Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Super Delegates: John F. Kennedy in "JFK" (1991)

Scene from JFK
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: December 21, 1991
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Written By: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar (Screenplay), Jim Garrison & Jim Marrs (Book)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, 
Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Sound
-Best Original Score
Delegates in Question:
-President John F. Kennedy

In every generation's life, there is one tragic event that defines them. Ask anyone who had consciousness during the time of the Pearl Harbor or World Trade Center attacks, and there will be a fascinating and personal story. It's something that unites Americans more than beliefs. It's the feeling that in a moment of defeat that the country can overcome any obstacle and remain proud and united in the face of evil. There's not much to argue that those long deceased would be willing to share their stories of the Civil War, or when Abraham Lincoln was shot. These are all pieces of a rich tapestry that paint a country occasionally torn by conflict, but always willing to repair itself when the smoke has cleared. In that sense, America is a great land of opportunity, even if there's occasional risks that come with that freedom.

While a strong composite of the generation that knows where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot is on their last legs of life, it still feels like one of the major tragedies that hasn't ever been solved. It is an uncertainty that should be obvious. After all, everyone knows that Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Why is it so hard to nail down who shot Kennedy? Director Oliver Stone's JFK doesn't answer that question, yet explains why this phenomenon is such a lingering question; and one that struck controversy before the film was even released. We want to know the answer so badly that there's conspiracy theorists who have dedicated their lives to solving the case. One such person is Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who serves as a detective while hopping between parties before theorizing that Kennedy was shot by a "magic bullet." By the end, he is left defeated for many reasons - one including that the Warren Commission that holds key details wasn't available at the time. In fact, 98% of it wasn't made available until 1992: the year after the film. There's also reports that the remainder will be released in 2017.

If there's anyone who should tackle a Kennedy assassination drama, it is Stone. For starters, he is a very political filmmaker who even spent a good portion of his time last month at Comic Con denouncing the evils of cell phone technology. As the first Oscar-winning Vietnam War veteran, he has a certain authority that can be seen in almost every one of his films. Born on the Fourth of July feels like a far more personal statement than any of his other films, if just because it covers the treatment of veterans following the war. Even in his later days, he has tackled Mexican drug cartels (Savages), American safety (Snowden), and sympathizing the most notorious president since Richard Nixon (W.). Even if you disagree with his politics, one has to admire his dedication to making political dramas. However, it does seem right to assess that JFK is his magnum opus in that it covers not just one perspective of the assassination, but almost every possible side.

The reality is that JFK isn't the most accurate movie. It is one sometimes fueled by sheer self-satisfaction with details skewering to fit Stone's image. However, it's hard to argue with someone so assured once the ball gets rolling. It starts with an opening of that fateful day on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was shot. With voice over by Martin Sheen, it evolves into the fictional side of things as various characters are introduced in ways that warrant the 189 minute running time. The cast is packed with so many big names in small roles that it puts Around the World in Eighty Days to shame. The first year following the assassination is almost glanced over, playing off the greatest hits of characters citing their uncertainty before eventually jumping forward in time. By then, the concern had died down a little, only leaving the dedicated few like Garrison to wonder what's going on. In an approach that doesn't seem far off from the recent Zero Dark Thirty with Osama Bin Laden, the remaining story isn't about the facts necessarily so much as the satisfaction of getting a justifiable answer.

What JFK does right is revel in the uncertainty. Characters like Donald Sutherland's X appear for a scene to discuss their theories on how the government is handling the assassination. They're often riveting moments that don't so much answer anything about Kennedy, but raise more questions about how honest the government is being to the people. By the end, it makes sense that most characters have a certain animosity towards each other. Some are too timid to discuss it without legal ramifications while others are chastised for bringing it up in the first place. It creates an atmosphere where the country wants to move on and let the mystery be. It isn't pretty to have something unknown happen on such a large scale to the country without answers - and it immediately fuels concern over safety and legalities that extend beyond Kennedy. The film doesn't do much to discuss Kennedy the politician; his legacy almost being usurped by his death; but does wonders to discuss how he left a mark that tore the country in half. Not until the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 would there arguably be an unsolved case that tore apart the country's unity.

More than 50 years later, it does seem like Kennedy's death still impacts the country. It may not be as explicit, but it does serve as a centralized way of pointing out a variety of archetypes. There's the conspiracy theorists who want answers and believe that the government is after them. There's those who want to simply move on. There's a sense that patriotism isn't quite as black and white as we'd hope. There's even those who believe that Kennedy could've continued to make the country better had he lived. This is plenty present in our pop culture as well. Alan Moore's "Watchmen" features an altered version of the shooting that involves a character named The Comedian doing it. Even more recently, Stephen King's "11/22/63" is a fantasy story about time travelling to the 60's to stop the assassination. It's a tough issue, and one that inspires artists to this day. There are even two major movies coming out this Fall that are tangentially related to Kennedy: Jackie starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy; and Rob Reiner's LBJ, which may be about Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson, but presumably features some scenes with Kennedy.

Even then, Stone's film making style is probably what has aged the best of everything. While the animosity in tone is beyond superb, the technique on display reflects a director willing to bring history literally to life. There are several historical reenactments shot to emphasize the various theories to Kennedy's assassination. They're even so well shot that some are hard to distinguish from the real thing. They're edited together at a dizzying pace and produce a convincing essay on how people try to make sense of something that is on the verge of making no sense. While it has been used in film, this technique has been best emphasized in historical reenactments on History Channel programming to emphasize the impact of history by making it seem real. It may play with the legitimacy, but again JFK isn't about legitimacy specifically. It is a part of it, but the film wants to paint how one event drives passion and disgust in citizens. 

While there have been films about Kennedy the person, they seem to be usurped by his death. The man whose great achievements made him one of the late 20th century's most revered presidents seems to be a footnote to modern audiences in the way that Richard M. Nixon is reduced to The Watergate Scandal. While history classes will thankfully keep his achievements alive, the notion of Kennedy and what he stood for will be tough for modern audiences to assess without having a JFK-like approach to history. We want answers, and the lack of resolution keeps the conspiracy theorists alive. Whatever the case may be, JFK is reflective of the late 20th century's paranoia better than any other film. It also pretty much explains why things may never be the same again. Stone set out to make a film that was and wasn't about Kennedy and succeeded on both fronts. It may not be entirely truthful, but it's truthful of who America was as a society. 

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