I am old enough to remember a time when going to the movies meant going to see the newsreels too. Perhaps that is why the juxtaposition of CNN and JFK makes so much sense to me. I’ve never been able to get over the idea that the news is just another kind of movie, and vice versa. But Cable News Network and JFK belong together in a historical proximity as well, as the framing media events of a very strange year in American cultural history. 1991 began, for American spectators, with the most heavily publicised war in American history, and ended with a cinematic re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination, the most highly publicised event in what JFK represents as a secret war for control of America’s national destiny. Between CNN’s Operation Desert Storm and JFK’s Operation Mongoose fall the media shadows of what are now called America’s ‘culture wars’. These are the ongoing battles for the ideological soul of America played out in the convergence of television news and melodrama. Pitched battles of the sexes and races were staged with unprecedented intensity in such media ‘events’ as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and the David Duke campaign. Conspiracy theories detailed the infiltration of American higher education by ‘politically correct’ militants, and lamented the takeover of the art world by feminists, homosexuals and ethnic minorities. In short, for Americans who watch television news, 1991 was a year of war and publicity – not just the publicising or representing of war, but the waging of war by means of publicity and representation. Oliver Stone’s JFK is the perfect cinematic coda to such a year.
I want to compare two melodramatic scenarios that captured the imagination of American spectators in 1991, and to analyse the impact of these representations on public discourse. The Kennedy assassination and Operation Desert Storm are both widely perceived as major turning-points in American history, the one signalling the beginning of the Vietnam era, the other marking the transition between the end of the Cold War and the unveiling of George Bush’s ‘new world order’. Both events were also turning points in the history of American television, reaching unprecedented numbers of viewers. According to Major-General Perry Smith in How CNN fought the war, CNN’s public relations office estimated that one billion people in 108 nations watched their coverage of the Gulf War. The Kennedy assassination drew transfixed viewers into an instant international community of shock and mourning, while Operation Desert Storm elicited responses of horror, anxiety and fascination at the spectacle of a war which brought to bear the latest in high-tech electronic communications and weaponry. Appropriately emblematic for the convergence of war, representation and the public spectacle are the famous image-sequences transmitted from the noses of the smart bombs descending on their targets, taking a dazzled American public directly into the heart of mass destruction. The corresponding moment in the television reportage of the Kennedy assassination would be, I suppose, the moment when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald during a live television broadcast.
These two images typify many of the differences between CNN’s Desert Storm and Stone’s JFK, purely at the level of representational style. The Desert Storm image is abstract, like a display in a video game. It represents a war of aerial reconnaissance and electronic mapping, one in which bodies (except for the endangered bodies of heroic media personalities) rarely appear. The Oswald image is bodily, visceral and intimate; its endangerment was realised in the instantaneous transmission of a close-up pistol shot to the gut. It is a perfect piece of raw material for a film that relentlessly explores the human body, and assaults the body of the spectator. Stone’s aim is to make us not so much sec as feel the physical reality of Kennedy’s skull being shattered by rifle fire. We are even forced to watch the President’s autopsy, including the spilling of his brains from the skull cavity and the insertion of a surgeon’s finger into an open wound.
Now one might object that these are simply differences in the content of two drastically different historical events, the assassination of a single individual and the waging of a massive military campaign. To this I can only reply that it would have been possible to represent both these events in very different ways. The Kennedy assassination can be (and has been) represented as a remote, abstract event whose physical reality can never be recaptured, a product of forces that will remain for ever invisible and untouchable, even unknowable and insignificant. Mass warfare can be (and has been) represented in immediate and palpable ways on both film and television. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, for instance, is notorious for the way it conveys the physical reality of combat. In this respect it is in keeping with what might be thought of as the dominant style of Vietnam’s television representation. Vietnam was, above all, represented as a war about the human body. Many of us can recall the television coverage of body counts, the innumerable flag-draped caskets, the massacres, atrocities and mass burials seen on television, as well as singular images like the naked Vietnamese girl her flesh aflame with napalm. and the dismembered American soldiers returning home.
