Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Picked Flicks #47: JFK & Nixon

People often ask me when my addiction to movies began, and I think I'd have to trace it to the years 1990-92, when I was growing up on an Army base in Hanau, Germany, where one of the most reliable and accessible entertainments for people my age was the single-screen movie theater. Movies arrived from America on a 3-6 month time delay, which at the time only added to their mysterious allure, since hype built for so long and under such different, more relaxed, and more reliable word-of-mouth conditions from the hypermediated onslaught of today's advertising. Living in a foreign country with only one English-speaking TV station (commercial-free to boot) further slowed the faucets of standard PR. These were also the years when my family bought our first VCR, so I could finally see both old and new movies of my own choosing, and with relatively little cultural noise dictating my opinions about what I was seeing. The only impediment on the theatrical side of things—a huge consideration then, though it seems now like another life—was having to finagle admission into R-rated movies. The fellow who worked the ticket counter didn't give me too much trouble despite disliking me, growling once that "you sure seem to have a lot of aunts and uncles" (read: strangers in line who agreed to shepherd me inside). The only two times I really had a problem hurdling over the R-rating, when the sleepy theater on cobblestoned Pioneer Kaserne suddenly sprang into high alert, were for Madonna: Truth or Dare, which outraged my ardent fandom and confirmed the evident social panic about uninhibited women, and for Oliver Stone's JFK. The censorious, highly disapproving vigilance that swirled around this movie was an altogether weirder case to me. American talking heads only ever supply "sex and violence" as the Scylla and Charybdis waiting to assail wayward youth, but neither appeared to be at issue in JFK. Granted, the theater staff did attempt to couch their quivering stinginess about Stone's images in terms of gore, of all things: no teenager, ostensibly, could possibly handle those wrenching replays and closeups of the Zapruder film, even though the predatory flayings in The Silence of the Lambs and the cheek-biting, family-stalking, capsizing menace of Max Cady in Cape Fear had just come and gone without similar caveats. Synthesizing the bizarrely fraught atmosphere at Pioneer with the cyclone of debate echoing from American media, I was perplexed as to what particular candy, laced with exactly what barbiturate or perverting element, JFK was offering to its endangered, corruptible audiences.

I can't remember now if my parents were unavailable or just uninterested in JFK, but my brother (good man!), hooked me up on the underground railroad with his high-school government teacher, and I was in. The movie totally blew my mind, as the phrase goes, but without just circumventing or opiating it. JFK's unimpeachable technical brio and its breathless dicing together of what feel like millions of film-fragments are enormous achievements in themselves. I can see where, as rhetorical devices, and even more as historicizing methods, they would leave much to be desired, but to cite an axiom that somehow always needs defending, JFK is not a legal brief but a movie—admittedly a movie with bullish designs on levering open the locked and sealed government case files, but also, quite patently, a "movie-movie" whose self-conscious flourishes of sound, music, montage, visual embellishment, changes in film stock, exaggerated characters, a highly caffeinated supporting cast, and pivotal arias of exposition and deduction (Laurie Metcalf's, Donald Sutherland's, and finally Kevin Costner's) all flagrantly announce the artifice and constructedness of what Stone has assembled. He and his crack team of collaborating artists devise stunning visual and audio analogues not just of paranoia but of outraged collective justice and of the massive, wormy coral reef of history, with its infinite chambers and pores, many of which never see the sunlight. Yes, it's a flawed film: Costner is too lightweight, Sissy Spacek's perspective as the lonely and agitated wife is almost nothing when it could have been something, and every time the film comes within a hundred feet of homosexuality, the performances, dialogue, and filmmaking all start stinking like wilted Southern verbena. Still, in a strange way, the lapses of JFK have always corroborated what is artful and almost frighteningly earnest about it: Stone works so fearlessly from the gut, with such unembarrassed fidelity to his sensibility, that the warts-and-all pursuit of ugly truths feels truly impassioned in this film. Not for Stone the decorous boilerplates of most courtroom dramas or tasteful liberal-historical tableaux, and almost single-handedly, JFK eliminated any need to make excuses for detritus like Ghosts of Mississippi, half-efforts like Mississippi Burning, or even decoy denunciations of invented crises, like the decidedly minor Guantánamo crisis in A Few Good Men. Stone already knows that both literally and figurally, we can't handle the truth—we can't touch it, and we can't accept what we can't touch—but he's able to use far more than foot-stomping speeches to register the point and its implications. In fact, conjoined with JFK's scalpel-edged critique of mainstream historical record is an equally sharp dismantling of our most naïve habits of image-reception. Not only does Stone recombine fresh and archival footage with the fervor of a mad geneticist, but he gamely stages illustrated versions of Jim Garrison's conjectures as well as the Warren Commission's, and of several gradations in between. Even when the script is one-sided, the film never is. JFK drives so many nails into the comortable conflation of filmed imagery with reality, is it any wonder that the film was so willfully misunderstood?

As with the Minghella duo a few rungs down on this list, JFK stimulated new appetites and ideas in my filmgoing which were even better rewarded by a subsequent effort from the same creative team. I've already posted a full review of Nixon, but if you've got seven hours free to watch the two films back to back, they remain fascinating companions. Whereas the coin of the realm in JFK is its vertiginous scrim of lightning-historical collage, asserted as an inherently greater force than the individuals scurrying around with their treacheries and truth crusades, Nixon remembers that history is still shaped by people, and that the unease and extremes of history cycle backward as the groundwater in our psyches and our private biographies. Again, some of Stone's touches are just too much: summits in China and in Texas and at J. Edgar Hoover's poolside still feel like trips to the fruitstand. Still, the broad, stentorian strokes in the dialogue and the visuals are plausibly illustrative of Nixon's mostly unsubtle grasp of his own life, and of what he was doing with everyone else's life. The ensemble of actors feel more like a united organism, rather than a series of showy walk-ons, and by allowing us more time and a slower pace to absorb the film's structure and its ironies, Nixon achieves what film biographies almost never do: it proposes a complex, counter-intuitive, and intricate new idea about an extremely well-known figure, portrayed against a detailed canvas of his intimates and his era. Nixon is almost certainly my favorite film about American politics, but it's also my favorite film of a Shakespearean tragedy. That Shakespeare didn't happen to write it is the result only of his living at the wrong time—a 400-year historical accident, though of course, in Stone's world, there are no historical accidents. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Images © 1991 Warner Bros. Pictures/Ixtlan Corporation/Regency Enterprises and © 1995 Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi Entertainment.

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1 Comments:

Blogger tim r said...

Hello! Neat use of "Still...", twice, to accommodate these movies' failings within their undoubted strengths. Still –- if you'll forgive me! -- I find it hard to let Joe Pesci's toupee off so lightly: I have to say JFK's brilliant passages, of which there are several, generally make me wish the rest of it was better and less hectoring. No such problem with Nixon, which I agree gets away with certain florid excesses because of its more plainspoken, subjective approach, and it's one of the few biopics I know where things like the Freudian childhood flashbacks actually work. It's what Stone calls "good corn".

What do you think of his 'Nam trilogy?

3:14 AM, June 25, 2006  

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