There’s Daddy

Michael Wood

  • Flying in to Love by D.M. Thomas
    Bloomsbury, 262 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1129 2
  • JFK directed by Oliver Stone

The Warren Commission reported that it found no ‘credible’ or ‘meaningful’ evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate President John Kennedy, and the words are of course a sore temptation to suspicious eyes. Do they mean, as they seem to mean, no real evidence at all? Or no evidence to speak of; no evidence you could act on; plenty of evidence but all of it shaky; plenty of evidence but none of it irresistible? What about the tone of that massive report, the words beneath the words? Patient scruple or cautious relief? I think it unlikely that the Commission was simply the great whitewash that many people see in it, but it did seem very happy to find all its trails leading only to Oswald, the lone killer who was himself conveniently killed two days later.

Here as in many other matters, there remains a gap between belief and proof, or between what we think we know and what can plausibly be shown. If Oswald was not, for example, the FBI or CIA plant that many think he was, the relevant testimony to the Commission would truthfully assert that he wasn’t. The directors of those agencies would testify, as indeed they did, that Oswald was not an agent or informant in their employ, and the files, which the Commission inspected, would bear them out. And if Oswald were part of some sort of covert operation, what would the testimony show? The files would have been sifted, and the directors, correctly by their own lights, would give the same testimony. It is rather like Wittgenstein’s asking his students why they supposed we imagined the Sun revolved round the Earth. Because it looks as if it does, they said. And how, Wittgenstein wondered, would it look if it didn’t?

The logic of this situation suggests that we need more proof and more argument, and more experience of living with doubt, but the over-whelming mass of the interest in the Kennedy assassination over the last 28 years has gone exactly the other way: towards myth, mania and passionate belief, a perspective in which ‘evidence’ is not what builds up a case but what confirms a theory, plugs a hole in the readymade jigsaw. What is there about the event that hooks us in this way, makes us want to sec or hear only the versions that suit us?

There are the riddles, the clashing stories which are either too sinister or too slight, or both. There is the lingering sense of shock: whatever the truth of Kennedy’s promises and policies, he caught and matched a need for hope in Americans and in others, and much of that hope died with him. There is, as D.M. Thomas’s novel suggests, continuing disbelief – it can’t have happened, it is a bad dream or a mere movie, reality will pick up and go on again. There is the mythological investment in the Kennedys as a doomed dynasty, a notion which also appears in Thomas’s book, where Edward Kennedy’s abandoning the unfortunate Mary Jo Kopechne to her watery fate is grotesquely assimilated to his brothers’ violent deaths. Unlucky, those Kennedys: if it isn’t assassins, it’s their own failure of nerve.

There is also the curious quality of the John and Jackie Kennedy story, which is both glamorous and empty, a blank space where almost any dream at all might get itself projected. This is odd, because most glamour has some sort of mark or colouring, however dubious; and most emptinesses are not glamorous at all. More important than all this is an anxious yearning for the horror of Kennedy’s death not to have been a meaningless horror. Oswald’s committing the act alone is about as close to meaningless as we can get, and almost any plot is better than that. In March 1963, a few months before Kennedy’s assassination, Thomas Pynchon published a novel in which a character learns what is said to be ‘life’s single lesson’: ‘that there is more accident to it than a person can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.’ A dose of paranoia will preserve your sanity, but no one in Pynchon’s world ever finds the right dosage, and recent American history seems to be in the same boat.

So how much paranoia should we have? A modest answer would be: as little as we can manage, whatever amount allows us to make sense of the world – individual thresholds would of course be different, like thresholds of pain. Another answer would involve exploring paranoia itself as a symptom, which is what Don DeLillo does in his marvellous novel Libra. For DeLillo Kennedy’s death is not so much a mystery as a catalyst: it provokes a show of the intricate weirdness of American (and no doubt other) life, of the infestation of conspiracies in the nation’s woodwork. The suggestion is not only that conspiracies are everywhere, but that the appetite for conspiracies is insatiable – that’s why there are so many. This may well be a post-Kennedy perception, part of what the death caused rather than of what caused it. But against that we have to set everything we know about Oswald, let alone anyone else. He liked conspiracies, even if he wasn’t in one, even if he had to run them by himself; and we are entitled to ask why his mentality should not, like everyone else’s, have a history and a context.

But this is not the sort of answer we get from either D.M. Thomas or Oliver Stone. Their suggestion is simpler. There is no paranoia, or paranoia is everywhere. For Thomas, this means anything goes (‘since fiction is a kind of dream, and history is a kind of dream, and this is both’). For Stone, it means whoever is passionate and well-intentioned must be right.

The most interesting feature of Thomas’s novel is its refusal of history’s plot, its articulation of an ‘alternative’, ‘rightful’ reality in which Kennedy did not die in Dallas, but continued with the motorcade, had lunch as planned at the Trade Mart, went on to Austin and Johnson’s ranch; went shooting with Johnson the following morning. For various reasons, this story is more real than anything else in the novel; an eloquent and moving representation of our disbelief.