The abstract image provided for television by the remote, robotic sensors of a ‘smart bomb’, then, is not just an accidental feature of the way this war was fought, but a crucial element in its overall narrative construction. A major objective in the presentation of the Gulf War to the American public was the erasure of the human body from the picture. General Schwarzkopf announced at the very outset that there would be no body counts or body bags in this war. Instead, we had the euphemism of ‘human remains pouches’ and the strict refusal to enumerate casualties, especially Iraqi casualties, which to this very day have received no official estimate from the Pentagon. The closest thing to a crisis in the public acceptance of Operation Desert Storm occurred when CNN’s Peter Arnett broke the rule against showing bodies, and transmitted images of Iraqi civilians killed by one of our smart bombs. Senator Simpson of Wyoming promptly labelled Arnett an Iraqi ‘sympathiser’. The criticism even extended to Ted Turner, who was labelled ‘Baghdad Ted’, an appropriate consort for ‘Hanoi Jane’. Military and political leaders were instantly dispatched to the major television talk shows to provide spin control with euphemisms about ‘collateral damage’ and (in the case of the late Senator Tower) outright denial that the bodies existed. Even the veiled representation of our own war dead was prohibited in this war. Media coverage of military funerals or the unloading of flag-draped caskets was strictly censored. This was a war without bodies or tears (the other moment when CNN received negative responses from its viewers was when it showed the press conferences of captured US pilots, their faces covered with bruises), but filled, at the same time, with a sense of danger, with paranoia, and with spectacular violence.
The reasons for censoring representations of the body are not difficult to grasp. Schwarzkopf rejected the body count on aesthetic grounds, as a tasteless, ghoulish and demoralising way of keeping score. But the more fundamental reason was to construct Operation Desert Storm as both the antithesis and the antidote to Vietnam. It is common military wisdom that the Vietnam War was lost because it lost the support of the American public. And the loss of public support is generally traced to the media coverage of the war. Vietnam was the first ‘television war’: it brought home to the American public harrowing images of mutilated human bodies in over-whelming numbers. CNN and the American media in general collaborated fully in the project of evoking while erasing all reminders of Vietnam by eliminating, as completely as possible, all traces of the human body. This control of the representation of the war was just as crucial to its success as control of the battlefield. Vietnam had shown us that American wars are won or lost on the home front, so the war of publicity was given at least as much attention as the military operation itself.
A more comprehensive account of this public relations war would take note, not only of its negative work – the erasure or ‘unwriting’ of the Vietnam scenario – but also its attempt to provide a positive alternative story-line. The main source of images and narrative materials for this positive construction was the American mythology of World War Two, preserved in newsreels, photos, and (of course) the movies, from, say, The Desert Fox to Patton. Operation Desert Storm was a kind of utopian replay of World War Two, fulfilling all the fantasies of victory through overwhelming air superiority against an enemy portrayed as Hitler reincarnate. I don’t mean to deny, of course, that Saddam Hussein was (and still is) an evil, vicious and dangerous tyrant. I only want to note that his characterisation as Hitler, as the Butcher of Baghdad, as a man whose very name on American lips elicits echoes of sodomy and sadism, has more to do with the strategies of a public relations war than it does with any political or historical analysis of the real aims and consequences of our war in the Middle East. The main function of this caricature was reductive and emotional: to simplify the issues to a straightforward moral choice, to whip up war fever and mass hatred against the enemy, and to make rational debate and opposition to the war seem like an act of treason.
