Ennoble the cause, damn its opponents: Those are the prime rules in crafting propaganda, that worrisome tool used for centuries in the service of wars, religious crusades, political campaigns, and now, to sensational effect, Oliver Stone’s JFK. The movie is an intricately stacked deck, a barrage of visual and aural cues geared not to help viewers reach their own conclusions about the mountain of conflicting Kennedy-assassination evidence but to affect their hearts and minds on a visceral, almost subconscious level. Here’s a primer on Stone’s cinematic tools of persuasion.
Mixing Varied Film Stocks
JFK opens with a 3 1/2-minute MTV-paced salute to Kennedy, a torrent of images from actual newsreel and home-movie footage, mostly in black and white. Yet as this prologue builds to a Dealey Plaza replay, Stone begins to blend in staged black-and-white footage, much of it shot on 16 mm or 8 mm film for an authentically fuzzy look. As the movie begins weaving together eyewitnesses’ testimony, the ration of grainy reenactments to real footage increases, making it difficult to tell fact from supposition.
Stone repeatedly backs up speculative conspiracy theories with dramatizations. Could Oswald’s fingerprints have been put on the gun at the morgue? Bang, we see exactly that happen. Could David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) have been murdered by anti-Castro Cubans? Cut to unidentified hands stuffing medication down his throat. Theories Stone doesn’t support aren’t dramatized; when a coroner says Ferrie’s death could have been suicide, we get no illustration.
Almost every time Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) speaks, he’s undercut by flashbacks that directly contradict what he’s saying. Ferrie’s answers during his interrogation also get 60 Minutes gotcha-style visual rebuttals, as do the answers of lawyer Dean Andrews (John Candy) during Garrison’s grilling. When Andrews denies knowing Shaw, he is immediately shown sharing a cozy lunch with him.
Recurring Bit Players
As eyewitnesses and Garrison staffers reconstruct Oswald’s activities in the summer of 1963, we see their accounts reenacted. Lurking in the background, two Cuban anti-Castro conspirators show up again and again. Stone thus provides visual connections between these disparate recollections, making it appear that they all add up. He pulls a similar trick by having the actors who play the boxcar ”tramps” (alleged to be plotters) also turn up as grassy knoll hit men.