JFK is 25 years old this month. It is still a fascinating movie that is unique in so many ways. It is essentially a three hour accusation against the US government of killing John Kennedy made by a three-time Oscar winner with an all-star cast. It won two Oscars and 16 other movie awards, and has legions of fans and detractors. It is a frustrating movie that is also seductive and persuasive. However, before we can delve into JFK we must first answer some questions, the first of which is simply why do so many of us believe in conspiracy theories?
In his book Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Rob Brotherton writes about proportionality bias, the idea that a big event must be caused by something big. An earthquake causes a tsunami; an invasion causes a war. One man with a rifle cannot kill the most powerful person on Earth just as a bunch of extremists living in caves cannot destroy two skyscrapers and kill thousands of people. And as the ramifications of the death of Kennedy and the 9/11 attacks become more apparent this bias grows as the events and aftermath (wars in Asia and the Middle East, the PATRIOT Act, Nixon, further terrorism) get bigger and bigger.
Professor of psychology at the VU University Amsterdam, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, states that another reason these theories grow and spread is based around two key factors: fear and lack of control. Fear gives rise to irrationality and in an effort to reassert control over their lives and events, people will create narratives that they recognise. In the case of 9/11, the idea that extremists overseas would hatch such an audacious plot out of hatred for America, and then carry it out successfully is almost absurd. A common remark heard after the tragedy was that if the 9/11 attacks were pitched as a movie plot they would be deemed ridiculous. So when the attacks happen and 3,000 people die we rewire our brains to find a version of events that we can process.
For some people that rewiring never happens and for them the version is simply the truth: bad people exist and they do evil things. For others, the version they fall back on is the old chestnut that the government was in on it. The attacks still happened but if they were an inside job then that is a story we can understand. Control is reasserted because we can create a narrative out of whole cloth in which the Bush government orchestrated 9/11 to facilitate the war in Iraq so they could take the oil. It’s almost like people would prefer that their own government carried out attacks because, hey, at least it’s our government. Prooijen found in his research that people feeling as though they had lost control of a situation were more likely to not only find impossible ways to join the dots of a story, they were also highly capable of creating their own dots.
With the JFK assassination it is the same. Prior to Kennedy, the last president to be assassinated was William McKinley in 1901, 62 years earlier. There are definitely people who would have lived through both deaths but a majority of people would have found Kennedy being their first. And Kennedy was a lot of firsts. This was a president who was young, good-looking, suave, cool. He had a beautiful wife, gorgeous kids, and a 20 million watt smile. Prior to him the president had been Eisenhower with Nixon as his vice-president. Kennedy was the first movie star president and he was going to turn everything around. He gave multiple speeches that brimmed with hope and the end of the escalating war in Vietnam. He was the perfect president for the ‘60s. So when he is murdered we find that fear and loss of control returning. How does a bullet, or three bullets, kill this god-like individual? How does a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald kill King Arthur and burn down Camelot? It’s impossible. It must have been Castro, the mob, the teamsters, the CIA, the FBI, the Russians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe, or the Devil himself. Occam’s razor, the idea that the most obvious answer is usually the right one, goes out of the window and the opposite comes into effect. Whichever theory has the most moving parts, and the most conspirators, wins. And this brings us to Oliver Stone’s JFK.
JFK posits a quite wild theory of why, and how, Kennedy was killed. It is, on paper, laughable; the rantings of a mad man. And yet, the movie sells it. It sells it so strongly that many, many people believe it. I believed it when I saw this movie as a teenager. I bought the entire thing and for years wouldn’t hear logic or give credence to accusations that the real Jim Garrison had based a lot of his ideas around numerology, that he had hypnotised people during interviews, or that he had targeted Clay Shaw out of homophobia. For me they were just part of a smear campaign. And there are people who are still like that and their first introduction to the wide, wide world of Kennedy conspiracies begins with this movie. So the second question we need to answer then is how did Stone sell this to us so well?
A key journalistic method for persuasion is repetition. Once the movie begins to focus upon the investigation, and it’s pretty much straight away, the same beats are hit over and over again. We are shown the assassination from a variety of angles and points of view. Again and again we are shown people giving testimony about there being flashes of light and smoke at the grassy knoll, we are told that the press had too much info on Oswald too quick, and we are pointed towards Shaw and Ferrie being key conspirators. This is not to say the movie is boring or anything like that. It is a testament to Stone that he manages to keep going back to these specific wells repeatedly but in creative ways each time. No one is ever repeating themselves even if they are just saying the same thing using different words.
