Yikes! Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic has a lot to answer for; at the time, straying from the mainstream media party line about depicting conspiracy theories was big news, but viewed from the social media sh*tshow that is 2023, JFK now seems like the opening salvo that led to an endless slew of self-seeking fantasy and juvenile junk used to deliberately muddy the waters of public discourse for political and financial gain. That’s not the fault of Stone, who had a specific bone to pick with the Warren Commission, and ably pressed into service an all-star cast and some bravura film-making to make his point. But JFK doesn’t feel as radical as it did at the time; these days, we’re all ‘through the looking glass’ as Jim Garrison tells his team as their investigation of the murder of the US president heads into unknown territory to solve the ‘secret murder at the heart of the American dream’.
Not quite a who-dunnit, Stone shows his hand from the start by firmly accusing the ‘military industrial complex’ developed under Eisenhower and snowballing thereafter. Stone claims that these shadowy, unelected figures ‘tried to force him (JFK) into military action in Cuba’ and when the same presidential defiance stopped the build-up of troops in Vietnam, they wanted rapidly rid as a result of the Democratic president’s refusal to play along. ‘You’re so naïve,’ Garrison is repeatedly told as he delves into an ‘everyone knew everyone network’ played by Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, a sweaty John Candy partially hidden behind shades, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones and an even sweatier Kevin Bacon; at the top of this ‘sordid bunch of characters’ is Gary Oldman doing a great job as Lee Harvey Oswald, a low-level political operative who Stone makes a case for being a patsy, but a patsy never works alone…
Garrison’s investigation of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw is a key part of Stone’s thesis, and this element isn’t well backed up by pesky off-screen facts about Shaw’s trial, but Stone’s overall theory plays well even in 2023. Could a democracy-averse group of well-placed right-wing individuals actually attempt a coup d’etat, depositing a democratically-elected government to protect their own criminal interests from being compromised, and could the ‘election stealing’ mentioned here be part of that offensive? Well, yes, that’s pretty much exactly the gist of recent events headed for the history books, with Ginni Thomas as the Manchurian Candidate Queen of Diamonds who makes sure the Green Bay Sweep supreme court rulings are bought and paid for, so we really are ‘talking about a crime,’ as Garrison says. Even the mob-inspired methods currently being used to install the new House speaker, from threatening phone calls to compromising photographs, all check out with the suspects currently lining up for ‘election interference’ trials, and the idea of elite immunity is offered succinctly by Donald Sutherland’s mysterious Mr X; ‘People like you just walk between the raindrops.’ Over a decade ago, the underseen Game Change film starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin offered a corroborating picture of an aging Republican party seeking out Palin as a media-friendly personality/patsy that they could manipulate to get into power; the inability of their top lawyers and legal counsel to control their chosen stooges seems to be a recurring theme.
The stakes are high, sky high; despite the hang-dog attitude of the presiding judge (Garrison himself, cigarette dangling from his mouth as Judge Warren), this is a rousing film, leading to a 15 minute speech from a game Costner on top Gary Cooper form. There’s also a familiar sub-theme from The Untouchables about Garrison’s obsession interfering with his family life, although Sissy Spacek doesn’t have much to go on as Garrison’s wife. It feels like fascist influences have threatened American democracy for a long time now, making Hamlets of those living in the shadow of a murdered leader who can’t be avenged; it’s proved a happy hunting ground for anyone keen to sew dissent, and that’s why this film is still a key, widely seen text in an era where ersatz conspiracy theories are wilfully promoted at the expense of actual information. Stone stops short of naming those to blame, but does, as one character says, provide ‘the background’. Kennedy was, in Stone’s opinion, ‘dangerous to the establishment’ and even if it’s a bridge too far to say that ‘conspiracy theories are now conspiracy facts’, Stone’s film has more meat on the bone than most of the craven ever-changing alibis used by the guilty to conceal their insurrectionist actions ever since.