It’s a curious juxtaposition, that as well as this weekend being the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who – receiving blanket coverage in the BBC’s TV and radio schedules at the moment – it’s also a half century since the terrible events of Dallas, Texas with the very public assassination of President John F Kennedy, which is receiving rather more muted but still fairly considerable recognition even here in the UK.
Despite being too young to have been born at the time let alone able to answer the perennial question “where were you when you heard that Kennedy was shot?”, the assassination has long been a matter of fascination for me. I remember seeing Oliver Stone’s controversial drama JFK in the cinema at the time it was released in 1991 and being wowed by and totally convinced by its pro-conspiracy theory views; several years later, while I was spending some time in the US, I went and visited Dealey Plaza which is now a designated historic distract and therefore little changed from 1963; the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository is a museum dedicated to the events of November 22, and I went there and looked at the recreation of the sniper’s nest in the corner. At the same time, I read book after book on the subject and soon I came to what I felt was the inescapable conclusion: that the conspiracy theories, ‘fun’ though they are to debate endlessly, are ultimately hollow.
Stone’s film takes as its basis a book by one-time New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, the only man in history to bring a criminal prosecution in the murder of JFK. Garrison – played in the movie by Kevin Costner – felt that he had uncovered a complex conspiracy involving the CIA and other government intelligence services allied with groups of anti-Castro fanatics still smarting from Kennedy’s ‘betrayal’ of the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to reclaim Cuba from communism. The target of Garrison’s prosecution was local businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), and onto this story Stone heaps on everything that has been uncovered and theorised by decades of assassination conspiracists in a heady and, yes, genuinely compelling brew.
It’s hard to take it all in unless you’re an aficionado of the case, despite the dazzlingly accomplished non-linear script, virtuoso cinematography, and layered editing that’s achieved here – it really is a masterclass in filmmaking, whatever your stance on the subject and how it’s presented. Even so, it’s the kind of film that begs to be owned on DVD or Blu-ray so that it can be watched, paused, rewound, rewatched and digested. It’s also got a terrific cast that shines only brighter 22 years after its making: as well as Costner and Jones there are wonderful (often brief) roles from Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Vincent D’Onofrio, Walter Mattau, Laurie Metcalfe, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci and John Candy together with cameos from real figures including Garrison himself as – irony of ironies – Earl Warren, chairman of the Presidential Commission that rubber-stamped the official verdict that Kennedy was shot by a lone crazed gunman called Lee Harvey Oswald.
You might be horrified by the fact that Stone is producing effectively a political polemic and powerful propaganda, but it’s actually a refreshing change to have a film that is so clearly made from a passionate belief in the subject in question rather than as some commercial endeavour or as a creative/artistic project that nonetheless doesn’t have a clear idea what it’s trying to do but is instead muddle-headed and timid about the subject at hand. It helps if you agree with Stone’s verdict on the case – as I did in 1991 – but it’s not essential, as I found when I rewatched the film in its entirety this week for the first time in at least a decade with a very different view.
Things have moved on; the conspiracy clamour has died down. One of the biggest pieces of evidence held up by the doubters was the matter of the ‘magic bullet’ covered in detail in the film that inflicted a total of seven wounds on Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally riding in the car with him, but new studies have shown that once the exact positions of the various participants are taken into account, not only do they support the ‘magic bullet’ they also take the ‘magic’ right out of it: all the wounds do align along a single trajectory without the mid-air swerving described here. (Connally had been sitting in a jump seat inset from the side of the car and set lower than Kennedy which hadn’t been fully accounted for in past studies.)
There’s no doubt that a lot of strange things happened in Dallas that weekend, but most of these can now seen to be the product of the panic and confusion of the moment, and of the sort of cover-up you’d expect of intelligence agencies panicking over their fumbling of things that they should have been able to detect and avert, and in particular a Secret Service that had so spectacularly failed in its one most high-profile function. There were certainly a lot of very dubious actions taken by people saving face and careers, but that does not equate to an evidence of conspiracy before the fact, and the lack of any hard credible evidence of multiple gunmen in 50 years despite intense theorising and scrutiny of every single scrap of information surrounding the case is making it harder to believe that there was the sort of wide-spread plot that films like JFK propose: we know all too well from subsequent scandals just how impossible it is for genuine secrets to stay buried for very long before they leak out, and that simply hasn’t happened here.
So does the fact that I’ve come full circle and now concede that Oswald was most likely working on his own mean that JFK loses its power or even becomes unwatchable and unpalatable now that I’m no longer in lockstep with its ideology? Not a bit of it. The films remains a powerful work, and an instructive and insightful one that still rewards multiple viewings. It’s a very useful study for comparing others to, whether you’re testing your own prejudices on the JFK assassination case in particular or looking wider at other political conspiracies down the ages – from the proven case of Watergate and what the recent Assange and Snowden leaks have divulged, to the more ludicrous end of the scene with the moon landing deniers and those who contest that the US government was behind 9/11 attacks in order to justify a decade-long involvement in the middle east.
In the end, Stone perhaps isn’t as blinkered and mono-vision as his critics would have it. The portrait he gives of Garrison is more warts-and-all, showing him becoming slowly obsessed (shutting out his family) and ultimately relying on an emotional rant to the jury when his case clearly falls apart and has no substance (arguably due to a cover-up by higher forces, of course) which ends up making him look a bit of a crazy man who is therefore easily dismissed. Again, this can be ascribed as a victory for the nebulous intelligence agencies working in the background – but it could also be because Garrison himself got lost in all the details and red herrings and blind alleys of the avalanche of documentation he ploughed through in the course of the case. We can all loose focus and direction in such circumstances, one way or another.
It’s still a hugely accomplished film – the best that Stone has made in his career in my view. It’s worth getting the special directors cut even though I couldn’t tell you what’s been added or changes from the theatrical release after all this time beyond one sequence where Garrison goes on a national TV chat show; but this edition does come with an informative and quite forensic commentary track from Stone himself as well as multimedia essays and deleted/extended scenes.
The DVD of the special directors cut appears to be out of print, but this release has also just been put out as a Blu-ray in the UK at long last with the same package of extras.