Another method of persuasion is storytelling. Obviously, all movies are storytelling but JFK is storytelling about storytelling. The movie is mostly made up of vignettes in which two people, usually Garrison and another big movie star as a source of information, talk about the assassination and the source reveals some new part of the puzzle. A key cinematic aspect of this storytelling is that while the person is speaking the scene will cut between the telling and a depiction of the event happening. When Garrison meets with X we are told a long story about black ops in America and how X feels as though the assassination was a black op. We don’t just hear this story in the silky tones of Donald Sutherland, we are shown it. And if we see it, then it’s true, right? A person telling a story can be lying but if they’re talking about generals conspiring against Kennedy and then we see those generals in a room smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, and raging against the president then the story we’re being told is just recounting events that definitely, without a doubt, happened. This occurs multiple times within the movie like in the scene when Garrison is explaining to his staff over dinner that there is a conspiracy. Throughout the scene Stone cuts between Garrison talking and an unknown character doctoring a photograph of a man holding a rifle so that the man’s head is now Oswald’s. Later in the movie a character brings up this picture and wonders if it had been doctored, leaving the viewer to think that of course it has, because we saw it happening earlier.
This storytelling method is at it’s most prominent with the final sequence in which Garrison outlines the entire assassination with it’s many teams and Oswald as patsy. The monologue is cut with images so that when Garrison is telling this long story about the exact way in which the assassination took place we are seeing it happen. The sequence might still work with just Garrison pacing the courtroom floor telling us all about triangulation of crossfire and how the times are all off for Oswald to be where he was seen by witnesses to be. But having Costner’s voice over black and white images of the ‘events’ makes them real and makes us believe them.
A key cinematic move that Stone made was to cast Kevin Costner as Garrison. Costner’s career is in a different place right now but in 1991 he was unstoppable (that year he was the lead in two of the ten highest grossing movies). Fresh off Dances with Wolves and heading towards The Bodyguard, Costner was the all-round everyman good guy that your dad wanted to be and your mum wanted to run away with, but only if your dad and her split up for amicable reasons and no one got hurt. If he was on the screen telling you Oswald didn’t act alone then you believed him.
2016’s Sully pulls the same sort of trick. The movie is based around an investigation into whether or not Captain Sullenberger could have avoided endangering lives by landing on the Hudson. By casting Tom Hanks in the lead role you remove ambiguity and you instantly establish where the audience’s’ loyalties lie. Stone does the same thing in JFK. There’s no way that Garrison can be wrong if he’s played by 1991 Kevin Costner, it’s everyone else who’s in the wrong. Imagine the same role played by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, or James Woods. Big actors in 1991 but all bring an edge of ambiguity and the possibility of craziness. And Stone knew what was needed to sell the story, that’s why the three actors he sent the script to were Costner, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. With a story like JFK ambiguity is the enemy, so you cast a bonafide hero in the lead or the whole thing falls apart.
I guess the final question we need to ask is this: 25 years later, is JFK still a good film? Yes, though it is not without it’s faults. As stated above this isn’t a movie about ambiguity so if you’re looking for something nuanced in which our hero at any point doubts his resolve then look elsewhere. Kennedy’s body isn’t cold before Garrison begins his investigation. This is not a paranoia movie in the vein of The Parallax View where the hero spends some time disbelieving that there is a plot. No, Garrison is all in right away.
Perhaps this is one of those hot takes I hear the kids talking about these days but another failing of the movie is simply that Kevin Costner can’t act his way out a paper bag. His charms are obvious and he is likable, funny, and warm, but anything that involves any amount of real emoting is beyond him. His arguments with his wife are unconvincing and whiny, and during some of his major monologues he begins to sound as though he learnt to speak English moments before the cameras rolled. Stone, perhaps aware of this, stacks the deck around him though and JFK has one of the best supporting casts I’ve ever seen with John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Martin Sheen’s voice, and Donald Sutherland. Even with all these people the two standouts are Joe Pesci and Gary Oldman, who are at peak Pesci and Oldman with their roles (especially Pesci who is all cursing and smashing payphones with their receivers).
Finally, this movie is a fascinating one because of its existence. This is an Oscar winning movie made by stars at their apex that accuses the government of being behind the Kennedy assassination that ended up being the sixth highest grossing movie of 1991. This isn’t some YouTube video called “PROOF THAT JET FUEL CAN’T MELT STEEL” or something produced by Alex Jones. This is a legit movie that manages to be entertaining and convincing while espousing theories that are quite wild. The sheer fact that this movie exists is enough to make it worth watching and examining whether you believe that the government killed Kennedy, or that one fateful day in November a man named Lee Harvey Oswald fired three bullets in 5.6 seconds and changed the world.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.