JFK’s Cinematic Legacy


A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

Several years ago, I visited a friend in Dallas. While I was there I went to Dealey Plaza, scene of one of the most infamous crimes in American history. There I saw the fateful curve in the road where Houston and Elm streets meet, gazed upon the famous grassy knoll, and looked up at the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building from which Lee Harvey Oswald reportedly shot his magic rifle.

I spoke to a man there who kept a small stand where he sold self-published books and DVDs about the assassination of President Kennedy, and who explained to anyone who would listen what conspiratorial nefariousness really transpired on Nov. 22, 1963. In addition to his theories about the Mafia, the Cubans, the CIA and the Warren Commission, the man claimed he had acted as a historical consultant on the film JFK. He said he had taught director Oliver Stone everything he knew about the murder and the resulting cover-up. And yet, when the movie came out, the man’s name was not in the credits. It had been erased, he said, like Trotsky from old pictures of the Soviet high command. Like Kennedy 40 years earlier, he had become the victim of a great conspiracy.

Whether the man’s story was true or not, Stone would surely have appreciated the multi-tiered depths of its paranoia. JFK, released 20 years ago this month, was what Stone called his “counter-myth” to the “myth of the Warren Report,” a phantasmagoric, nearly hallucinogenic detective movie that takes the great political paranoia pictures of the 1970s and blows them up into visceral, multicolored explorations of the disorientation of an entire society. In movies like All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, fear is expressed with shadow and cinematic detachment; coldness separates the audience from the incidents onscreen. JFK, on the other hand, is an immersive physical experience; watching it feels like drowning in a whirlpool of lies and speculation.

Stone was attempting to make a movie about a world gone mad, and he dared to create a new, disorienting visual language to communicate that madness. He hired an editor who had spent his career making commercials, and who viewed the world in 30-second fragments designed to grab viewers’ attention and hold it only momentarily. Together they came up with a visual, structural and temporal aesthetic that dragged viewers into a state of disorientation. Historical footage, scenes shot in both black and white and color, footage shot on four or five different film stocks and played back at different speeds all bled into one another, creating an air of vertigo and information overload. The approach thumbed its nose at traditional movie editing, constantly demanding that viewers assess and re-assess information from new angles, just as Americans in the years after Kennedy’s assassination were forced to re-evaluate their country. It was a ruthless place where seemingly immutable truths about the decency of our institutions and the righteousness of our leaders could no longer be taken for granted.

For all the noise about Stone’s historical revisionism and massaging of the facts, the director never got enough credit for his movie’s stylistic innovations. The controversy surrounding JFK distracted from the fact that Stone had pulled off the rarest of cinematic magic tricks—one that only Welles, Hitchcock, Godard and a few others have ever managed: He found a new way of speaking through film. Over the next decade Stone would turn his visual discoveries into a more formalized language, one that would find its High Renaissance (with just a touch of rococo extravagance) in Nixon, which used bleeding steaks and flickering ghosts and Freudian flashbacks to transform the country’s nastiest president into a tortured anti-hero worthy of Shakespeare. But JFK was the moment when story and technique came together to achieve something close to sublimity, turning the oldest story there is—the murder of a king—into an opera of dying innocence, and pulling back the curtain on a country losing its soul.