“JFK” (1991) and “Nixon”(1995) Revisited

For a brief period in time, from about 1986 to the mid-90’s, Oliver Stone was the shit.

In Hollywood, I suppose no one stays king for long. But he did stack up an impressive resume: Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, The Doors, Natural Born Killers. A few busts in the 2000s, namely Alexander and W. were the finals nails in the coffin for his impressive reign.

As a teen, I felt that his towering achievements were JFK and Nixon. Thematically (and historically), Nixon was a sequel to JFK: both explored the legacy that John F. Kennedy had on the American psyche. It’s been years since I’ve seen the films, so I spent my days off revisiting them.

JFK is largely seen as a classic, albeit a forgotten one. I was curious to see how it held up in our age of conspiracy theories. And…well….

It remains a technical achievement. It’s a beautiful film. In my mind, it’s a sudden break from traditional editing methods into our current age (no doubt influenced by The Thin Blue Line). As an engrossing narrative, I’m with the critics to a point: we might disagree with Stone and his “alternative presentation of history”, but it still holds up as an engaging picture. Costner’s portrayal of Jim Garrison is earnest. His speech in the courtroom is still moving, although the basis for the trial was likely bullshit. For the most part, we’re able to wave the absurdity of the premise to be captivated by this otherwise moving picture.

BUT….the ridiculous premise does get in the way.

Donald Sutherland’s cameo as “X” is hysterical. “Don’t take my word for it”, he tells a skeptical Costner….words that sound oddly similar to any conspiracy theorist roaming the internet today: “Don’t take my word for it, look at the facts! Look it up on the internet!”. After spending over 25 years in the dark regarding the JFK assassination, the American public might’ve found this cameo to be acceptable. But in our current era of “Q-Anon” and God knows who else, this section of the film seems ridiculous.

But as Roger Ebert indicated upon release, this film is a representation of the anger that Americans were feeling regarding the assassination. It’s an anger that doesn’t quite translate to current times. (The release of JFK is roughly the halfway point between now, the time this was written, and the assassination. Can you believe that shit?) When I was a kid, and on into my teens, a “federal conspiracy to kill the president” was the dominant narrative regarding the assassination of JFK. As time went on, we realized that that narrative was more of a representation of us (or the baby-boomers that lived through it) rather than an accurate picture of the facts.  Whatever faults the Warren Commission might’ve had, Lee Harvey Oswald almost certainly killed John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t a conspiracy within the government motivated by the military-industrial complex (although that too poses a genuine threat)…it was some piss-ant off the streets of Dallas. And that’s what the public couldn’t accept. And they were angry about it. The facts weren’t sufficient enough so a narrative and sub-culture of conspiracy was generated. That’s how we ended up with Stone’s JFK. 

Perhaps I should revisit this film in another 27 years.

I don’t have a problem with an “alternate presentation of history”. It’s just a shame that Oliver Stone didn’t have much of a sense of humor. It was obvious that Costner’s Jim Garrison was jumping down a rabbit hole of insanity regarding this theory. Family and co-workers were alienating him because of it. It never occurred to Stone that perhaps Garrison might’ve been seeing shadows. That would have been a much more interesting film, rather than entertaining Garrison’s delusions as genuine fact. A Thin Blue Line-like treatment was warranted; or a postmodern exploration of how we generate meaning within our heads, and how that often doesn’t translate towards an accurate picture of reality.

We can only view this film through the lens of Stone’s anger regarding the unrealized potential of JFK’s vision….a vision that was struck down by a madman’s bullet in Dallas. This is a subject that he returns to in Nixon.

I was surprised at how well Nixon holds up. Dare I say that I enjoyed it far more than JFK? And the reason for this is simple: Anthony Hopkins. His performance occasionally gets shit on by the critics, but it was a tour de force that the film needed: it was a performance that Donald Sutherland should have given to JFK. Hopkins played it the only way it could have been played: sleazy, awkward, and conflicted.

Was it on the nose? Occasionally too caricature-like? Over the top? Sometimes comedic? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. YET, Hopkins still manages to make us feel sorry for the sad sack of shit that was Richard Nixon. I thought it was brilliant.

But it occasionally felt as though the two stars of the show, Anthony Hopkins and Oliver Stone, were making two different productions. Hopkins realized that there’s only ONE way to portray Nixon, and Stone was trying to create some biblical “man’s fall from grace”-like story. The director expanded the scope of the production far beyond necessity. The White House intrigue alone was enough to sustain an entire picture. The interplay between Nixon, Kissinger, Halderman, and Ehrlichman was great. Everything else felt inconsequential or uninteresting.

In short, Stone needed to do less. Hopkins and the actors were more than competent to carry the show. But like the historical characters he tries to depict, Stone’s reach exceeded his grasp.

I have no idea if Nixon was truly obsessed with Kennedy. Maybe he was. “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are” might be a good line, it still feels as though Stone was overreaching. Obviously Kennedy played a huge role in Nixon’s career, but a lot of that stuff in the film felt hamfisted. Who knows if we would have had a Nixon presidency had Kennedy not been assassinated, but I doubt that that weighed heavily on Nixon’s mind.

The era of Nixon was a cynical period. The 60s and 70s were transitional times, due in part to the killing of John F. Kennedy. Oliver Stone’s Nixon felt as though he was misjudged because of these times…that his misdeeds would have been overlooked by the public had his predecessors committed them. Maybe he was right. This is touched upon in Nixon, but is heavily distorted because Stone was too angry by the unrealized potential of Kennedy’s Presidency.

But that’s just what you get with Oliver Stone.

So are JFK and Nixon worth revisiting? Sure. It’s worth revisiting one man’s anger towards an era that let him down.


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