecise than a history text with footnotes, references, and indices. But a film is able to connect a viewer with the past far more powerfully than a written text can. For what does a text do but attempt to paint a picture for the mind’s eye, and describe events which were often not textual in nature? A film can use costumes, sets, and sounds which in a matter of seconds can convey the atmosphere and environment of a bygone era — something which a written text cannot do with the same degree of intensity.

In the final analysis, each work must be approached on its own merits. As Stone wrote in the valuable collection of essays edited by Robert Brent Toplin titled Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (University Press of Kansas, 2000): “[…] ultimately it is you, the student of history, who should read for yourself and discover what is true. Never base your views on one movie, one historian, one dramatist, one ideology, or one perception, no matter how seductive or convincing the messenger. Life is far too ambiguous.”

Stone himself provided a good place to start: shortly after the film’s release came JFK: The Book of the Film (Applause Books, 1992). This tome contains a documented version of the screenplay by Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar, the annotations consisting of notes and references to sources which formed the basis for many key scenes and assertions in the film. The book also includes a number of official government documents, and a bibliography of assassination literature. But its most valuable feature is the reproduction of almost a hundred contemporary articles consisting of commentary and criticism that the film provoked, with authors ranging from former President Gerald R. Ford to Stone himself.

Reading these pieces is a dialectical instruction in history-writing (and myth-making). A seemingly devastating deconstruction of JFK’s factual errors in one article is followed by a cogent defence of the film’s position in the next, which is then followed by further criticism and defence. Back and forth the invective flies, until one realises that too many of the prominent writers on this subject have a poor grasp of the facts, and that in order to dispel the ambiguity one must begin to tackle the assassination literature itself.

However, this is no small endeavour, for there are hundreds of books on the subject and millions of pages of official documents. To read the two books that informed the screenplay — Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (Sheridan Square, 1988) and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (Carroll & Graf, 1989; revised edition Basic Books, 2013), is to only begin an interminable — but enlightening — journey through the 20th century and the forces that helped shape it: the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, and so much else that reveals the ‘parapolitical’ underside of world events. As some have noted, the Kennedy assassination is a Rosetta Stone of American politics.

The lasting impact of *JFK*

While films can and often do stoke controversy and even violence, few of them can claim to have had an impact in the political arena. But whatever the merits or demerits of JFK’s interpretation of history, the political consequences resulting from its release are undeniable. The National Archives received an increased number of public requests to view evidence related to the assassination. Books on the Kennedy murder reached the New York Times bestseller lists.

Eventually the furore around the film induced Congress to pass new legislation; the resulting Assassination Records Review Board released millions of previously classified documents which would otherwise have not been made available until well into the 21st century. Some of this new material supported claims by Stone and Garrison, while other material disproved some of their contentions. And in the years since then more books have been written about the assassination as a new generation of researchers has tried to deal with the voluminous new documentation.

Few films can claim to have produced such a result, largely because few directors would have tried to tackle the subject on such an epic scale. Before JFK a number of films had discussed the Kennedy assassination in one way or another: Executive Action (1973), The Parallax View (1974), Winter Kills (1979), and Flash Point (1984), for example. But all of these films fictionalised details to the point of plausible deniability, incorporated improbable plot elements, or were simply unengaging.

While Stone did fictionalise, he also did not hesitate to name names, and stylistically his film has found few detractors. Indeed, the film was a strong influence on another epic biopic also released by Warner Brothers: Spike Lee’s masterful Malcolm X (1992). Using form to mirror content, JFK is a complex and multi-layered work, using several different film stocks, overlapping soundtracks, and recurrent flashbacks to convey the tangled reality of its subject, just as the frequent use of glinting and reflective surfaces hints at what CIA officer James Jesus Angleton once referred to as the “wilderness of mirrors”.

The historian, according to Aristotle, relates what has happened, while the poet what could happen, for which reason poetry is more philosophical than history. In the years since JFK, Stone has continued to engage in political filmmaking, with numerous, straightforward documentaries now to his credit (such as the informative, 12-hour long series The Untold History of the United States [2012]). But in JFK, Stone bridged the sometimes artificial dichotomy between fact and fiction to create one of the most cinematographically advanced and politically powerful films ever made, for which students of art — and history — owe him a debt.

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2016

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