Thursday, December 28, 2017

Resistance Through Cinema: JFK Special Edition

JFK d. Oliver Stone
starring: Kevin Costner, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, and everyone else, ever. 

First some background: I watched the first two hours last week, then started it over again to watch the entire film on Christmas Day with my mother, then re-watched it once again with Stone's commentary (which I highly recommend if you're interested in some of the filmmaking techniques used or additional political rants) during which I took notes. I had tried, as a high school student, watching this when it first came out but my head just couldn't handle it. There are definitely a lot of ins, a lot of outs, and a ton of characters to keep track of, but I'm finally at a point where I can understand the film and most of what it was trying to say.

Bonus to anyone who can tell what illustrations (unrelated to Kennedy) are imprinted on the paper

I know there's a lot of flack that gets heaped onto Stone for twisting facts, selectively ignoring certain witnesses and agencies while emphasizing others, and so on, but regardless of all that, no matter where you stand on the Kennedy assassination, two things are clear: 

1. This film, while long, is extremely well done
2. There are many aspects to this case that made it ideal for several conspiracy theories, many of them plausible 

Also, after the political events we've all witnessed throughout the year, none of this (lying, cover-ups, murder, deceit, corruption, cheating, etc.) really seems that far-fetched anymore, you know, considering. I don't think I'm alone in the thought that these films used to seem a lot more fictional before 2017.

"One may smile and smile and be a villain."
To summarize the film's position on the assassination, it's helpful to first know what it's opposing, namely the lone shooter theory posited by the Warren Commission or the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering the president. Stone instead focuses on the experiences of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (who actually plays Justice Earl Warren in the film but is portrayed in character by Kevin Costner), suggesting a much deeper involvement by several government groups, basically vindicating Oswald and distributing the blame onto everyone from the Dallas Police to next-in-line President LBJ. Multi-agency conspiracy, execution, and cover-up. If it seems like a lot to swallow, it is, but Stone makes it all seem if not logical, at least possible. Some of my favorite discrepancies: 

  • Over 40 witnesses in Dallas that day heard shots from behind them on the grassy knoll, not from the book depository (suggesting multiple shooters)
  • Lee Harvey Oswald was suspiciously allowed back into the country after defecting to the Soviet Union in the midst of Cold War tensions (suggesting government involvement to later frame him)
  • Security was lax, parade route was changed, and assassination occurred during least accessible moments from 6th floor book depository yet Oswald still charged as lone shooter within 72 hours (suggesting black ops involvement as outlined by my favorite character, X, played by Donald Sutherland who really does a TON in explaining motives and bringing everything together)

"They just named me as a suspect!"
The experience of watching this film is pretty similar to all of Stone's other films, which is to say there are a lot of quick edits, multiple shots of ongoing action with smooth voice-overs, extended dialogues, and a talented group of actors. Music and lighting are always very well planned, highlighting the moods of scenes and hinting at change or danger. In the telling of JFK, Stone combines many different formats of visual aesthetics--sixteen millimeter, black and white, over-saturated color, and actual newsreel footage--making for a documentary feeling yet often larger-than-life viewing experience. We are sucked into believing a lot of what Stone has to say simply because everything looks so believable. The shots are jarring because the events themselves are jarring; the editing style used for many of the characters, CIA recruited radical David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) in particular, shows interior paranoia as well as the overall disorganization of the events surrounding them. 

"I am a patsy."

In the commentary Stone talks a lot about lighting in "corrupt oranges," along with the American Gothic-inspired blocking of moments in Garrison's life in and out of his home, and it's cool to hear the guy in charge of everything laying it all out, explaining certain decisions and throwing in little anecdotal bits about actors (Walter Matthau sitting by himself on the set not bothering anyone or getting Donald Sutherland to do eleven pages of dialog in one take). Again, it's a long film, but listening to the commentary really takes it to the next level, explaining much about the creation of the film as well as the events that inspired it.

The actual footage of the assassination is still horrifying, after all these years, and is used several times and in a few different ways throughout the film. The first and probably most memorable viewing we get is very early in the film just after the credits and a collection of film segments of Kennedy's election, plans for the country, and some candid moments with his family with Martin Sheen's voice narrating. A snare drum accompaniment starts as JFK and Jackie disembark Air Force One and board the limousine (with its drop-top removed). In any other setting a sustained snare drum cadence would suggest something military or regimental, but in this sequence it's setting us up for the inevitable fall, and it's dreadful. The last image Stone leaves us in this opening introduction is of the pigeons scattering from the top of the depository as the gunshots ring out from below. 

After a few fragmented replays of the same sequence during moments exploring the parade route and the timing of gunshots, the complete film (as shot by Abraham Zapruder) is shown by DA Garrision in the courtroom near the end, this time completely. For those who may not have viewed it before, it's violent and harsh---we are being shown a live execution, not reenacted, not edited, but how it really happened. This is not for everyone, obviously; it's not an easy thing to see. The most raw, disturbing moment of Zapruder's film unfortunately gets replayed three times as Garrison tries to illustrate to the jury the logical direction of the fatal shot to Kennedy's head, and each time is a terrible jolt. I couldn't help getting emotional during this scene, unable to grasp that above and beyond someone's artistic description of it or any other film experience, that this unthinkably violent thing happened, someone filmed it happening, and hundreds of people were standing right there when it did. It's upsetting to me even now, writing about it.

It may stretch the truth, it may say some damaging things about the government (that we want to instinctively want to trust) and it may be better viewed as a work of fiction but this film is an important work and something I think every American should see. Thoughts? Is Stone way off base, or do you agree with his version?