There’s something oddly vindicating about “JFK” — Oliver Stone’s audaciously speculative meditation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy — being shown, even in part, at the Newseum. Not only are clips from Stone’s film, which was equally praised and castigated when it was released in 1991, being screened as part of the 50th anniversary of the events it depicted (and, in some views, unforgivably distorted). But they’re being presented in an institution dedicated to celebrating all that is reported, verifiable and objectively true.
When those “JFK” clips unspool Friday afternoon — with Stone present for a discussion afterward — they may feel to many viewers like artifacts being beamed from a distant, vaguely familiar time. Not only is “JFK” a great period piece — Stone is working at the top of his game with cinematographer Robert Richardson to create a masterful evocation of the 1960s — but it represents a bygone era of cinema itself.
With its hallucinatory mix of film stock, flashbacks-within-flashbacks and a rococo grand unified theory behind the assassination, “JFK” captured the collective imagination of a generation that came of age in the wake of Kennedy’s death, haunted by the mysteries surrounding the murder and convinced that there was far more to it than one deranged sharpshooter.
“JFK” was a big hit when it came out, winning two Oscars and earning eight total nominations. But it was immediately mired in controversy, not just for questioning the findings of the Warren Commission (many Americans had always harbored doubts about its conclusions), but because of the liberties Stone took in characterizing businessman Clay Shaw and Lyndon B. Johnson. In time, “JFK” became a metonym for the kind of promiscuous artistic license and historical revisionism that filmmakers have come to pride themselves in avoiding. “This isn’t ‘JFK’ ” is an oft-repeated defensive catchphrase for a cadre of filmmakers who, especially in recent years, have brought new rigor, immersive realism and sometimes original reporting to fact-based films that bristle with authority and authenticity, from Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” and “Captain Phillips” to Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Without a doubt, those films represent a new gold standard in the burgeoning genre of contemporary historical drama, which steadfastly rejects fervid fringe theories and eccentric personal points of view in favor of more sober-minded explorations of human behavior. But as admirable as the New Realists are, it’s difficult to deny that something’s been lost in their ascent: the time-honored artistic form known as the American paranoid style.
From the shadowy worlds of post-World War II film noir and the grim apprehensions of John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May” and “Seconds” to the wary 1970s political thrillers of Robert Redford and Stone’s oeuvre of disenchantment, an air of anxiety and suspicion has always permeated American movies. Even as we continued to amuse ourselves with escapism and spectacle, the paranoid style — keyed to a wider, deeper unease with entrenched power and faceless institutions — has been one of the most vibrant animating forces in the cinema, a useful means for viewers to entertain, if only symbolically, the darkest angels of our nature.
Today, not even the commander in chief seems curious about the operational gyres that whirl around him. In the movies, skepticism has been supplanted by cynicism, ironic detachment or careful agnosticism: In another era, “The Fifth Estate,” about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, might have been a potent — if intemperate — commentary on the modern security state, surveillance and supine legacy media. As a product of its time, the film is instead a carefully balanced portrait that leaves viewers with a stronger impression of Assange’s personal peccadilloes than the political implications of his enterprise.
Where’s the umbrage? Where’s the outrage? Where’s the crazy?
Every day, Americans are treated to new ways in which the government, the military and financial institutions are breaking faith and deflecting accountability — ripe fodder for anyone harboring equal gifts of polemics and poetry. What we get is fact-check-ready neutrality or a moderately disappointed shrug. Rather than posit vast plots or reveal the inevitable rot at every core, political films these days are more likely to offer admiring, boots-on-the-ground views of working stiffs simply doing their jobs. The jitters of “Three Days of the Condor” have been smoothed out and narcotized; now the high-jinks heroics of “Argo” are the lingua franca of the day.
Admittedly, paranoia still occasionally peeks out from its hidey-hole, especially on television, where shows such as “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “The Blacklist” and even “Veep” admit that the fix is in with a knowing wink once reserved for Hollywood’s most sophisticated thrillers. And it’s everywhere in new media. In fact, in a culture increasingly defined by partisan extremes and ever-proliferating pet theories, movies have taken on the unlikely role of impartial honest brokers — the steady-eyed, mainstream corrective to everyone who has a megaphone handed to them by Rupert Murdoch or Pierre Omidyar. Who needs “JFK” when you can ponder its most outlandish claims minute by minute on Twitter?
Even Stone himself has made the pivot recently, choosing to spin his “counter-myths” not through dramatic allegory but nonfiction film. His 2009 documentary “South of the Border” was an engrossing group portrait of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and his fellow leaders in South and Central America who were questioning American-led globalization and economic liberalism. In the 12-chapter Showtime series “Untold History of the United States,” which will be out soon on Blu-ray, Stone and American University associate professor Peter Kuznick trained a new lens on some of the most cherished nationalistic assumptions of the 20th century.
Speaking on the phone last week (appropriately enough, from a JFK assassination conference in Pittsburgh), Stone agreed that his style of filmmaking — boldly expressive, politically engaged, unapologetically aggressive and personal — has fallen out of fashion in recent years. “I know what you mean,” he told me, “but it’s hard for me to be critical of other filmmakers.” He noted that studios are more risk-averse than ever, then mentioned that he’s working on Dreamworks’ biopic about civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., wondering aloud whether the difference might be generational.
“I’m a product of that period, so perhaps there is something in the blood from those days,” suggested Stone, who was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his time in Vietnam. “People of my generation know, they remember the intense alienation, that first wave of paranoia that comes over you when you don’t believe your government. It’s a heartbreak. I grew up a conservative Republican. I did all the right things for the country I loved. That’s why I went to do ‘Untold History’ — to explore what happened to the country I thought was so good.”
It’s difficult to imagine the emerging generation of filmmakers coming to their craft with Stone’s sense of disaffection and unresolved grief. Their expectations — whether about jobs, privacy or their power to change the world — may be too radically diminished. The idealism at the fiery core of Stone’s outrage has cooled into bland resignation.
In some ways, the new temperance reflects an encouraging maturity. Over lunch this fall, director Peter Landesman — whose movie “Parkland” could be described as the anti-“JFK” — evinced his distaste for assassination buffdom and the “immediate gratification of the intellectual chess game of conspiracy, as opposed to something more powerful and emotional.
“I worked as a journalist for a long time, and I’ve come to realize that acts of violence and war and acts of history are usually unmotivated, arbitrary events and overlooked [stuff] and inertia and bureaucratic intransigence,” Landesman continued. “Not people in dark rooms smoking cigars. And no one keeps secrets.”
Filmmakers and audiences alike, it seems, have reached a similar consensus. Still, as respectable, responsible and bracingly rigorous as the new fact-based cinema has become, it would be a shame to lose the once-proud tradition of movies fired by passion, partiality and, yes, paranoia. For filmmakers of voice and vision, even a cursory glance at the daily headlines invites nearly endless possibilities: All they have to do is bring the crazy.
Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick and Newseum Vice Chairman Shelby Coffey will discuss “JFK” and “Untold History of the United States” at 2 p.m. in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. The program is free with regular paid admission. Seating is on a space-available basis.