Not many topics have produced more material than the subject of John F. Kennedy and his tragic death in November 1963. The more publications have occurred and keep occurring, the more it seems that narratives and explanations are multiplying and differing. John F. Kennedy is not only being remembered by the political world or his friends and family, he has become a symbol of youth, progress and reform which is being remembered by all kinds of people and all parts of society. Kennedy is being portrayed in popular culture such as movies, music, pop art and photography. His face is reoccurring constantly in the history books and in modern art.
This text focuses on the cultural narrative of John F. Kennedy and his assassination in the movie “JFK” (directed by Oliver Stone in 1991). I am aware that there are multiple ways of approaching the subject of JFK and especially that John F. Kennedy means different things to different people. I will not try to cover all possible narratives involving JFK and the assassination but I will explain that the movie “JFK” had a specific agenda and a certain narrative which was portrayed very explicitly to the audience.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Oliver Stone was a teenager and thought of the killing of the president as a turning point in American modern history. After he had read Jim Garrison’s novel “On the trail of the Assassins” (1988) in which Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans at the time of JFK’s death, described his research concerning the death of JFK, he decided to make a movie out of Garrison’s story. His decision to direct “JFK” paid off not only because the movie stimulated a heated debate over the remaining documents involving the death of JFK which are being withheld by the government up to the present, but also because Stone created a stunning movie which earned him a Golden Globe.
The movie “JFK” shows the district attorney of New Orleans Jim Garrison making it his personal agenda to find out the truth regarding the assassination of president Kennedy. He soon becomes convinced that there was more to it than the official evaluation by the government and the “Warren Commission” which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had been the lone assassin of the president. Garrison becomes dedicated to his cause of revealing the plot, the conspiracy which killed JFK and proving that the lone assassin theory is simply a cover up by government authorities to conceal their involvement in the plot.
Garrison comes to the conclusion that a combination of the intelligence community, the military apparatus and the White House including the highest authorities were responsible for the killing of JFK because they wanted a war with Vietnam and were afraid that JFK might withdraw the troops from there.
The following section will provide an overview of the movie’s general approach to the assassination of JFK and its aesthetic methods. This evaluation is important in order to understand the analysis of the short sequence within the context of the whole movie and its overall character.
Oliver Stone mixes historical facts with fictional images and real footage from Dealey Plaza with creative reconstructions of the event and makes it hard for the audience to distinguish reality from fiction. Therefore the movie is no documentary; it is no historical film because he doesn’t take fictional characters and puts them in an historical context. Stone takes genuine historical characters - Jim Garrison for instance - and presents his version of what happened. As Robert Robbins and Jerrod Post argue in their essay Political Paranoia as Cinematic Motif: “Films of this sort are called docudramas because they dramatize historical events and historical characters for the screen. A film like Gone with the Wind attempts to tell the viewer what things were like, what sort of things happened in a past historical period. In contrast, a docudrama like “JFK” attempts to convey a particular version of history; the film does not simply lay out the director's version of history; it seeks to persuade the viewer that the version is the truth.” The movie is full of information whether in the form of words, pictures or scenes. Some have long dialogues, some have none at all. There is not one conspiracy explanation but eight: The CIA, weapons manufacturers, the Dallas police, the armed forces, the White House, the establishment press, renegade anti-Castro Cubans, and the Mafia. In the end, the viewer is overwhelmed by all these images of conspiracy at the different levels of government that he is convinced that at least some parts of it must be true. If the movie achieved this feeling, it has in part succeeded with its objective to convey a message, a cultural narrative of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Robbins/Post have said, the movie tries to convey a message, a certain version of history which has to be accepted by the audience due to the power of their images and logical explanations.
The scene I selected to illustrate the mechanics of the movie and how it affects the audience’s overall impression of the movie and its message deals with the witnesses on site where the president’s limousine passed when he was shot. It shows four different witnesses essentially describing the same. They were standing at different locations on Dealey Plaza, the multi-complex site where the caravan made the turn to head on underneath the railroad tracks, and describe that they saw and heard shots coming from behind the picket fence near a grassy knoll in front of the president’s car. These descriptions are of course not according to the Warren Commission report which concluded that the shots came from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository building behind the president’s limousine at the time the shots rang out. They rather underline an argument for a second shooter who delivers the fatal head shot not from the Book Depository building but from the grassy knoll.
The scene opens with Garrison, one of his assistants (Lou Ivon) and the first witness J.C. Price high above Dealey Plaza on some kind of rooftop. We hear the man describing to Garrison how he had overlooked the whole scenery, pointing to the wooden fence and saying that this is where the shots came from. The camera moves from the center of the top overlooking Dealey Plaza to the left, where the three men were. It zooms in from a Medium Close Shot to a Full Close - Up Shot and shows the faces of Garrison and the witness in one shot. The camera moves slowly and steadily. Once we see the black/white images, the camera moves more rapidly and chaotic, without focus or aim. At this point, the camera becomes the eye of the two on the rooftop and the audience, because as we see the black/white image of the man running, we see the exact image what the person on the rooftop would have seen on the day of the parade. The only difference is that some camera, we don’t know whether it is the director’s camera or somebody else’s footage from the day JFK was shot, zooms in on the man so that the audience can see him more clearly running suspiciously away. With the beginning of the black/white images, one slightly notices quiet and dark-toned, suspicious strings background sounds, which keep getting louder with every image. The more the audience hears the witnesses explain where the shots actually came from, the louder and darker the music gets, adding to the impression that something which was not supposed to be said is now articulated by the witnesses. Consequently, this leads to the conclusion that there was more to the assassination of JFK than the one shooter on the floor of the Book Depository.
 Andreas Etges [Publ.]: Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin: John F. Kennedy, p. 185.
 Robert Robbins/Jerrod Post: Political Paranoia as Cinematic Motif: Stone’s “JFK“, p.3.