The ‘Saddam as Hitler’ card was, in short, a very effective weapon in the publicity war on the home front, as effective in its use of propaganda images as Bush’s playing of the race card with the Willie Horton ads of the 1988 Presidential campaign. It allowed the vast majority of the American public to celebrate without qualms the spectacle of mass destruction of unwilling Iraqi conscripts in Kuwait and of innocent civilians in Iraq. It allowed that public to see the restoration of an undemocratic oligarchy in Kuwait as a moral act of liberation. Most notably, it has permitted, at least so far, a kind of blissful amnesia about the strange outcome of a World War Two scenario in which Hitler remains in power, his Gestapo and élite military units remain intact, and he continues to massacre ethnic minorities within his borders. It turns out that ‘our Hitler’ has a new role to play now in American foreign policy: he is a regrettably necessary force for stability and order in the region.
There is no use, I think, in wasting energy in moral indignation over the cynical exploitation of publicity in war. The Bush Administration did nothing unusual in manipulating the war of representation: what was unusual was how well the job was done, how perfectly the media collaborated in the selling of a Presidential war to a sceptical public, and suppressing every sign of protest. The specific role of CNN in the media war was, as their air war consultant Major-General Perry Smith points out, exactly analogous to the Air Force’s role in the Gulf. After the first few days, he writes, CNN ‘achieved total air superiority over the networks’. It provided saturation bombing of the American public with instant analysts by over sixty military experts and a stream of State Department officials. It offered ‘balanced’ debates on the issues between far right hawks like John Tower, and moderate hawks like John Mearsheimer, and rigorously excluded the views of anti-war representatives. (CNN’s subsequent release, via Turner Home Entertainment, of videotape ‘highlights’ of its war coverage consolidates the work of erasure performed by CNN’s live coverage. This condensed version eliminates almost all trace of protest against the war, and contains the whole story in a narrative frame constructed around George Bush’s career – his historic ‘gamble’ in the Gulf – and Saddam Hussein’s eye, which is treated, by the miracle of video graphics, as the frame for a 90-second run-through of Arab history and ‘grievances’.) CNN’s aim was, as General Smith puts it, ‘not just to beat the competition but to blow it away’, and it succeeded in every way. The title of General Smith’s book speaks of CNN fighting, rather than merely reporting, the war. Indeed, this may well be the first time a major American television news network has so openly collaborated with the propaganda machine of the US military. Peter Arnett, it seems clear in retrospect, was mainly useful as a way of creating the illusion of controversy and immediacy, and as a symbolic figure in the melodrama of American paranoia and endangerment.
If Operation Desert Storm showed us how strategic use of the media could convert a divided, sceptical, even resistant public into compliant spectators to a high-tech massacre, JFK showed that it is still possible for a single movie to administer the equivalent of shock treatment to a numbed, over-stimulated public that seems to be reaching saturation point in its receptiveness to war melodramas, whether public or private, foreign or domestic. This is not to suggest that JFK has accomplished anything remotely approaching the propaganda coup achieved by Operation Desert Storm. On the contrary, as propaganda, JFK has had very mixed success. The most discernible immediate effect has been a curious unanimity among critics and pundits across the political spectrum that this is an extremely bad movie – vulgar, crude and tasteless as a piece of film-making, and almost totally fraudulent as a piece of historical representation. Aside from that, JFK seems to be a commercial success, drawing large audiences, especially of young people who have no memory of the assassination, who emerge from this film, not simply convinced that Kennedy was killed by the CIA, but engaged in arguments, asking questions, sometimes even talking to their parents about this event. The film has carved out, in short, a tiny and perhaps ephemeral space of public discussion, not only about the assassination, but about the whole meaning of the Kennedy Presidency and the implications of the widespread belief that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy hatched in the US Intelligence community.
