Stephen Whitty On Oliver Stone's JFK
This is one of the better reviews of Oliver Stone's JFK, from the San Jose Mercury News.
'JFK': OLIVER STONE'S SOUND AND FURY SIGNIFY VERY LITTLE
By STEPHEN WHITTY, Mercury News Staff Writer December 20, 1991
Publication: San Jose Mercury News (CA) Page: 10 Word Count: 1058
ON A wall of the old Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, a small plaque commemorates what happened there Nov. 22, 1963. It also identifies Lee Harvey Oswald as the alleged assassin. Visitors have scratched lines under that word with keys or coins and it stands out, shining in the sun. Alleged. Oliver Stone's "JFK" (opening today) begins with that doubting question, quickly adding facts, theories, camera tricks and standout dramatic performances. And then it comes up with an answer. The Kennedy assassination was nothing less than a coup d'etat -- with generals, businessmen and secret police pulling the trigger.
It's no longer as unthinkable an answer as it was three decades ago. ''JFK" has been dogged by controversy since a first draft of the script leaked out. Some critics complained Stone was listening to too many conspiracy nuts. Others said he simply wasn't listening to the right conspiracy nuts. And Stone didn't help matters when he admitted some characters were composites, or proclaimed "the dramatic force of a story transcends the 'facts.' " The Kennedy assassination was a pivotal event for a generation -- it deserves more than the "based on a true story" approach of a TV movie. It demands facts. But ultimately, "JFK" is half TV mini-series, half campaign speech. There's drama and rhetoric. But there are also baldly manipulative appeals and sloppy, over-stated movie making. Stone is a valuable film maker -- along with Spike Lee, he's one of the few directors who seems to have any political point of view at all. But also like Lee, he's angry because he doesn't think his audience is as idealistic and attuned and correct as he is. Call it the Second Film Maker Theory. Hiding just behind the grassy knoll is another director, one who isn't interested in trusting the audience to think. He's angry. He's loud. And because he thinks we aren't listening, he gets louder. This isn't just preaching to the converted -- it's haranguing them. People who go to see "JFK" already have strong feelings about Kennedy and a certain amount of cynicism about the official story. They don't need to be told by a narrator that Kennedy stood for freedom and had a "beautiful and elegant" wife -- as if liberty and an Adolfo hat went hand in hand. They certainly don't need an endless summation from a woefully wooden Kevin Costner calling Kennedy our slain king and the nation Hamlet's children. Kennedy might have moved away from the Cold War given a second term -- but he was also a political opportunist who did far less for the poor and civil rights than the demonized LBJ did. He had flaws. Kennedy doesn't have to be a god for his death to be a tragedy. But Stone doesn't understand subtlety. His heroes have to be saints; his villains have to be monsters. We see warm and fuzzy home movies of John-John and Caroline at play. We get several shots of Costner, the brave man alone, walking determinedly down empty streets. Lightning flashes; thunder rolls. We hear dozens of quoted lines of Shakespeare, sometimes from the most unbelievable sources. We're presented with a film that takes itself as seriously as holy writ. How pretentious is "JFK"? An end title announces that the movie is "Dedicated to the young in whose spirit the search for truth marches on." That pretentious. It's also dishonest. Stone accuses the media of lying, covering up and creating a "myth" of what happened that day in Dallas. "JFK" creates its own myth. Time is compressed, characters invented, revelations given to researchers who never did the work. Hypotheses are presented in flashback as fact. A famous photo of Oswald posing with a rifle is called a fake. It probably is a fake. But is it fair to show it being faked when none of the characters were there? Is it right to create Garrison's star witness -- gay hustler Willie O'Keefe -- out of whole cloth? Perhaps it is -- to Stone. Because along with his little-boy sense of shock and self-righteousness seems to come a queasiness about homosexuality. Several of the plotters against Kennedy are flamboyantly gay. They're not just murderers, the film seems to discover in horror -- they're homosexual, too! They're drug users! They consort with gold-painted boys! Kevin Bacon gives a riveting performance as O'Keefe, even uncomfortably appearing in Marie Antoinette drag. But is it because a gay hustler in drag is a more dramatic character than the real-life insurance salesman on which he was based? Or because, in Stone's mind, it makes him that much more evil? Bacon's performance is a flat-out risk that works on its own terms, and some of the other cast is fine. Of course, Costner gives his usual, stolid delivery -- we're supposed to believe he's honest and incorruptible because he's so dull. And Sissy Spacek, playing Garrison's wife, has little to do but be shrill. (It's Hollywood's favorite cliche -- the lone crusader whose spouse just doesn't understand why he's never home for dinner.) But Joe Pesci is on fire as David Ferrie, a jittery, hairless loudmouth suspect in a red wig who spits obscenities like Jake LaMotta's Louisiana brother. Gary Oldman is an eerily believable Oswald. And Tommy Lee Jones pours on the syrupy menace as Clay Shaw, the sort of fey, ferocious villain Sydney Greenstreet used to do in his sleep. The star-heavy supporting cast, though, is a miscalculation, turning what's meant to be a serious film into a spot-the-actor game -- a kind of Mike Todd "Around the Warren Commission in Eighty Days." Look, there's Sally Kirkland falling out of a car and out of her dress! And is that really John Candy as that hipster shyster in shades? ''JFK" is an important idea for a film. There are still more questions than answers about what happened that day in Dallas. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly three-quarters of Americans say Oswald didn't act alone. We know that if the CIA can overthrow foreign governments, they'd have no trouble overthrowing ours. All they'd have to do is want to. It could have been a thoughtful film. If only Oliver Stone would trust us to think for ourselves.
“Human rights”? Stone — astonishingly — even dismisses that concern, calling it “a new buzz phrase.” It is actually an old one, and if he needs a definition, I am sure that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even Jimmy Carter could have put him in touch with a few Venezuelans willing to provide one.
But unfortunately, like Michael Moore — a clip of whom appears early in the film — Stone isn’t just his own worst enemy, but his cause’s.
No one but a banana importer could deny that South America has long been exploited by its northern neighbors. No one but a blood-battened banker would assert that the IMF has always acted in the poor’s best interests, or that Chavez’ reforms didn’t answer a real need. But pretending that other issues don’t exist is not a way of answering them. And ending your film with a graphic of arrows leaving South America to puncture the United States, as a writer says he hopes the Chavez revolution will travel north — well, with friends like Stone and Michael Moore, the left doesn’t need enemies.