Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back. Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK. As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.
On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black. In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat. With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed. As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”
It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head. None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone. If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination. And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact. “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…” This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question. Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.
The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions. Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles. Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.