An Analysis – Storytelling in Oliver Stone’s “JFK”
Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) is a film that brings up many strong emotions. Many see it as evidence of massive government corruption and conspiracies. Others see it as director Stone playing fast and loose with history to tell events the way he wants to see them. It is hard to take those kind of feelings out of a viewing experience, but upfront I say that I do not believe Stone’s events as told here—and with saying that, will not dig deeper into the truthfulness of the film. It is still, however, a favorite film of mine, and there is no denying the master storytelling and mood that Stone creates.
For those who do not know, this film focuses on Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). He is a New Orleans District Attorney who, on his own, investigated the Kennedy assassination and was convinced that there was a conspiracy within the government, that killed Kennedy. He is also the only man who brought the assassination of President Kennedy to trial. We get glimpses into how he begins this investigation and how he sees the events happening in Daley Plaza.
The film is not a straight-up history lesson; it is a taut thriller. Stone takes an event that already has a built-in strong reaction from people, and then he gets the freedom to go into a deeper storytelling mode—exploring, as he put it, to create a “counter-myth” to get at what the assassination did for the country. We see this in the fear created by the characters as they dig not only into the levels of possible corruption, but also get into other horrific events that are traced from JFK’s assassination to Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert Kennedy’s deaths to the Vietnam war. This is done with some strong flashbacks of some intense characters, which paint a picture not only of those people perhaps involved in the assassination, but also of the time that these events take place in. It reminds the viewer of the strong feelings people had about politics, civil rights, and, most importantly, communism and the lengths people would go to stop it. It also gets into something still pertinent today, the amount of power and money that can be involved in war.
This film could have been a boring procedural beating these messages into our heads, but the information is unveiled to us in a way that doesn’t directly state Stone’s goals. It lets us fill in the gaps in reaching the conclusions about the assassination and the reasons for there to be powerful people who are manipulating events. When Garrison and his team are going over information about Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, when he defected to the Soviet Union, an aide goes over how a U-2 spy plane was shot down by Soviets and suggests that Oswald could have provided the intelligence. She then goes on to speculate that someone could have sent Oswald to do this to stop a summit meeting with Eisenhower and the Soviets and stop a peace treaty. Another aide tells her to stick to what she can prove, and they move on. But the idea has been planted without directly telling us, and it builds off the other “evidence” that they uncover.
The same is true of Garrison meeting with a mysterious man going by the name X. X claims to be in the Pentagon, and goes over details about how the assassination could have been planned. This is supplemented with great visuals of meetings of top ranking military who, while just talking, give a sense of the overall force that they could wield—including how they could “create” Oswald by planting stories about him to control the public perception of the events and make him an easy scapegoat for the assassination. The intensity of X’s words and the visuals give a striking sense of what happened that day and ways it could happen, without ever getting into the real who or why. This could be annoying if you think on it too much, but the film moves along at a fast pace with high intensity. While it is going on, I cannot shake a sense of sinister forces watching me, as if I am privy to information that “they” do not want me to know.
Like any good thriller, JFK makes the horror of what is happening feel real to you. After watching it, the feeling doesn’t leave and the curiosity to learn more becomes overwhelming, be it looking into possible JFK assassination conspiracies or trying to see what Jim Garrison was up to and if it was legitimate. Even after reading up on the assassination and on Garrison, I still am driven to make another round of searches on Google and see what else I can come up with. As a work of history this film is questionable, but as a work of artistry, it hits everything right.