November 22nd? It’s Saint Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music. It’s Benjamin Britten’s birthday, which this year means his centennial.
Okay, those are all in the fine print. Written on my psyche since childhood? November 22nd 1963. Every other important date has been like a footnote to this date.
- A day that will live in infamy? While I’ve heard FDR’s famous phrase again and again I still think of this more recent date.
- The day the music died? Not the day a couple of musicians fell out of the sky, but the day music ceased to be music.
- Childhood’s end? Nope. Only retrospectively, I suppose, especially when conflated with RFK & MLK, but this was first in a series of profound shocks that disillusioned many people.
The official story –aka the Warren Commission Report—is that Oswald acted alone. My gut feeling is that he could have done it, this marine shooting a good rifle from above. Snipers were sometimes given heroic acclaim when acting in the heat of battle, but that only works in a civilian setting if someone wants the target killed. How does that work if the target is a beloved leader? It had been inconceivable, but alas would happen again.
That’s how I come back to Oliver Stone’s film JFK on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of that dark day in Dallas. For someone who more or less accepted the Warren Commission’s premise, that Oswald did it, I find the film seductive. The film isn’t really about the truth. One of the amazing things about this long looping film is how it manages to problematize certainty. Stone doesn’t claim to know who’s responsible. His film takes us into a kind of epistemological labyrinth, messing with our heads like a good horror film. Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have written a scarier screenplay. If there were a single bogeyman we’d have an easier time of it.
It’s not Stone’s best film. Salvador, or Platoon or Natural Born Killers, had better critical receptions. He’s done great writing on Midnight Express and Talk Radio. But I suspect JFK will be the film for which Stone is remembered. It excited me when I first saw it, and still moves me more than most films. On this, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas Texas, I thought I’d reflect again about this film, a great work of art.
I say “choose your conspiracy” because Stone is wonderfully equivocal. We’re given several possible candidates, rather than zeroing in on one. That marks this film as something very different from what you usually get. We’re not really looking at what happened so much as how the event changed our understanding (which is why I spoke of an epistemelogical labyrinth above) and even metaphysics, if you consider the terrifying pattern of lone killers taking out RFK & MLK. I wish I could believe that James Earl Ray & Sirhan Sirhan simply acted alone, the way Oswald presumably did. Life is so much easier in black and white, but JFK explores the shadows, and captures the change in what we believe: what we can believe.
One of the things I love about JFK is the astonishing depth of talent in this film. Where in the 1950s you’d see a Biblical epic full of cameos from great stars (for instance John Wayne’s brief appearance in The Greatest Story Ever Told: which I refer to in my recent review of The Butler), Stone might be giving us The greatest story ever covered up, which is to say the earth-shaking day of Kennedy’s assassination. What talent?
- Tommy Lee Jones, very much against type
- Edward Asner against type
- Jack Lemmon against type
- Vincent D’Onofrio, before he had yet become a star
- John Candy against type
- Did Joe Pesci ever do better work?
- Sissy Spacek, brilliant as usual
- Kevin Costner, in what could have been a break-out role for him. Around this time he has his big success with Dances with wolves, and then..? I had hoped for more, but this is surely his high water mark
- Donald Sutherland takes on a role something like America’s superego, the moral intelligence inside our heads, riding that stunning speaking voice. Of course i connect because he’s a Canadian.
- And perhaps most impressive as a pure performance, Gary Oldman’s Oswald, in the performance that I’d put alongside his turn as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved as his most impressive single creation.
John Williams found at least three wonderful music cues that make this for me among his best, and favourite of all his films. In the opening motto (and recurring throughout) we get lovely echoes of Aaron Copland, quintessentially American sonorities. There is another theme that is a pure dissonant agony, ninths and seventh, seeming to ask “why”. No I don’t usually dare to paraphrase music this way, as if to say what it means. I’m breaking my own rules this time. Listening to this music is a kind of exquisite agony, something like the whole ongoing inquiry itself. What will it accomplish except prolong our misery? Perhaps there’s catharsis there somewhere, but first: pain and tears.
Why does a Canadian care so much? I have no idea, but maybe it’s because for awhile I dared to dream and to believe certain things are possible. This film does not dishonour the dreamer even as it suggests the dream is over. I love that at the end of the film there is at least a hint of hope, the possibility of truth coming out someday. I suppose it’s all we’ve got.