Cinema and Conspiracy: JFK

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, so I felt compelled to watch Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) for the first time. While I had no idea the film was three hours until I was halfway into it, the time flew. Stone’s execution of Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) investigation and conspiratorial trial of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) is top notch. There are interesting ways of editing and cinematographic techniques are used to create a convincing message. So, for this week’s double take, I thought I would outline some of these devices used in JFK and another film focusing on the conspiracy of Lee Harvey Oswald as a ‘patsy.’

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For this blog, there are two distinct scenes I would like to focus on in Stone’s film: the opening sequence and the scene in the courtroom describing the shots fired.

The film opens with a series of historical footage of Dwight Eisenhower addressing the nation at the conclusion of his presidency. The footage (and voice over) transition to Kennedy’s presidential reign and the various news items taking place during that time period. The footage and voice over compliment one another, but are clearly meant to show the possible motivations behind the assassination. Essentially, the conspiratorial nature of the film is set in motion from the get-go because the American public believes (or was led to believe) Lee Harvey Oswald killed with intent of making a name for himself, not because of Kennedy’s actions in the office. Take a look:

The clip ends before more footage is shown. This is when Stone cleverly inserts black and white film stock of his own, featuring a hysterical woman claiming someone will assassinate Kennedy. Stone uses reenactments and recreations throughout the film with the actors chosen for the roles to make them seem like they are real. When the actual footage of Oswald is shown, Stone carefully morphs the image from the real Oswald to Gary Oldman portraying Oswald. The use of black and white film stock, careful cinematography to match historical events, and precise editing supports the conspiracy theory.

As Jim Garrison explains to the courtroom later in the film “what really happened” on Nov. 22, 1963, Stone uses these same tactics to debunk the “Magic Bullet” theory. There is a blend of actual footage (the iconic Zapruder film) and footage created by Stone. The black and white footage Stone shot has a grainy texture in some shots which is used to mimic the Zapruder film’s graininess. There is also smooth colour footage created by Stone to compliment the Zapruder film. The rapid use of cuts in this sequence makes it difficult for any viewer to distinguish the difference between historical reality and historical fiction. This type of editing is the backbone of Garrison’s “evidence” and makes a convincing argument for movie audiences.

While I’m not sure if we will ever fully understand what took place on Nov. 22, 1963, I enjoy watching films about it. JFK is beautifully shot with some of the best actors on the docket. However, I advise you to view with caution… Check back on Monday for my “double take” of conspiracy in cinema!

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