PRINT April 1992


Oliver Stone's JFK

LATE IN JANUARY, Pat Dowell resigned as film critic for the Washingtonian magazine when its editor, Jack Limpert, pulled one of her reviews from the February issue. As Limpert saw it, the piece praised an “extremely dumb movie,” and left its “bizarre picture of Washington” unchallenged. He had a professional responsibility, he felt, “to protect the magazine’s reputation”—a reputation that presumably would have been jeopardized, at least in establishment circles, by Dowell’s description of the film as a “brilliantly crafted indictment of history as an official story.”

Much of the rest of the mainstream press has also been protecting itself, and the country, from the movie in question— Oliver Stone’s JFK. For over two months as of this writing, Stone has served as the whipping boy for a flood of publications and TV programs, from the Washington Post to CBS’ 48 hours. (The controversy, of course, has only increased the film’s audience.) The New York Times alone has carried over a dozen articles, essays, reviews, editorials, and letters chastising the director.

In certain respects the criticism seems deserved. To support the theory that the Kennedy assassination was ordered by CIA and Pentagon officials fearful that a maverick president would dismantle their power, Stone constructs a mythologized, one-dimensional Kennedy, a savior of freedom, a “dying king” on the verge of ending the Cold War. It may be remotely possible that Kennedy was ready to disengage America from Vietnam, an action that would certainly have threatened America’s war machine. But it is inconceivable that his militaristic anticommunist politics would have pushed him toward détente with the Soviet Union, as JFK suggests.

Most disconcerting, Stone’s hero is New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, the only prosecutor to have brought a suspect in the assassination to trial. Garrison’s quest for “truth” offers a compelling and readymade armature for Stone’s and Zachary Sklar’s complicated screenplay. But Garrison’s handling of the case, which ended in the acquittal of defendant Clay Shaw, was clumsy and sleazy, and was eventually discredited. Furthermore, even if we accept Kevin Costner’s Garrison as a noble symbol of all those brave figures who have challenged the Warren report, we are stunned by Stone’s embrace of homophobia. Shaw was a gay New Orleans businessman, allegedly tied to the CIA. And Stone’s movie, no doubt cued by the Garrison prosecution, is driven at least in part by an illogical and bigoted analogy between a “homosexual underworld”—which, to the extent that it could have existed as described, would have been born of self protection in a viciously homophobic society—and a right-wing conspiracy born of ruthlessness, desperation, and greed.

Predictably, the mainstream press has largely ignored this problem, finding JFK’s seamless interweaving of documentary footage, historical data, cinematic re-creation, and pure conjecture far more grave. Stone “deserve[s] a rhetorical thrashing,” a New York Times editorial argues, for the “children of the video age” may “swallow JFK whole.” “Society cannot police art for inaccuracies,” the text continues, “film makers are free to take whatever liberties they wish. But society can denounce bogus history—and study honest history.” This unsubtle view of the process of remaking the past never acknowledges the liberties taken by the Warren Commission, or the reality that history is always inflected by the biases of those who write it. The general public may not be so naive. A January CBS News/New York Timessurvey revealed that three out of four Americans believe that Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy, and that an official cover-up has kept the public from the truth.

At the bottom of much of the Stone-bashing is the defensiveness of our passive and complacent media, which most often uncritically embrace official history. For JFK has done what they have not—it has forced a rethinking of the conclusions of the Warren Commission, and also of the later investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. In doing so, the film has questioned sacred master narratives that have comforted the national psyche with safer, vaguer explanations for that day in Dallas. It seems obvious that much of the media’s sensitivity over JFK comes because those more comfortable explanations safeguard a phallic order of power in which many journalists are themselves invested.

Costner’s final monologue in JFK, for all its echoes of the Frank Capra tradition of cinema, argues eloquently for a competent and public reevaluation of Kennedy’s murder, complete with disclosure of CIA files and other sealed. But even if these documents are released, a question remains: who will write the new histories of the Kennedy assassination? What biases, fears, and motives will shape these narratives? Indeed, the greatest legacy of JFK is not its one-sided tale of conspiracy but the doubt that it engenders in its viewers. The film may replace the incredible Warren Commission myth of a crazed lone gunman with an equally improbable countermyth, the story of a wholesome family man selflessly fighting to save the nation from a strange alliance of mobsters, faggots, and most of the joint chiefs of staff. The real reason it has been attacked, however, is surely because it encourages a vast audience to be healthily suspicious, not only of their government, but of the subsidiary apparatus that keeps it in place.

Maurice Berger is a cultural historian and art critic who lives in New York. His most recent book, How Art Becomes History was just published by HarperCollins, New York.