This is the first in a series of posts about “Movies that Matter.” In this space, I will analyze movies that have influenced public policy and discuss the techniques used by the filmmakers to create that impact. First up, Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”
In the acclaimed 2005 documentary, “Why We Fight,” the filmmakers open and close with excerpts of President Eisenhower’s final address to the nation, which took place on January 17, 1961, three days before JFK was inaugurated. The subject of this address, which surprised both his advisors and the American public, was the rising supremacy of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned against the influence of private defense contractors and suggested that, in future years, war would become necessary to our national security not because of aggression by our enemies, but because our economy was so dependent on manufacturing war materials.
Like many others, I was struck when I first saw this documentary by the prescience of Eisenhower’s words, but I had forgotten that Oliver Stone’s “JFK” opens with the very same speech. Over the course of the next 189 minutes, Stone makes an impassioned, well-researched case that the findings of the Warren Commission – namely, that Lee Harvey Oswald did indeed act alone – were part of a cover-up, hiding a massive conspiracy by the military-industrial complex and anti-Communist zealots in high positions of power to assassinate President Kennedy, elevate the more bellicose Lyndon Johnson to the office of the presidency, and thus escalate our actions in Vietnam into full-fledged war. According to Stone, JFK tried to enact what Eisenhower warned against, and it cost him his life.
“JFK” was at the time a new and unique genre of film. Stone played the role of prosecutor and fashioned the film as a legal case against those he felt responsible for the assassination. Since then, another film has followed Stone’s example. David Fincher’s “Zodiac” uses the same technique, compiling evidence into an emotionally compelling narrative to make the case that Arthur Leigh Allen, an exonerated suspect, was the true Zodiac Killer. Like Fincher, Stone only zeroes in on one individual as the focus of his investigation – Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman with CIA ties. But, unlike Fincher, convicting that suspect is not Stone’s true motive. While the film does not connect all the dots for us, its goals are to prove the existence of a conspiracy, destroy the “lone gunman” myth propagated by the Warren Commission, and then cause enough of a public uproar that Congress and the CIA would be forced to provide answers. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) makes this very case to a jury (a stand-in for the American people) in the film’s long, dramatic final scene. He even breaks the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and uttering the scene’s final and most important line: “It’s up to you.”
And so it was. It is difficult to judge what impact the film’s release had on the public (it performed modestly well at the box office), but, after a screening of the film on Capitol Hill, Congress did act. In 1992, it passed the JFK Records Act, which established the the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC). The mission of the AARC was to house and display a comprehensive collection of records on JFK’s assassination, including those previously withheld by the federal government in the interests of national security.
The movie was successful in moving Congress to act for two reasons. First, it is exceedingly well-researched. Stone had a team of full-time researchers on staff for pre-production while he was still editing his prior film, “Born on the Fourth of July.” Stone and his researchers read over 200 books on the JFK presidency and assassination prior to completion of the screenplay. He hired numerous experts and former intelligence officers as advisers, including retired Air Force colonel Fletcher Prouty, who was a military liaison between the CIA and the Pentagon and provided most of the basis for the character Mr. X in the film.
Most Americans had never heard the names that were central to Stone’s film: Clay Shaw, David Ferrie, Willie O’Keefe, etc. Even for those who had, Stone connected the characters in new and compelling ways to the events that transpired in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But Stone’s interpretations of the facts were challenged every step of the way. So why was his effort not lost in partisan spin? It’s hard to imagine an effort like “JFK” being released today without right-wing backlash and left-wing response to the right-wing backlash draining the film and the issue of any real momentum.
What people often forget about Oliver Stone, now that the caricature of him as a left-wing wacko has wrongly become conventional wisdom, is that he was and remains an excellent filmmaker. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the release of an Oliver Stone film was an event. He was the rare filmmaker who tackled important subjects in an entertaining way but never became a slave to commercialism. Between 1986 and 1991, Stone released four movies that were nominated for Best Picture and enjoyed success at the box office: “Platoon,” “Wall Street,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “JFK.” It should be noted that in the years preceding “Platoon,” before he was given a chance to direct, he also wrote such hits as “Midnight Express” and “Scarface.” He was quite simply a filmmaker at the top of his game, and he was beloved by Hollywood and the political left.
