No more heroes
Emmanuel Oliver on what's behind the controversy about Oliver Stone's JFK
He just wouldn't let it lie, would he? Oliver Stone has been getting up the noses of the American right with his film, JFK. Starring Hollywood's most self-righteous actor, Kevin Costner (as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, for whom conspiracies lurk around every corner), the film turns the camera on the assassination of American president, John F Kennedy, in Dallas in 1963.
With Stone, the 1960s have always been a bit of an obsession. Why else would anybody want to make a film about Jim Morrison? Vietnam has been even more of an obsession, which is understandable given that Stone was in the thick of it. The director has tried to do what his teacher, Martin Scorsese, told him to do: make films based on his experiences. Stone's first film at college was about Vietnam, and then came Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July. Stone's commitment to telling it how he saw it is laudable, but his rewrite of the sixties is just not plausible.
Right and left
The sixties are why Stone is the centre of controversy. His film challenges the right's view of that decade. For the right, the 1960s are responsible for all the evils of the 1990s: rising crime, declining moral standards, bad education, the nanny state, in short everything which is rotten, irrelevant and discredited about Western society.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the conservative backlash against the sixties has put liberals on the defensive. But not Stone. He has another story to tell about the sixties. He doesn't seek merely to explain Kennedy's death. He expounds a thesis which explains America's decline as the consequence of a conspiracy by the US establishment to kill off the one person who might have made the sixties (and subsequent decades) a success: JFK.
All the pillars of the US elite have a cameo role in JFK: the CIA, the FBI, the military-industrial complex, the mafia, the moral majority. Everybody and anything associated with the right is discredited by association with a plot to kill JFK, or a plot to cover up the killing.
When Stone has Kevin Costner say, 'We have all become Hamlets in our country, children of a slain father-leader whose killers still possess the throne', you know that JFK is a polemic masquerading as a drama. If you don't believe me, just read some of the surreal interviews Stone has given on Kennedy: 'I think that if he'd lived, the Cold War would have ended in the seventies and the era of Reagan and Gorbachev would have been brought forward 20 years.' (Guardian, 31 January 1992)
For Stone it was not the radicalism of the sixties which is responsible for today's problems. On the contrary, those who conspired to rid the world of the liberal superhero JFK, are to blame for the social malaise afflicting the American way of life.
Who and why
No doubt there were high-powered political interests involved in the Kennedy killing and cover-up. We may never know whodunit. But one thing is certain: Kennedy was not killed because he was a liberal who would have pulled America out of Vietnam. In fact, Stone's idealisation of JFK is about as credible as the right's demonisation of the sixties.
The liberal superhero depicted in JFK is a myth. From being in bed with the mafia to being involved with murder plots, Kennedy probably made enough enemies to get himself killed ten times over. Even leaving aside the seamier side of Kennedy's politicking, his presidential track record puts paid to the idea that the world would have been a better place if he had lived.
Kennedy was a Cold Warrior of conviction. Far from challenging the Cold War, he relaunched the arms race, increasing defence spending by 25 per cent in the first 14 months of his presidency. America under JFK stockpiled enough nukes to destroy every major city in the world. And JFK came close to using them, with his blundering Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis.
Stone says there would have been no Vietnam if Kennedy had lived: but it was Kennedy who stepped up US intervention in Vietnam. In 1961, he despatched agents to North Vietnam to engage in 'sabotage and light harassment'. Kennedy sent in counter-insurgency forces and authorised the use of helicopters and defoliants. If Kennedy had lived, he would probably have had a very different starring role in Stone's rendition of the sixties.
Stone shares the same approach to history as his opponents on the right. In the absence of a coherent agenda to deal with the problems of the 1990s, both radicals and conservatives take refuge in rewriting the past. Neither side can produce an idea to inspire today, so their heroes are yesterday's men. For the right, John Wayne; for the left, John Kennedy.
Stuck in the 60s
The right has no answers to the problems of the present, so it shifts the blame on to the sixties. The left has no alternative to offer in the here and now, so it seeks one in the sixties.
The merit of JFK for Stone is that he died young. He can be shown in a good light because he fell before America's decline set in. Everything that has gone wrong in the USA came after JFK: Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate and all the other watersheds in the slippage of American power. JFK can serve as a hero because he happened to die before he could expose himself as incompetent, corrupt and bereft of any original thoughts, in the tradition of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
In JFK, Stone has tried to reconstruct a liberal hero for the unheroic nineties. But the past is a poor substitute for relevant ideas in the present, and a dead hero cannot compensate for the lack of living ones. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, Edward Kennedy and his nephew don't exactly fit the bill.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992