The narrative work of JFK is rather like that of Desert Storm. It manages to unwrite one scenario (the Warren Commission’s story of Lee Harvey Oswald ‘acting alone’ for personal, private and unknowable reasons) and to put in its place an alternative script: that Lee Harvey Oswald was a ‘patsy’ who was set up with an elaborately constructed ‘Communist sympathiser’ dossier to divert attention from the real assassins, who were in the employ of the CIA. This complex secret narrative is framed and motivated by a larger story: that the CIA, the US Intelligence community, and the whole range of interests summarised by Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, saw Kennedy as a threat to their increasing dominance over America’s Cold War economy. In particular, the fear was that Kennedy was ‘soft on Communism’, that he might withdraw from Vietnam and strike a deal with Castro and Khrushchev. Although the actual conspiracy may have been quite small, involving so-called rogue elements of the CIA, the conspiracy of consent, of plausible deniability, of silence and acquiescence, is virtually endless. It goes all the way up to Earl Warren and Lyndon Johnson. It continues to the present day in the unbroken wall of secrecy that is permitted to stand around the covert activities of the CIA, and in the continued co-operation of major organs of US journalism in trying to put the assassination behind us.
What exactly is wrong with this narrative? How is it likely to lead a gullible American public astray, and how can it be prevented from having this effect? Four basic kinds of argument have been made against JFK. The first is ad hominem. It ignores the story and discredits the storyteller. Oliver Stone is denounced as a power-mad Hollywood baron, a crude, vulgar film-maker who will stop at nothing to coerce or pander to his audience. (‘I think people who sell sex have more principle’ – George Lardner, Washington Post, 19 May 1991. Lardner, who covers national security issues for the Washington Post, and enjoys a cosy relationship with US Intelligence, is quoting Harold Weisberg’s opinion of Stone as a prostitute. Lardner’s review was the first ‘pre-emptive strike’ in the media attack on JFK. His review appeared almost six months before the movie was released, and was based on a script of the film ‘obtained by Harold Weisberg’.) Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose narrative is the basis for JFK, is denounced as a mad publicity hound who lost his case in court. At the same time, the entire cottage industry of assassination research is ridiculed for its fascination with musty trivia, its paranoid obsession with unravelling the conspiracy.
The second argument might be called macro-historical. It disputes the large claims about the forces arrayed against Kennedy, denies that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam, and denounces Stone’s attempt to revive the Camelot myth, with JFK as the fallen prince of peace. This argument too rapidly turns ad hominem, getting into nasty stories about Kennedy’s mob ties and sex life. Or it takes the high road, and declares the assassination a historical irrelevance: ‘Whether JFK was killed by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy has as much to do with the subsequent contours of American politics as if he had tripped over one of Caroline’s dolls and broken his neck in the White House nursery’ – Alexander Cockburn, the Nation, 6 January 1992. The third argument is micro-historical. It punctures holes in the details, brings up contradictory testimony, offers alternative hypotheses. It tends to trail off into indeterminacy: we’ll never know who did it, or why.
The fourth and final argument is the cinematic/aesthetic. Unlike the others, it at least acknowledges that JFK is a film, a work of the imagination, and not a historical documentary. But it finds the film vulgar and coercively rhetorical. It resents the fact that the film treats its viewers like children, playing a relentless game of show-and-tell to reinforce every point. It regards the scenes of the autopsy, and the relentless dwelling on the body as in bad taste. It finds the treatment of the private lives of both Garrison and the conspirators an unbearable tissue of clichés and stereotypes (Garrison is portrayed as a decent, normal family man whose domestic bliss is disturbed by a bunch of perverted, homosexual right-wing plotters). The coerciveness of the film, its appeal to nostalgic, populist myths of American innocence, and its exploitation of homophobia (the unconscious basis of paranoia, according to Freud), have led some reviewers to associate JFK with ‘fascist’ aesthetics. Cockburn’s review summarises this point: ‘in its truly fascist yearning for the ‘father-leader’ taken from the children-people by conspiracy, it accurately catches the crippling nuttiness of what passes amid some sectors of the Left ... as mature analysis and propaganda.’