But it wasn’t just his politics that made him great. Re-watching “JFK” recently, I noticed that it was really two films in one. The first 90 minutes is a hurricane of facts, fictions, and hypotheses. Stone throws everything he ever researched at the viewer, and the result is head-swimming confusion. Now, this is all intentional by Stone. If his goal is to stir the public debate and create momentum for a re-opening of the case of the Kennedy assassination, a collection of facts and unproven connections will not suffice. He must access our hearts, not just our minds, and re-creating the emotional confusion that followed those events in 1963 is a crucial part of that journey.
So in the final 90 minutes, Stone makes a beeline for our hearts. The film takes a detour from its case to shows the effects on Garrison’s psyche of his quixotic effort. He abandons his wife and children for work on Easter Sunday, a spark that enflames a growing marital crisis. He turns against two of his closest advisors when they question his authority. The night of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, Garrison crawls into bed with his wife and weeps in her arms, telling her that, for the first time since he started the investigation, he is really frightened. It’s a powerful scene that heightens the emotional stakes. Immediately following these scenes is Garrison’s trial against Clay Shaw, itself an emotional roller coaster and probably the finest thirty minutes of acting in Kevin Costner’s career.
For anyone who cares – about people, about America, about truth – it is hard not to be moved by these scenes. JFK’s assassination was, for the baby boom generation, their Icarus moment. They saw a politician who gave them hope, and, according to the film, he was killed for trying to change the system. For splintering the CIA. For trying to enact massive cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. For de-escalating covert action in Vietnam. For refusing to invade Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. In essence, for refusing to bow to the warmongering that had corrupted America’s soul. Is it any wonder that Congress – most of whom had grown up scarred by the Kennedy assassination – was moved to act?
The JFK Records Act was perceived as a win for transparency and a successful continuation of the goals of Stone’s film. Of course, there was a catch. The Act required that each record be publicly disclosed no later than 25 years after the date of the law’s enactment (which would be October 26, 2017). But it gave government an out: the President, at that time, can choose to postpone release of such records if the “identifiable harm of such gravity…outweighs the public interest in disclosure.” That language is sufficiently vague to raise all kinds of alarm bells in my head.
The date in question has not arrived, but it seems that the CIA and the National Archives are holding out as long as possible. On January 20 of this year, the president of the AARC wrote a letter to the head of the National Archives, noting that:
[D]espite the passage of nearly 20 years since the Act was passed, it was only recently that scholars learned that there are not just a few CIA records missing from the public record, but approximately 50,000 pages which remain classified. (The volume of partially withheld pages is unknown but is also quite substantial.) This contravenes both the letter and spirit of the JFK Act and is unacceptable as a matter of law.
We do not yet know who will be president in 2017, but the actions of every president have a lasting impact on those who follow. So what has been the relationship of the Obama presidency to the military-industrial complex? Well, it’s been a mixed bag. Elected on a promise of ending the Iraq War, he has indeed withdrawn all combat troops, though questions still remain as to our future troop presence there. Obama fulfilled another campaign promise by escalating the War in Afghanistan, although since then he has set a timeline for withdrawal and pledged to stick to it. More importantly, he recently announced his desire to cut nearly $500 billion from the Pentagon’s budget, a giant blow to the military-industrial complex. It seems unlikely that such cuts will survive Congress in an election year, but even to take the position is a very positive step forward because they enter those ideas into the public dialogue as uncontroversial ones. So maybe there is a chance that Obama’s successor will allow these truths to come to light in 2017.
Stone has been largely silent on the issue in recent years, but if needed, I am sure that he will spring back to action and rally his disillusioned generation one last time to ensure that the most highly classified documents regarding the assassination see the light of day. Perhaps a sequel will even be in order. In all likelihood, the issue will be raised again next year, as 2013 is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I hope that President Obama will take that opportunity to call upon the CIA to release the last of these documents and let the whole truth finally come to light. Politically, it would surely be a winner.
Though it is still hard to remain hopeful that such top-secret matters will ever be revealed to the American public, Stone’s film shines as a beacon of optimism from a hopeful, slightly antiquated world. As one of his characters states, “Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth.” I, for one, believe the jury is still out on that one.