For the rest, in the alternative and historical worlds, John Kennedy sleeps around, thinks about the nation’s problems; Jackie mourns her dead baby, puts on a brave face. One of the nuns whom Kennedy spoke to just before he was shot – ‘He was always alert for a glimpse of Sisters,’ William Manchester says with unconscious irony – re-lives and reconstructs that day in November 1963, teaches history to her pupils as an immediate and bewildering experience. Oswald gets ready, thinks he is to kill Governor Connally, not Kennedy; David Ferrie, anti-Castro extremist, exults in the murder, which he’ll excitedly remember all his life – not a long life, as it happens. Various doctors tamper with Kennedy’s wounded head, switch the brain, blurring all trace of the shot or shots which came from the other direction, the place where Oswald wasn’t Johnson takes over, mysterious, amiable, sly, authoritative. There was a plot; there wasn’t a plot.

Not all of these stories are compatible, nor are they meant to be. They are the visions which swarm around the Kennedy case, a few of the ‘ten thousand dreams a night’ which Thomas says are dreamt about Kennedy’s assassination. The chief trouble with the novel is that its dreams are pretty dull and largely familiar (‘Death is the ultimate mystery of Dealey Plaza, and we are in love with it,’ ‘it is quite obvious the myth for our time had to be a man’s exploding head’) and that its characters, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson, who comes curiously alive, think in balloons, like historical muppets (‘The Civil Rights Bill, if it could get passed, would be a start’), and behave as if their very gestures had been borrowed from Central Casting (‘An electric current had shot through her,’ ‘His eyelids gave a slow, saurian blink’).

Love Field is the name of the airport in Dallas, and you might well think that the best thing to do with this unbearable but entirely accidental irony would be to forget it. Not for Thomas. Love is his theme, the word he has underlined in his notes (‘Politics is a dirty game,’ Kennedy thinks, ‘It doesn’t have much to do with Love Field,’ ‘They were perhaps arriving at Love from opposite directions’). John Kennedy can’t love, that’s why he screws so many women, why he wanted to be President. He might have loved Jackie if they had had time, that’s why their flying into Love Field is so ... er ... poignant. They wonder now and again, as characters in poignant novels do, how this strangely significant name came to appear where it did, but they never learn. The nun, too, finds herself ‘flying into Love’, the airport and the allegory. And finally, Kennedy may have escaped this life in order, like Sydney Carton, to reach a better one; flown finally into a Higher Love, as the escaping deer on the last page of the novel suggests.

You probably need the heart of Oliver Stone not to laugh at this stuff, but I wasn’t laughing. Partly because somewhere amid the sentimentality and cliché the novel manages to communicate a genuine anger and distress at Kennedy’s senseless death, and partly because Thomas’s dream of history is only marginally less nostalgic than Stone’s own, and therefore a grim comment on the poor shape of liberal thought and feeling in our dark times.

If there were anything apart from age, comfort, fear and sagging principles which could convert old liberals into new conservatives, it would be the view of liberal righteousness in full flight. The good guys in Oliver Stone’s movie JFK are so unbearable that you warm instantly to the bad guys as patches of humanity in a desert of virtue. This is partly a matter of performances. Edward Asner as a rabid and snarling John Bircher, Joe Pesci as the frenetic, slippery and scared David Ferrie bring complicated energies to the screen, while Kevin Costner, as the noble lawyer Jim Garrison, is just a marionette of conscience, a hodge-podge of the stiffest gestures of Gary Cooper and James Stewart. Tommy Lee Jones, the suave gay New Orleans businessman caught up in all kinds of nasty deals, is so deeply untrustworthy that you can’t take your eyes off him; everything he does is full of sleaze and interest. Donald Sutherland, by contrast, as the top military man who, off the record, confirms all of Garrison’s darkest and most far-reaching suspicions, merely oozes complacency: it is so satisfying to think your President has been murdered in a plot involving all the enemies you can think of, from Lyndon Johnson through the Army and Navy and the CIA and the FBI and the anti-Castro lobby to the Mafia and the New Orleans gay community.

Neither Sutherland nor the movie is helped by dialogue – the screenplay is by Stone and Zachary Sklar – that seems to assume any old flatness will do because the subject is intrinsically so interesting, ‘I could give you a false name, but I won’t,’ Sutherland says. ‘Just call me ... X.’ Later in the movie Sissy Spacek, as Garrison’s fretful but finally understanding wife, enters a courtroom with her small son, points to Costner and says in a loud whisper: ‘There’s Daddy.’ The point of this lamentable bit of sign-posting is not to remind the child who his father is, although he may well have forgotten (he doesn’t see him much, and the chap looks like everyone else anyway), but to inform the sleepier members of the audience that the boy is gonna be proud of his dad, and our children are the future. The film is also littered with visual versions of this easy embrace of cliché. Costner and Sutherland meet in front of a massive statue of Lincoln. When Costner loses his case, we see him and his wife and son walking away from us in a high-angle shot, silhouettes bathed in a golden light streaming through the windows of the New Orleans law courts: brave and lonely, abandoned by others but still together, the nuclear family continues its struggle against the state machine.

