I was in the tenth grade when the World Trade Center fell. I remember being in Mr. Kuhrt’s World History class. Someone rushed in and told him to turn on the television. The first tower had been hit, but no one knew what was going on, the gravity of the situation that would forever change things for us. We knew that the building was on fire, on one of the higher stories. We didn’t know that someone had flown an airplane into it, or that a second airplane was minutes away from colliding into the other tower.
Every September 11th I dig up the footage from Youtube and show it to my students. For them, the event is on its way to being as distant as the Kennedy assassination is from me. Not quite yet, but soon, it will be long enough ago in history that children will cease to be emotionally affected by it in the same way that we who saw it unfold were so affected. Most of my middle school students weren’t even born yet. Students who graduated from high school in 2015 were about four or five when it happened. Being aware of it was terrifying, not knowing what was going to happen was terrifying. That day is a reminder that history was once real time, the present, unfolding before us, and the “we” of that former present did not, in the moment, have the benefit of recollection. Staring down at historical events, relegated to the page, gives us a false sense of superiority over them, as though we somehow authored them. We know the ending. In a sense, we don’t experience them as real events. It seems so simple, yet it’s so easy to forget that an historical event was once a real moment in time, all possibilities, pulsating and vibrant and brutal yet somehow naïve, each one graduated second being converted into the past.
The assassination of President Kennedy was the 9/11 of its generation. Or rather, the reverse of that. My generation’s experience of 9/11 happening in real time is comparable to what it must have been like to be alive on November 22, 1963, watching the motorcade make its way through downtown Dallas. When I see the President slump over after being hit, and I see Jackie Kennedy, frantically climbing onto the back of the open car in absolute terror, I’m brought to a stony silence. What must it have been like?
Oliver Stone’s JFK reminds us that movies are a vital, urgent, necessary art form. Those of us who are too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy are met with the tragic reality of it only through such compelling re-enactments as this film, which puts the actual footage to effective use. Movies can awaken history to us even though most of them are historically inaccurate, and whether or not Oliver Stone’s depiction of the conspiracy theories behind the assassination of JFK are totally bonkers or totally onto something, this film captures the absolute chaos into which we were thrown on that horrible day in Dallas. Stone’s film pulsates with the blood and the synapses of real time, turning “dead historical fact” into an urgent, provocative, spine-tingling, terrifying mystery. At the very least, JFK reminds us that the government’s reaction to Kennedy’s death was wholly inadequate, allowing for the perpetual development of numerous conspiracy theories.
Once you get past Kevin Costner’s bad Louisiana accent (he plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison), it’s hard not to be affected by the sincerity of his performance, especially during the compelling courtroom speech he makes at the end. Atticus Finch has become some kind of Messiah in the pop culture for his conscientious liberalism in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the Garrison character as depicted in JFK reaches further, challenging our complacency about government, awakening a deeper obligation to pay attention, to question, to use our own minds rather than accept with docile, childish ignorance, the happy lie that government is always honest, always seeking justice, always promoting truth. That’s our job just as much as it is theirs, and when we turn away from our own duties, we do so at our own peril.
I suppose this is less a movie review than a preachy treatise on the effects of a Hollywood movie. Or maybe, to put it in a better light, it’s an honest outpouring of the impression Stone’s film left on me. JFK is a magnificently entertaining, incredibly well-put-together piece of film. Stone’s ability to weave together archive footage with re-enactments makes him probably one of our greatest propagandists, and even if Stone’s theories about the assassination are false, his style is something to study. He knows how to make an arresting, spine-tingling, deliciously paranoid political thriller. And moreover, his quest for truth doesn’t ring false. The speech made by Garrison in the film’s denouement is as much a direct line of communication from Oliver Stone as anything.
The movie met with considerable criticism upon its release in 1991, and yet it was at least partly responsible for a new policy of transparency regarding official government documents about the Kennedy assassination. Stone’s film gives credence to the dubiousness of certain elements of the esteemed Warren Commission, namely the so-called “magic bullet,” which traveled with more finesse and effect than one of those talking cartoon bullets in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The only bad scene occurs after Garrison learns of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. When he wakes up his wife (played by Sissy Spacek) to tell her the news, she’s confronted with the reality that her husband, plagued for years with public skepticism that has affected her own feelings about his work, was right after all. Their feels of validation turn into passionate kissing, and it is more than a little off-putting to think that an assassination serves them as an aphrodisiac. (Spacek, I should note, offers a stunning performance in an ultimately thankless role as the classic worrying wife, one of Hollywood’s favorite stock roles.)
Stone has gathered an impressive array of actors to fill his cast of strange, fascinating characters: Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Jay O. Sanders, Ed Asner, Jack Lemon, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kirkland, John Candy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Walter Matthau, and Brian Doyle Murray.