Ennoble the cause, damn its opponents: Those are the prime rules in crafting propaganda, that worrisome tool used for centuries in the service of wars, religious crusades, political campaigns, and now, to sensational effect, Oliver Stone’s JFK. The movie is an intricately stacked deck, a barrage of visual and aural cues geared not to help viewers reach their own conclusions about the mountain of conflicting Kennedy-assassination evidence but to affect their hearts and minds on a visceral, almost subconscious level. Here’s a primer on Stone’s cinematic tools of persuasion.
Mixing Varied Film Stocks
JFK opens with a 3 1/2-minute MTV-paced salute to Kennedy, a torrent of images from actual newsreel and home-movie footage, mostly in black and white. Yet as this prologue builds to a Dealey Plaza replay, Stone begins to blend in staged black-and-white footage, much of it shot on 16 mm or 8 mm film for an authentically fuzzy look. As the movie begins weaving together eyewitnesses’ testimony, the ration of grainy reenactments to real footage increases, making it difficult to tell fact from supposition.
Stone repeatedly backs up speculative conspiracy theories with dramatizations. Could Oswald’s fingerprints have been put on the gun at the morgue? Bang, we see exactly that happen. Could David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) have been murdered by anti-Castro Cubans? Cut to unidentified hands stuffing medication down his throat. Theories Stone doesn’t support aren’t dramatized; when a coroner says Ferrie’s death could have been suicide, we get no illustration.
Almost every time Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) speaks, he’s undercut by flashbacks that directly contradict what he’s saying. Ferrie’s answers during his interrogation also get 60 Minutes gotcha-style visual rebuttals, as do the answers of lawyer Dean Andrews (John Candy) during Garrison’s grilling. When Andrews denies knowing Shaw, he is immediately shown sharing a cozy lunch with him.
Recurring Bit Players
As eyewitnesses and Garrison staffers reconstruct Oswald’s activities in the summer of 1963, we see their accounts reenacted. Lurking in the background, two Cuban anti-Castro conspirators show up again and again. Stone thus provides visual connections between these disparate recollections, making it appear that they all add up. He pulls a similar trick by having the actors who play the boxcar ”tramps” (alleged to be plotters) also turn up as grassy knoll hit men.
To lend pulse-pounding significance to each revelation by Garrison’s team, Stone plants coming attractions. During a scene with Garrison assistant Susie cox (Laurie Metcalf), he inserts shots of an X- Acto knife cutting up a picture. We don’t know what these shots mean until later, when Susie breathlessly asserts that Life‘s cover photo of Oswald is a doctored composite. We’re predisposed to believe this charge, as we’ve seen it with our eyes.
In JFK‘s hierarchy of good and evil, hero Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his staff are uniformly attractive, stalwart, earnest, and often bathed in golden light. Villains Shaw, Ferrie, Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), and Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) are evasive, unsavory thugs with bad skin, often shown in shifty-eyed close-up.
Stone borrows blatantly form Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, sending Garrison to the Lincoln Memorial and giving him a Jimmy Stewart-filibuster finale. He also uses a favorite device of the director who made the great Why We Fight World War II propaganda films: giving the hero a gallery of rapt listeners. The courtroom scenes are packed with reverent reaction shots; one shows two guards exchanging looks as Garrison says certain FBI files were ”destroyed while being photocopied.”
Stone hedges his theorizing with qualifiers (”let’s suppose,” ”maybe I’m wrong,” etc.); the catch is, he gives them no dramatic weight. He also has doubting Thomases raise objections only to have Garrison demolish them. When an aide conjectures about a mob hit, the boss fires off a series of questions that effectively rule out the theory. The definitive skeptic’s conversion comes when naysayer Mrs. Garrison (Sissy Spacek) hears of RFK’s death and gushes, ”Oh my God…You were right!”