Bill Hicks used to do a routine where he joked that when every U.S. president is sworn into office, he's taken into a little dark room and shown film of the Kennedy assassination, but from an angle no one else has ever seen before. The cigar-chomping fat-cats who surround him - the people who really run America - then say 'Any questions?’ to which the new president replies in an innocent voice 'No, sir, just what's my agenda for the next 4 years?'
JFK is like a huge elaboration on this idea: that at the heart of the so-called greatest democracy in the world there may be a corrupt, duplicitous force. It's Oliver Stone against the world, or at least against the U.S. government, and the question you have to ask yourself is: do you subscribe to the lone-nut theory i.e. it's just Stone going off on one because he's still embittered by the damage done to him personally by the Vietnam war (witness how he emphasises that Kennedy's death meant an escalation in the war, witness the quoting of Vietnam casualty figures during the end titles) or do you believe there really was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy?
Personally, I think that if you start to believe every conspiracy theory out there you end up in la-la land with the likes of David Icke, who insists that the British Royal Family are alien reptiles in disguise. But on the other hand it'd be naive to believe nefarious shenanigans and manipulations don't go on behind the scenes of government, and if people like Oliver Stone are right even a fraction of the time, then the finer points of our Western cultures - all that stuff about liberty and democracy and people’s rights - are big lies. Indeed JFK presents its evidence in such a way that you'll probably start thinking, if you haven't already, that the basis of our societies is not morality or truth or freedom but power in a completely amoral sense, power in isolation, power whatever it takes.
Watching the film recently, I was surprised to see how certain things which I loved about it when I first saw it in my early 20's now seem very affected. These include Kevin Costner's 'through the looking glass' speech, John Candy calling Costner 'Daddy-O', and the way Costner says back to him 'Am I communicating with you' in a sing-song Southern accent. Donald Sutherland plays the mysterious 'X' and when he meets Costner in a Washington park he has a long, thrilling, fact-packed monologue, but even that suffers from Stone's boy's-own pleasure in showing off his knowledge of the political shadow-world. When Sutherland names country after country the CIA has operated in it's too obviously the director and writer eager to bring up pointed, but in the context irrelevant, facts rather than a believable thing the character would say. X also seems to be able to tell the future, quoting the final cost of the Vietnam War, even though the scene is set in the late 60's!
But these are minor quibbles with what is still one of the most thrilling and intelligent films ever made. The screenplay by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar is brilliantly dense and informative, and the editing by Academy Award winners Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia is world-class, as is the cinematography by Robert Richardson (Casino, Kill Bill). At the start of JFK we're plunged into a sinister atmosphere: as the world comes to terms with the American President's shocking death we're shown a character played by Jack Lemmon being savagely beaten by a man who's paranoid about what Lemmon has seen in his New Orleans office in the months leading up to 22/11/63. The pace is hard and fast, a touch psychotic, like someone shouting at you, and critics of Stone's point of view might say that's to bamboozle you and give you no time to think. Before you start watching it's wise to know a bit of Cuban history, at the very least that Castro came to power in 1959 after ousting the right wing dictator Batista, that the US organised an invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961 (the 'Bay of Pigs' fiasco), and the exiles' anti-Castro resentment then turned to anti-Kennedy feeling because he refused to support them as much as they required.
Apart from all the Cuban elements there are so many other strands to the story and strange connections between people flung at you it can be confusing. There's a sub-plot about Lee Harvey Oswald (a spookily brilliant impersonation by Gary Oldman) in Russia, scenes showing the witnesses to the bullet coming from the grassy knoll being interrogated and ignored, and implications that certain key witnesses were murdered after November 1963. We follow Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a D.A. for New Orleans, three years after JFK's death, as he pursues Clay Shaw/Clay Bertrand (Tommy Lee Jones) and David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), believing them to be part of the conspiracy. The film could be accused of an anti-homosexual prejudice in fact; the emphasis on bringing Shaw to trial and the scenes showing scenes of his 'homosexual underworld' seem to be saying it wasn't the mafia, or the Cubans, or the CIA who killed Kennedy, it was the gays that did it! Since the actors who get to wear dresses and pinch each other's nipples are noted ‘hard men’ Jones and Pesci, this was one part of the film I found truly bizarre.