One of the film’s most unpleasant as well as most unhistorical moves is its annexing of Martin Luther King’s life and death to Kennedy’s: Kennedy, it is implied in shots of dancing children, of a grieving father and daughter, was the real hero of black Americans, their promised saviour, King’s death merely a corroboration of the great conspiracy against goodness. Almost as monstrous is the film’s use of Robert Kennedy’s assassination as a mere item in Garrison’s self-vindication and patched-up private life. It proves he was right about everything, and it regains him (immediately) his wife’s love and respect and sexual favours. Amazing how useful public calamities can be once you get the hang of them.

The largest question here, though, is not a matter of cliché or manipulation, or of lively or inert performances. JFK is a movie which has its moments: times when the buzz and scare of conspiracy actually seem to be all around us, when riddles and discrepancies suddenly flicker into violent, taunting life; when the hi-tech montage of old footage, grainy reconstructions, glossy new scenes, or the changes of colour, texture and pace, produce a real sense of another era and another mentality. Considering its length and its moral confusion, the movie is also remarkably lucid about the main events of 22 November 1963, a helpful introduction to an intricate geography and chronology. There is something very telling, too, about the way so much of what happens in the movie happens on television or on film, as if that world, like ours, were always and only a realm of refractions, a place where you might need a photograph or a reporter to tell you what you had for breakfast, or which story you read to your child last night.

But JFK is not a movie about John F. Kennedy or the circumstances of his dying. It is not finally, in spite of its historical premise and its successful stabs at pieces of history, a historical movie at all. It is a grieving fantasy, an act of mourning for everything that might have been and wasn’t. What is killed in this movie is hope, youth, truth, change – the conspiracy succeeded beyond its or anyone’s wildest dreams. Kennedy in the movie is associated with Julius Caesar, Hamlet the Elder, Christ and Tennyson’s dying king. He is a youthful King Arthur, and nothing short of his return from Avalon will save us. Visual allusions to Hollywood populism in the vein of Frank Capra are in this sense quite misleading, wool pulled over our democratic eyes. The enemy is still fascism and the monster state, but the politics of this film are frankly and archaically royalist. What the people need is not, as you might think, better access to institutions, a chance to prove their ability to govern themselves, but the god who died. Without him they can only mope and point fingers at his enemies. Liberalism, in other words, or the programme this movie parades as the self-evident aspiration of virtue – improved civil rights, withdrawal from Vietnam, disbandment of the military-industrial complex – hasn’t a hope if it hasn’t a king. This is not a fascist thought, as some have suggested it is – merely despotic, and about two hundred years out of date.

Its most alarming feature is its scorn for the ordinary procedures of modern law. JFK makes quite clear, as a matter of narrative fact, that the theories of Jim Garrison and his office about Kennedy’s assassination are theories, one view of a complex case. And whenever Garrison speculates or argues, which is not often, we know exactly where we are: in the land of flimsy clues which don’t make any sense unless you know already what sense you want them to make; a place where a missing document, for example, is not just a missing document but a document that proves your point, that’s why it’s missing. But for much of the film’s three hours, we are inside the theories, we see the world exactly and intimately as it would be if the theories were right. Hypothetical meetings take place before our eyes, we hear supposed discussions, see crucial bits of faking going on. The situation is exactly the same as in any Dirty Harry movie, where we ourselves witness violent crimes being committed. No wonder we’re impatient when lawyers say they can’t prove anything: we know what has happened.

The crucial moral and legal point is that this sort of knowledge is available only to eye-witnesses and moviegoers: that is to say, in all but a few stark cases, it is fictional in a particular sense of the word. The fiction may or may not reflect a truth – the point of legal process is to construct a truth which a judge or jury cannot have seen – but such a truth can be known only in the way we know the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet JFK as movie – unlike, say, the films of Sidney Lumet or Orson Welles’s brilliant Touch of Evil – is quite indifferent to this form of knowledge, and Costner’s long peroration at the end, in which he unfolds his version of the assassination and his Tennysonian dream of virtue, appeals entirely to faith and plausibility, without a scrap of supporting evidence. His eyes go moist, his plain suit cries out his honesty. How could we resist him? What is true, in such a scenario, is whatever makes the best fiction, and mere ragged reality, the actual, improbable world of confusion and error and of conspiracies we haven’t discovered, doesn’t get a look in. Reality, Borges says, is under no obligation to be interesting; or plausible or coherent, we might add. There is much civilisation in the testing of its plausibility, and of our theories, against its resistance: but only a promise of tyranny in the simple promotion of belief over proof.