Cockburn is half-right on two fronts. First, he should have added that this sort of nuttiness passes for ‘analysis’ on the right as well as on the left. Second, while he may be correct in saying that JFK is ‘immature’ as political or historical analysis, he is certainly in strange territory with his suggestion that it is not ‘mature ... propaganda’. Propaganda by its very nature sorts very oddly with notions of analytic maturity; its point is persuasion and the production of emotional effects. If maturity means power and effectiveness then JFK is certainly mature – though not nearly so polished and effective as the potent fantasies of good versus evil which structured media representations of Operation Desert Storm. Like the managers of the Gulfs media war, Stone realised that a simple, comprehensive moral narrative was required. He saw that emotional shock would best be produced by intimate, bodily re-enactments of the key events, just as the media managers of Desert Storm realised that physical alienation and detached spectacle would best serve the purposes of anaesthetising the American public from the consequences of a high-tech massacre. Stone’s idealisation of Kennedy and demonisation of the conspirators rest on the same assumptions about audience response that produced the figure of Saddam/Hitler and the heroic liberation of Kuwait. These are mature calculations based on an assessment of the subject-matter, the audience and the economic realities of film-making. JFK is a propaganda film which, like the media management of Desert Storm, uses representation as a weapon in the war for the hearts and minds of the American public.
Having said that, I accept that a number of qualifications need to be registered. The first, and most obvious, is that the propaganda power of JFK is pretty much limited to what the film can achieve with its sounds and images. In contrast to the media managers of Desert Storm, Oliver Stone does not have a host of ‘spin doctors’ and ‘media assets’ to call on; he does not have a political party, or a national security state, or a vast military apparatus at his disposal. He does, of course, have the usual publicity apparatus that accompanies the distribution of a major Hollywood film, but much more important to the public impact of the film has been the ‘free advertising’ supplied by the barrage of hostile reviews, and the treatment of the film’s release as a potentially dangerous event in American public culture. When critics on the right and the left throw the word ‘fascist’ at JFK, they would do well to keep in mind that the fascist film-makers of Nazi Germany were mainly working for the state, propagating racist myths that would make mass destruction of innocent people acceptable to an anaesthetised public.
A second qualification has to do with the actual effects that can be empirically attributed to the film. As we have seen, the main effect of television’s Desert Storm coverage was the transformation of a divided, sceptical American public into a consensus of passive acceptance and image consumption. By contrast, the main effect of Oliver Stone’s movie has been to provoke controversy and debate. Complaints that the film will mislead the unwary, gullible American public seem quite at odds with its actual reception. When the film was released, the cover of Newsweek promised to show us ‘Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted’. A year ago Newsweek devoted a similar cover story to ‘How the New High Tech Weapons Will Save Lives’. While it is good to be reminded that we should trust in our weapons (and in Newsweek), I have yet to meet anyone who claims to ‘trust’ JFK as history, or to feel comfortable with it as a film. On the contrary, the movie seems to arouse suspicion about its own credibility, and to create a kind of massive discomfort, a vague anxiety which may be partly a consequence of the political horror it unveils, and the private fantasies it links to that horror. While the film is certainly designed by its director to produce an effect of conversion and conviction in an audience that is treated as malleable and childlike, it contains elements that actually work against its own power as propaganda, and have the effect of transferring power to its audience.
The empowerment of the spectator begins at the most microscopic level of editing and montage. Many reviewers complain of the ‘dizzying barrage’ of images that assaults the spectator, but this response is as much a testimony to spectatorial resistance as to a passive ‘trust’ of the images. Spectators nurtured on MTV, the ‘children’ to whom Oliver Stone addresses his movie, are much less likely to find the ‘barrage’ of images overwhelming. For the alert, visually literate spectator, the dazzling image sequences offer a challenge to discriminate different levels of representation and narrative authority, The rapid transitions from original visual documents (photographs, file footage of television broadcasts, the Zapruder home movie) to dramatic re-enactments, to court-room models and diagrams, to subjective memories, to real locations, to the faces of actors, fictional characters, and historical personages caught in reactions, create a dense weave of narrative and argument which invites sorting and differentiation, even as it seems to overwhelm the viewer. Even the casting, which from the standpoint of director’s intention is clearly meant to enhance the film’s authority with the presentation of recognisable stars like Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Gary Oldham and John Candy, has a curiously equivocal effect. David Kehr, in the Chicago Tribune, for example, argued that the casting ‘hilariously compromises the film’s credibility – simply because the star personas immediately eclipse the real-life figures they are supposed to be playing. One leaves JFK with the confused impression that Johnny La Rue and the Odd Couple have set up Sid Vicious as the fall guy for Lou Grant.’
