“Last week I had this strange dream
Where everything was exactly how it seemed
Where there was never any mystery
Of who shot John F. Kennedy
It was just a man with something to prove
Slightly bored and severely confused
He steadied his rifle with the target in the center
And became famous on that day in November…”
– Postal Service, “Sleeping In”
Can’t stop thinking about JFK, which I finally watched this weekend for the first time. A couple of years ago, when I was still at Southwestern, I stumbled into the Ruter Lobby late one night and caught the tail end of it – Kevin Costner making a marathon speech about the military-industrial complex, and soft tyranny, and a government that was quietly stealing the freedom of its own people and openly murdering its finest minds. I could see even then I had just missed a Great Movie, though it was only with the publication of Stephen King’s new book, and this deconstruction of the “Kennedy myth” by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, that I finally got around to watching it.
Visually, the movie is a masterpiece. I had to watch much of it with the sound off, because there were people in the house – ironically, in retrospect, because Antagony & Ecstasy recommends doing exactly this in his (glowing) review of the film. Oliver Stone seems to have shot the film in every available medium – and he capably sustains the viewer’s interest during twenty-minute-long conversations by continuously restaging the central events from the viewpoint of witnesses with varying degrees of credibility. During the long scene where “Mr. X,” a man who once served in the highest branches of the CIA, relates to Jim Garrison (played by Costner) how he was sent to the South Pole during the week leading up to the assassination, ten different things are happening at once. On the first level, Mr. X and Garrison are walking through a park in Washington, D. C. As the story unfolds, the movie cuts to a black-and-white flashback – like something out of a film noir – showing how the military and political brass in Washington quietly reached a consensus that Kennedy had to be killed, without ever stating their purpose in so many words. These scenes are interwoven with photographs of the president standing over his desk, conspicuously embroiled in the desultory technicalities of fighting off the hawks in his own cabinet and ending the Cold War. We then see Mr. X returning to New Zealand from the South Pole, where scores of people are gathered around newspapers proclaiming that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president. The filming in this scene is so desaturated that a cold, Arctic whiteness dominates the camera lens – and when Mr. X makes the connection (in voiceover) between the suspicious speed with which the newspapers had learned and printed Oswald’s life story, and the “cover stories” he had once put out as a black-ops agent, we the viewers have a sense of Great and Terrible things taking shape which the public – in the movie – is scarcely aware of.
Not that the movie doesn’t sometimes overreach its hand – it’s obviously propaganda, even if it is propaganda that I largely agree with, and Stone hammers home his point none-too-subtly, especially in the opening scene which presents us a rundown of the major events of Kennedy’s administration – we see how beautiful and ebullient and shining the world was in the years before 11/22/63, with Frank Sinatra doing silly dances and Jacqueline romantically ensconced in her husband’s steady arms. (Never mind that the reality of their domestic arrangements seems to have been, well, not quite as happy). There’s a scene late in the proceedings where Garrison and his team are watching the 1968 California primary on television, and Garrison declares, “If Robert wins the nomination, they’ll have to kill him!” – followed, a moment later, by Robert F. Kennedy winning the nomination, and being killed on the same night.
But if the movie slips towards the end in presenting its message, the climax is flawless. And the real beauty of these scenes has less to do with the mystery of who killed Kennedy, than it does with the utter disintegration of reality itself, as Garrison is trailed through an airport – presumably by people who are trying to kill him – and even more American leaders are assassinated. These scenes have a bizarre, disjointed, surreal quality about them. When Garrison arrives home, his wife and son are waiting for him at the door. He hugs them both. Suddenly, Wayne Knight – Wayne Knight! – peeps his head through a side door. Garrison’s entire remaining research team has apparently taken up residence in his house, and no one – not even his wife – seems to think this is remotely unusual. It becomes increasingly hard for the viewer to separate what is real from what is merely imagined. This is a perfect evocation of the nightmarish descent into madness of the late 1960s, and the most beautifully-rendered portrayal of fear, panic, and paranoia I have seen since the half-hour leading up to the Third Task in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.