[1991] JFK II

As part of the Conversation Series, I’ll be speaking with certain contributors about certain movies at certain times. 

Zach Schonfeld is a “writer” living in “Brooklyn.” He is currently a reporter for Newsweek Magazine and studied English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, for which we’re all very proud.

We spoke at length about Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece, JFK. Here’s Part II. Part I can be found here.

SS: Right, right. So the acting in this movie is superb. The cast of characters…if you recommend this movie to someone or you speak to anybody about JFK, you could read down a list of actors who have either won awards or have been lauded as landmarks within film. Let’s take a look: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, who play a very off-kilter…

ZS: Yeah, and I didn’t even realize that was Gary Oldman…

SS: He’s a total chameleon.

ZS: Right, but you never actually hear him speak; he’s just black-and-white footage and pops up.

SS: I mean, Kevin Costner had just come off a huge performance in Dances With Wolves a year before [1990’s Best Picture winner], so it gave the audience a name recognition and a draw to see the movie. It won 7 Oscars and now he’s in a movie crafted by Oliver Stone, who we [the audience] knows as a very overtly dramatic and very specific and very dynamic director. And you look down the card and you see other names, I mean Kevin Bacon has a very small role, but it’s a pivotal role. We as an audience, now 25 years later, have a connection to these actors who were just gaining fame at the time or maybe some were in the middle of their careers and now the movie has held up a. because the subject matter is compelling and b. because the acting is stunning. I thought it was a very compelling three hours…

ZS: Oh yeah, that’s another thing that Roger Ebert writes about, that it’s just an insanely fast-moving and entertaining movie because the longer it goes on, the more entranced you are by this web of characters and evidence and it does a very strong job or channeling his [Garrison’s …or Stone’s?] obsession and makes you feel it, too. Any good mystery film is like that.

SS: It’s a tough thing to pull off – the theatrical cut is three hours and eight minutes and Director’s Cut, on top of that (and at this point, if you’re going to commit 188 minutes, you may as well commit the extra half an hour), is around 208 minutes.

ZS: I think the Director’s Cut was the version I watched, but it did not seem that long. It did not feel like it was three hours.

SS: What do you think about the shift in tone as the first part of the movie where we go through and we meet this character, we meet Jim Garrison and it goes through his investigation and these theories that keep popping up and then we actually see the courtroom drama. It turns into a courtroom drama, which is a completely different style of film. It doesn’t seem out-of-place and yes, we want to see this. What did you think about including this? It could have faded out 45 minutes earlier and ended with a parting shot that Clay Shaw trial was this and this and this and read the, “where are they now,” bit. And it does this…after the fact. 

ZS: The dramatic peak of the movie is definitely the speech that he [Garrison] gives in the courtroom at the end of the movie. I think that one of the qualities that gives it such a tragic weight is that he puts everything into that speech, everything just comes out of him – he’s near tears. It’s not successful and the case doesn’t win. If you know anything about the JFK assassination you know his case isn’t going to be successful. He’s not going to get anywhere and no one will believe him.

SS: I guess that’s part of the conspiracy concept; people who believe in a conspiracy, even if the conspiracy is proven “true,” somewhat there will always be other aspects of the conspiracy that people will cling on to and that comes down to both sides of the equation in this case when both Jim Garrison and the audience want to believe in a conspiracy; it’s what Oliver Stone wants us to believe. I think his goal in creating this movie was to open the questions again and it actually did that! People started to question the legitimacy of the trial, 25 years after the fact, after Stone made this movie, which is what, Linda Williams was getting at, too when she writes about The Thin Blue Line, how she compares these two styles of pseudo-documentary where the vision is not that of absolute truth, but that of the auteur of the film.

ZS: And she makes a point that Oliver Stone uses a lot of “documentary tactics” in the service of a narrative film and similarly Errol Morris uses a lot of “narrative-form tactics” in the service of a documentary and the lines between those two modes of filmmaking very much overlap.

SS: Is that what she was talking about when she diverts to “post-modernism,” too? This concept of what makes a “post-modern documentary?”

ZS: Yeah, she connects it. The Thin Blue Line is famous for being the first-ever major documentary that actually reconstructed things that happened with actors and with film sets. Today, in 2014, that’s so common that you don’t even notice it (it happens in documentaries and in TV specials all the time) but before that, filmmakers never did that. In a documentary, you weren’t seeing actors, you weren’t seeing any reconstruction. You were just seeing interviews and archival footage.

SS: Right.

ZS: Sot it was a really big deal that The Thin Blue Line took that jump into styles of filmmaking that previously only existed in fictional films.

SS: Right, so the next question is, “what actually is fiction,” in terms of a documentary. That line is very blurry as well. The thematic way of telling a story very closely mirrors what Stone was trying to do. Within this whole notion of JFK’s assassination and this tinfoil-hat theory of “oh, it was a coup,” he wants you to believe that what we know about history and what we know about film together…this could have been a legitimate theory and we have no way to prove any of it, so let’s leave it up to you, dear viewer to analyze as you will.

I like when films do that, when the pacing and tone of the film actually match the subject matter really well. It’s a tough thing for films to actually do. I guess it does have three hours to explore the pacing and maybe Stone and his editors could have cut it a little, but I feel like it’s a very significant part of the film, its length. It gives a mirror to how the real-life theory has been discussed.  I like when small things like that mirror each other.

ZS: It makes me want to read Jim Garrison’s book, that the film was based on, which I haven’t done. But it digs very deep into the case, as is necessary, but it’s gripping enough that it makes you want to dig deeper into the case.

SS: So I tend to use Wikipedia for a lot of my summary analysis, just so I can get a closer grip on the film. And while I was reading through it (for JFK), I noticed a quote that Oliver Stone actually told one of his co-writers, who happens to be named Zachary Sklar [No relation -ed.], that of the two main inspirations for the film,  one of them actually mentioned in Linda Williams’ article, Rashomon, the famous Akria Kurosawa film, but also a film called Z, have you seen this movie?

ZS: I don’t think so.

SS: So, it was 1969, nominated for Best Picture and the director is named Costa-Gavras, who is a Greek-French expat. And it’s a political thriller and there are a lot of murky lines [of conspiracy] and for my Academy Nominees Project, it’s actually the most gripping of the 30 films or so that I’ve done so far. The ending was just so unbelievably powerful and seeing JFK, I see where he [Stone] was drawing the technique from, purposely obfuscating and shifting some the details to help fit the narrative. Obviously (?), Z, is more of a fictional narrative; maybe some of the characters weren’t based of real-life people, per say, but this concept of blurring the line, I think is where JFK really excels.

ZS: What line?

SS: My point there is first, watch Z, first of all.

ZS: Blurring what line?

SS: There are so many lines that Oliver Stone purposefully blurs. What you were talking about in Errol Morris’ documentary. The line between “my” truth, “your” truth and straight up fiction of completely blurred. And because the blurring is constant and complete, we’re led astray and it’s on purpose. We could have seen the story of JFK’s life – Stone could have taken this film in so many different directions. It could have gone with the Kennedy family and the concept of political power in the 1950s and 1940s.

ZS: He [Stone] later did that! He made movies about Nixon and Bush and they’re both biopics – very heavily dramatized and fictionalized biopics, but he chose a different path with this one [JFK]. Have you seen his movie on Nixon? It’s really very good.

SS: Anthony Hopkins!

ZS: Yeah, Anthony Hopkins plays Nixon.

SS: I guess that makes sense, get a British guy to play Nixon.

Stay tuned for Part III! 



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