This slippage between intentional design and actual effect, between rhetorical coercion and solicitation of resistance is clear in the scene in which Donald Sutherland delivers a long monologue to Kevin Costner on the Mall in Washington DC, the great monuments to the republic arrayed around them. Sutherland as a mysterious ‘Mr X’ lays out the full scope of the conspiracy for the wide-eyed innocence of Costner’s Garrison, his verbal account regularly overlaid with visual materials – historical footage of the Warren Commission, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Lyndon Johnson, all intercut with grainy black-and-white simulated documentary footage that purports to show high-level military officers engaged in conspiracy deep inside the Pentagon. Are we to take these images as illustrations of the speaker’s voice: what Donald Sutherland as Mr X is ‘remembering’ as he speaks? In some cases, yes (certainly, where Sutherland himself appears), but in some case they clearly go beyond what Mr X could have observed. Are they then to be taken as what Jim Garrison, the listener, imagines as he hears Mr X’s narrative? Or are they to be taken as the visual narrative provided by the film itself, the views of an omniscient, all-powerful storyteller who is equivalent, for all practical purposes, to Oliver Stone’s directorial point of view? The answer is that the images shift through all these levels of authority and that these shifts do as much to undercut as to reinforce the viewer’s trust in the film’s authority. Since so much of the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ visual documentation and physical evidence associated with the assassination (photos of Oswald, of the Warren Commission, of Dealey Plaza, of the Kennedy autopsy) are of dubious authenticity, or ambiguous in their meaning, or still hidden in secret archives, or are already familiar ‘public’ property, the notion of a secure and uniform visual authority, a clear boundary between history and imagination, is exactly what slips away from the film in spite of (or perhaps because of) its best efforts to control all the visual information. Oliver Stone is right to call his film a ‘myth’: the term is appropriate to describe both its truth claims and its melodramatic narrative structure.
The film’s double effect of seizing and losing its grip on visual authority is nowhere more clear than in its treatment of the trial of Clay Shaw, which ends, after all, with his acquittal and with ignominious defeat for Jim Garrison’s (and the film’s) case for a conspiracy. The visual materials that show Clay Shaw in the company of key conspirators are clearly designed to make us sceptical about the rightness of the verdict, but they do not make us sceptical about the appropriateness of the jury’s judgment, given what they are shown. And they do not constitute anything like ‘proof’ that Clay Shaw was a key figure in the assassination. They merely re-awaken the suspicions that led Garrison into a trial he knew would probably fail, not only because of the suspicious death of a key witness, but because the jury would have had to believe a story so appalling that it defies credibility.
JFK actually represents the moment when Garrison’s narrative undoes itself, by showing the response of the spectator to whom it matters most within the film. This is the reaction shot that shows Clay Shaw breaking into a relaxed smile as he listens to Garrison reach the highest levels of the conspiracy. Shaw’s smile tells us that he knows he’s safe. Garrison (and Oliver Stone and the film itself) have gone too far: no one will believe that Lyndon Johnson and Earl Warren were accomplices after the fact. And if no one will believe in the Big Plot, then the little plotters have a place to hide and a motive for silence as well. When Garrison quotes Hitler on the effectiveness of the Big Lie as the cover-up for the Big Plot, we know that the game is up. Scepticism, suspicion, doubt – all the intellectual resources that might resist the Big Lie and the Big Plot – are crippled by the taint of paranoia, their attention turned from reality and history back onto the mind of the sceptic. The public accusation becomes evidence of a private neurosis. Statements about the world become symptoms of inner states, and the omnivorous interpretative strategies of conspiracy theory are consumed by the equally omnivorous hermeneutics of the psyche. Garrison cannot even pronounce the name of the ultimate meaning of his story out loud: the unspeakable secret of American politics must be whispered to the courtroom in a single word. That word is ‘fascism’.
