No one has ever claimed that Oliver Stone’s ultra-incendiary “JFK” (1991) was strictly factual; in fact, a great many claimed that it was entirely devoid of fact, that it contained not one single shred of truth. Not one shred of truth is the phrase the esteemed Roger Ebert employed when he wrote about the film for his Great Movie series and established one of his general principles about the medium of film. He wrote: “I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions.” I have always thought of those lines too and I have thought about them even more as we approach the 25th anniversary of “JFK’s” release in the wake of lunatics showing up at pizza joints because of mind-bendingly bizarre, dim conspiracy theories fostered by raving gasbags during an election that forced the phrase “post-truth” into the discourse. Indeed, post-truth was so prevalent that Oxford Dictionary deemed it the word of the year. “Post-Truth: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oh. You don't say?
Kinda like I don’t really ever remember learning the Pledge of Allegiance because I just knew it, I never really remember learning about the conspiracy to assassinate JFK because it was just always was. Whether or not a conspiracy to kill JFK that terrible day in Dallas in 1963 actually existed, the point was and remains that so many, no matter if the alternative histories they espouse might be debunked, or compellingly argued against, still can’t help but feel there is more to the story, whether it was the Warren Commission’s general idiocy or something more insidious. Stone, for sure, never completely bought the official explanation of events, but he also knew he could not truly prove otherwise. “Too much weird stuff went on,” Stone told Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia Center for Politics five years ago. “We can only present a counter myth.”
It is the counter myth that Matt Zoller Seitz and Kevin Lee considered when writing about “JFK.” “From the opening newsreel Stone presents a myth,” they explain, “one that pervades this stage of his career: government as oppressive patriarch, motivated largely by military and capitalistic interests and operating largely out of view of a public blinkered by patriotic propaganda.” Indeed, Stone seizes on the conspiracy theories peddled by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, the movie’s protagonist, played by Kevin Costner with a famously bad accent, to incite propaganda of his own, promoting the idea that a coup d’etat within the utmost reaches of the government sought to bring Kennedy down.
Stone promotes this idea by injecting brief black & white flashback sequences, like Lyndon B. Johnson telling a room of conspirators that if they get him into the Oval Office then he’ll give them their damn war (as in, Vietnam), which are often placed around actual archival footage, deliberately intended to muddy the viewing waters. In writing about this “seamless blend(ing) (of) documentary footage and re-creations” for Reverse Shot, Michael Joshua Rowin pegged it as a “smoke and mirrors act”, and that is true.
It can be argued that this smoke and mirrors act is intended to confuse the audience, to make it difficult to discern what’s real from what isn’t, which leaves everything in question. But while that it is a criticism for some, an act of flagrant irresponsiblity, to others, like myself, it is, strictly from a filmmaking standpoint, propangadist or not, a commendation. As Randy Laist, an associate professor of English at Goodwin College, put it for a seriously academic treatise on the film: “More so than any particular theory about who shot JFK, the thesis of Stone’s film is that reality itself has been assassinated, under circumstances that we can only reconstruct out of a montage of images, ambivalently real and/or unreal – the fragments of a hyperreal mediascape.”
Hyperreal is a term credited to French theorist Jean Baudrillard, inevitably name-checked in Laist’s piece, who ascribed the difference between a modern and postmodern society as a “mode of representation in which ideas represent reality and truth.” In a postmodern society, he reckoned, “subjects lose contact with the real and fragment and dissolve.” That’s what happens as you watch “JFK.” If his previous films, as Laist notes, were born more a narrative realism, in “JFK”, Stone batters that realism to bits, primarily through ferociously kinetic, Oscar-winning editing by Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing that is so overpowering it sweeps you up and rushes you along, right past the narrative’s obfuscations and embellishments. What’s real and what isn’t ceases to be the point; all you have left is the emotion that Stone’s aesthetic deliberately engenders. You feel angry; you feel mistrustful; you feel like you have not been told everything; you feel like the government, that convenient catch-all, wants to keep you in the dark. “On that level,” wrote Ebert, “it is completely factual.”