Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review of JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone's JFK is a very impressive film if you are a 15-year-old self-described "anarcho-communist" who is convinced, mostly with justice, that everything you thought you knew about the U.S.government is wrong.  See it after that point, however, and you will find the film has dramatically overstayed its welcome.  This was the mistake I made recently in attempting to introduce a friend to this classic of conspiracy-mongering Americana.  I was prepared this time, as I had not been at age 15, to show greater skepticism toward the charges the film levels against every branch of the U.S. government and too many private actors to count.  What I was not prepared for was how dramatically inept -- how terribly boring -- it is.  I went in with the expectation that the pseudo-history in the script wouldn't withstand much scrutiny, but that the movie would still bear up somehow as entertainment.  Well, yes to the first, and no to the second.  The movie is in fact three hours of Kevin Costner speaking rapidly to nameless characters who will never appear again about arcane details of Kennediana that only the initiated conspiracy buff will understand.  How did I ever watch this? I wondered.

Displaying interest in this movie, I have decided, is essentially an act of faith -- the faith that it all means something and is all leading somewhere.  If you have lost this faith, and have realized that Oliver Stone in fact has no idea what he's talking about, the three-hour run-time and the dead-end conversations will be torture.  You will realize that there is nothing at all happening on screen to indicate that one incident in the narrative is more important or interesting or emotionally affecting than another -- it is just an endless stream of uninterpretable dialogue.  What clues you in periodically that we are reaching a climax, or some "eery" coincidence was just revealed, is not anything that identifiably occurs in the plot, but rather John Williams' score, which is one of the better things in the movie, but which I swear is pretty much just the same stuff that's playing when Dennis Nedry is driving around in his muddy Jeep in Jurassic Park.

I said "dialogue" above.  Let me retract that.  This is a monologue, as there is in fact only one character in the movie.  He is played by Kevin Costner with his usual doofy blandness (though it is spiced up here by a bad Southern accent.)  His name in the script is "Jim Garrison."  He is really Oliver Stone.  Or perhaps he is Atticus Finch -- complete with suit, vest, idealism, and Southern domesticity.  One person this character is decidedly not is Jim Garrison -- as in, the actual New Orleans Distinct Attorney who is the ostensible subject of the film -- the guy who brought a phony indictment against local pillar of the community Clay Shaw on charges of, ahem, committing a "homosexual thrill killing" of the President of the United States.  For some reason, the prosecution lost the case.  (Of course, the real-life Jim Garrison was not so naive as to suppose that only the gay community was involved in Kennedy's assassination; he accused everyone and their grandma of being in on it too.)

I remember that even as a 15 year-old who was otherwise willing to eat up anything Oliver Stone served, I was alarmed by the distinct homophobia of this movie.  Stone doesn't paper over the uglier peculiarities of Garrison's pet version of the conspiracy thesis.  If one believes this film, the real-life individual David Ferrie (unfortunately named, given the uses to which Garrison would put his reputation), Clay Shaw (depicted here as a drawling Tennessee Williams-eque terror), a male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon, and perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald himself are all in on a gay conspiracy together to kill the President.  Why?  Search me.  The connections between the "homosexual underworld" these characters represent in the film (according to the Kevin Bacon character) and right-wing Cuban exiles, and John Birchers, and Lyndon Johnson, are not entirely clear.  But I guess we know they are sinister because the music tells us so.  Besides, we see them doing obscene and debauched things like dressing up in powdered wigs and eating at opposite ends of unnecessarily long mahogany dining tables, so they must be evil, and hence involved in the assassination.

A typically incoherent scene involves the "Jim Garrison" character hauling Clay Shaw into his office for questioning.  Garrison says something about a male prostitute. Clay Shaw (played by Tommy Lee Jones) gets upset, Garrison starts accusing him of killing the president, and Shaw leaves in evident anger.  Come to think of it, this is probably one of the more historically accurate scenes in the film.  What is not accurate is that Garrison is depicted as displaying some sort of profound moral courage by his actions in this scene and, in general, by prosecuting an innocent man on absurd charges (based mostly on the real-life Garrison's conviction that Shaw's sexual identity made him a likely Leopold or Loeb.)

Admittedly, the real Jim Garrison pressed the "gay conspiracy" angle much more firmly than the film version.  Though Stone's JFK may appear at first like an obsessively homophobic movie ("Come see me some-tahm and we'll have ah-selves some fun!" the Kevin Bacon character calls after Garrison in one scene, in yet another hammy accent), this aspect of the alleged conspiracy is actually toned down from the story the real Jim Garrison was spinning.  Not that Oliver Stone should be let off the hook for that reason-- after all, the same theme turns up in Nixon (1995), in which we find J. Edgar Hoover as part of another mysterious gay cabal.

Stone appears to be a "broad-church" Kennedy conspiracist.  FBI, CIA, Cubans, mafia-- come one, come all.  As mentioned above, meanwhile, this movie is really just a soap box from which Stone can expound these capacious views.   Kevin Costner's intolerably long and repetitive "Closing Argument" in the courtroom is therefore simply the most egregious instance of a phenomenon that is present throughout the film.  The only character here is Oliver Stone.  The non-Oliver Stone characters only shuffle on and off the stage for the purpose either of applauding the Oliver Stone character's actions or of being dumbfounded and awe-struck by his sublime moral courage.  This is not an engaging thing to watch for anyone but Oliver Stone.

The real shame in all this is that the truth about America's recent history is so often weirder, more dramatic, and more full of genuine moral heroism than the falsehoods Stone has given us.  One doesn't have to go inventing government conspiracies, after all, -- they are all around us.  The CIA probably didn't kill Kennedy, but its real assassination plots, human experiments, and orchestrated coups overseas are a matter of public record.  Why does Hollywood leave such incidents untouched?  The government's use of internal espionage, torture, kidnapping, and indefinite detention are by now common knowledge --  such violence is not directed against handsome young presidents, however, but against people with little social power.  There are so many people who have actually faced intimidation and surveillance from the FBI and other agencies (unlike Garrison) for daring to express unpopular convictions, from civil rights leaders to anti-war activists.  All of them make for better heroes and crusaders for the truth than the subject of Stone's film.  Where are their biopics?

Even if the standard is sheer luridness and insanity, reality offers more than fiction.  You won't find any scene in JFK to compare to the CIA administering LSD to Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsburg, and other volunteers in the '50s to see what would happen.  Put that in a movie, Oliver Stone.

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