‘Fascism’ is a powerful word for terminating public discussion in an American context. We have seen it applied in its most traditional form in the representations of Desert Storm as a war against Hitler, and in a formalistic and decontextualised way in the attacks on JFK as fascist film-making. Garrison uses it to describe the conspiracy as a military coup d’état, and to suggest further that the wider structure of industrial, military and media interests amount, when coupled with a passive, apathetic citizenry, to a new cultural formation called American fascism. This may not seem so far-fetched when one reflects that a month before JFK’s release a publicly-declared member of the American Nazi Party received 55 per cent of the white vote for governor in the state of Louisiana, Jim Garrison’s home state.
The film’s account of fascism is less concerned with its public face, however, than with the shadow world of privacy and sexuality that lies behind it. At least a third of JFK is concerned with these private matters, which are dismissed as excrescences, even by viewers who generally applaud the public, political narrative. There are real questions as to what Garrison’s family romance is doing in this film, and how it relates to the world of perverse sexuality associated with the conspirators. The most straightforward answer is rhetorical: Oliver Stone’s reductive moralistic narrative requires that a straight, normal, decent American family man go up against a seamy underworld of perverse sexuality, an underworld that ranges from the pornographic ambience of Jack Ruby’s night-club to the aristocratic, homosexual sado-masochism of Clay Shaw’s New Orleans mansion. Kevin Costner has become a film icon of decent, indigenous American values, embodying baseball and sentimental Native Americanism; by casting him as Jim Garrison, Stone erases the problematic image of the real New Orleans DA, and sets him against antagonists (Joe Pesci as David Ferrie, Tommie Lee Jones as Clay Shaw) who are associated with uncontrollable violence and murder. The sexual subplot may be nothing more than a propaganda device, eliciting traditional American family values, and traditional American homophobia, to suggest that the evil that kills Kennedy is a private, inner corruption which disrupts the bonds between fathers and children, husbands and wives.
This sub-plot, with its implication that the real moral struggle is between a homosexual cabal and the traditional American family, is certainly embarrassing in its crudity and naivety, and it is one of those blemishes that leads Norman Mailer to call JFK ‘one of the worst great movies ever made’. The question I want to raise is whether the worst parts of JFK are separable from its greatness, or at least (since I’m not really sure it is a great movie), whether they are separable from what gives it its special power. My sense is that the film’s blemishes are all of a piece: the looniness of its left-wing idealisation of Kennedy requires an equally loony staging of right-wing homophobia; the crudity of its public narrative requires a corresponding crudity in the private sphere. Both stories focus relentlessly on the body: on the one hand, as a private and sexualised region, and, on the other, as the body politic in the form of the President’s shattered corpse. The darkest moment in this remorseless equation between public and private bodies occurs when Jim Garrison, still in shock from witnessing Robert Kennedy’s assassination on television, is finally able to make love to his at last sympathetic wife. The hyperactive perversity of the prostitutes in Jack Ruby’s night-club and the Sadean fantasies of Clay Shaw’s parlour are finally matched by the overtones of necrophilia at the heart of the bourgeois marriage-bed.
