Picked Flicks #47: JFK & Nixon
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 movieadmittedly 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 truthwe can't touch it, and we can't accept what we can't touchbut 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 timea 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.