Mid-way through this three hour film, Ferrie meets up with Jim Garrison and a few members of his investigative team in a hotel room, and Pesci gives a spluttering over-the-top turn, his wig sliding off his head, as he relates how Oswald knew Shaw, and Shaw is an 'untouchable', and they both worked with the anti-Castro Cubans, and they also both knew Jack Ruby, and they all worked for the CIA anyway; it's all 'a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma'. Soon after this Ferrie is found dead. Costner then goes to D.C., does the Mr Smith Goes to Washington thing at the Lincoln memorial, and he meets X.
Sutherland as X tells him that all the standard security procedures were deliberately ignored that day in Dallas (John Williams' music is brilliant here, as in many other parts of the film, on insisting on the sinister nature of what went on.) He tells Costner 'ask yourself: who benefits?' It's the question to end all questions when discussing world politics. Stone paints a picture of John and Robert Kennedy as two fresh-faced young idealists up against the greedy, power-crazed establishment and says JFK was a threat to the military because he attacked covert operations which had budgets in the billions. X rattles off the evidence, saying that the defence budget for Vietnam was 75-100 billion dollars, and implying that the Vietnam War had to go ahead to fulfill a business contract the government had made with American companies. 'The organising principle of any society is for war' he says. 'The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.' After Kennedy's death Vietnam started 'for real'; on November 26, 1963 Lyndon Johnson reversed JFK's policy, and Stone actually depicts him telling the generals explicitly 'Gentleman, I'll give you your war.' (Bill Hicks used to do another routine where he compared America to Jack Palance, the baddie in Shane, who seeks out innocent farmers, throws a gun at their feet, and dares/forces them to pick it up, so that he can shoot them down, and still tell people 'they were going for the gun. I had to do it!')
In Kevin Costner’s 20-minute speech in the final courtroom scene of JFK he says that when a government acts the way the American government did after the Kennedy assassination, you call it what it is: fascism. I thought this was interesting in view of a point already made by Donald Sutherland's X: namely that at the end of World War Two the US government brought out the scientists who had developed German rocket technology. Norman Mailer (who was another one obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, authoring a book called Oswald's Tale; An American Mystery) in 1969 wrote a long essay called 'Of a Fire on the Moon' in which he discussed how Wernher Von Braun, the man chiefly responsible for the Germans' V2 rocket which killed so many Londoners, had been co-opted by the American military establishment chiefly because they felt what he knew was more important than what he had done. Thomas Pynchon dealt with the same matter in Gravity's Rainbow. They were both writers steeped in the liberal-humanist tradition discovering to their horror that at a critical point in their country's history, when confronted with the most evil regime ever known to man, the powers-that-be didn't destroy them; they decided to learn from them. That then gives rise to the possibility that they may in fact have become much like them.
1991, when JFK was made, now seems like a comparatively innocent political age, but it’s interesting how some of its themes take on new relevance in the post-9/11 era. Kevin Costner's character makes many startling points in that final speech and strangely enough one of them - that the ordinary people sending their sons off to war in their old-fashioned belief that America is great are manipulated and lied to by the powers-that-be - is also made by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 about the situation in Iraq. Stone’s film caused so much controversy at the time because he suggested there was a coup d'etat in Washington in 1963, and Americans subsequently became slaves to an illegitimate regime. In the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era the legitimacy of the American government once again became a very contentious issue of course, with some saying that the coup d'etat this time occurred in the 2000 election.
An interesting footnote: in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War Robert McNamara, US secretary of defence at the time of the onset of Vietnam, admits that had Kennedy survived, the US would probably have pulled out of Vietnam earlier. So it's not just something Oliver Stone made up. In fact The Fog of War, as a documentary, is far more convincing for the case of a conspiracy without even trying because it replays actual tapes of Johnson trying to get McNamara to retract public statements he'd already made saying America would be withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and adds what I thought was an essential corroborating piece of evidence: that the South Vietnamese president was assassinated just three weeks before Kennedy, throwing that country into turmoil, destroying the plans to withdraw American troops, and in fact 'necessitating' a greater influx of American military personnel.