There is one point, in fact, when it seems as if the film is employing the private sub-plot as an explicit parody of the main plot. This occurs in the scene when Garrison, after a fight with his wife about his neglect of the family, sits down with his children on the front porch swing and explains to them that Daddy has to work late because he is trying to keep America a country where children can grow up in freedom. Like the public scenes of instruction (Mr X’s briefing and Garrison’s summation speech), this display of didacticism violates every rule of film rhetoric. It tries to persuade by telling rather than showing, and (even more damaging for a propaganda film) it shows the act of telling as a sentimentalised scene of parental instruction. This is a very dubious strategy. Effective propaganda must seem modern and up-to-date in its rhetoric, and it must conceal, not parade, its own exertion of pedagogical force. The echoes of Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra in this scene do as much to alienate as to engage its audience.
I’m not suggesting that Oliver Stone get credit for being ironic about his own authoritarian film style in this movie: JFK seems to me a much more remarkable achievement, a genuinely naive work of cinematic art. In the Kennedy assassination, Oliver Stone’s special talents as a director have found the perfect subject at the perfect historical moment. The ‘authoring’ of the effects I’m talking about can be attributed to the national audience of Stone’s film (including its hostile reviewers) as much as it can to any directorial agency. My sense is that an American audience knows itself, for better and for worse, in JFK: it encounters a projection of its own national fantasy in the film’s intersection of private and public bodies. What it does not encounter, and what prevents this from being a fascist film, is a clear embodiment of the evil it seeks to exorcise. There is no Saddam/Hitler figure to focus audience hatred and distract it from the erasure of real bodies elsewhere. The hostility evoked by JFK, therefore, tends to be displaced (and misplaced) onto its director (Oliver Stone, the power-hungry fascist), onto its principal actor (even the most fervent admirers of JFK will want to insist that Kevin Costner is the worst actor in the world), or onto JFK himself (the sexual transgressor, arch-Cold Warrior and crony of mobsters, hiding inside the body of the handsome prince).
None of these figures, however, is adequate to the spectre of conspiracy that the film presents, a new form of fascism that cannot be demonised in the person of a determinate villain or idealised in a heroic father-leader. JFK’s fascism is faceless and bodiless, a systemic feature of the new world order outlined by Eisenhower in 1959 and unveiled in Operation Desert Storm in 1991: a new version of the ‘military-industrial complex’ which has now added the persuasive apparatus of the American mass media to its arsenal. A hopeful reading of contemporary history would lead us to think that this new, soft form of global domination by multinational capital, communications and security will finally produce a new world order of peace and international cooperation. In the same week that JFK was released, Time Magazine anointed Ted Turner as its Man of the Year, declaring him to be the Prince of the Global Village for his revolutionising of television news, and praising CNN as a ‘beacon of freedom’ that will force ‘despotic governments to do their bloody deeds, if they dare, before a watching world’. Time did not bother to mention that its parent corporation owns a controlling interest in Turner Communications. It also failed to include the massacre in the Persian Gulf among the ‘bloody deeds’ shown to a watching world.
Ted Turner, however, is a no more appropriate candidate for paranoid fantasies than Oliver Stone. Despite his megalomania and his heroic ambitions to ‘take over and save us all’, Turner gets even less credit for the specific effects of CNN than Stone does for JFK. Like Stone, he is, in his own words, merely ‘the right man in the right place at the right time’. The critical questions, then, are not about persons, but about places, times and the kind of ‘rightness’ or coherence they disclose. I’ve suggested that CNN and JFK serve as acronymic frames for a certain moment in cultural space-time which, for lack of a better phrase, I’ll simply call ‘America, 1991’. The task of cultural criticism in this place and time is far from clear. The great temptations are melodrama and paranoia, and I can’t say that I’ve avoided them, nor do I have any clear sense of how they are to be avoided. The path of criticism can no longer be imagined, as it once was, to be the high road toward a utopian realm of truth, or the conservation of a secure cultural legacy. Criticism has no choice but to work through the conditions it is given, to question the rightness of its own place and time. When ‘history as it happens’ in the movies and the news takes the form of melodramas that induce paranoia in their audiences, we have to remember that even melodramas have their uses, and even paranoids have their enemies.
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