The movie’s conspiratorial bent and the liberties it takes with history to advance both its plot, and its contention that President John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963 was the end result of a vast conspiracy, created controversy when it was released.
But the critical response was mostly positive. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 88 per cent, and on Metacritic it boasts a rating of 72 indicating “generally favourable” reviews. It appeared in several critics’ end-of-year top 10 lists and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two (for cinematography and film editing).
The box office returns were handsome – the global gross of $205m (£148m) made it the sixth biggest film of 1991, despite its bladder-busting three-hour run time.
I contributed to the total when it came out, and while its contention that the conspiracy went all the way up to Vice President Lyndon B Johnson looked like a stretch, its lambasting of the Warren Commission Johnson established to investigate the assassination and its insistence that Oswald couldn’t have acted alone hit home.
Like a persistent majority of Americans – and polls show it reaches across ethnic groups, genders and political persuasions – I bought into the idea that there must have been more at work than a lone shooter; a disturbed, dysfunctional individual who took advantage of the easy availability of firearms in his country and used his military training to write his name into the history books.
It’s a theory that’s spawned hundreds of books and a pop culture trope. Countless shows and movies dealing with time travel, or parallel worlds, or general weirdness have visited and revisited the event, most recently Netflix’s Umbrella Academy.
The Kennedy conspiracy theory has become a respectable conspiracy theory. Almost. And the film reinforced that.
But it isn’t and today’s virulent conspiracies make clear that the thinking it encourages is problematic.
There might not, on the face of it, appear to be much of a link between the Kennedy conspiracy and QAnon.
One holds that some combination of people who might have had cause to want Kennedy dead – the mob, the military-industrial complex, anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, communists, pro-Castro Cubans, the Russians, Lyndon B Johnson according to Stone, Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s father according to Donald Trump – put Lee Harvey Oswald up as a patsy while their man hid behind the famous grassy knoll, did the deed and escaped in the chaos that followed.
The other claims that Trump was fighting a secret war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles, including prominent figures in the Democratic Party who were protected by “deep state” operatives.
It’s easy to see the problems with the former just from the length of that list and the fact that the case, at its core, is backed by little more than the feeling that one man simply couldn’t have, on his own, changed history as Oswald did.
But it looks positively rational compared to the craziness of the latter, which is a venomous internet-driven fiction concocted by extreme right-wingers without the faintest grounding in reality. The same goes for Covid-denialism and the hysterical claims of the global anti-vax mob.
Yet the type of thinking that fuels the Kennedy theory even now, after government papers have been released, ballistics experts and, yes, physicists, have looked at the evidence and concluded that the fatal bullet came from the Texas Book Depository building where Oswald set himself up, isn’t all that different.
Just imagine dark and shadowy forces involving criminals colluding with agents of the (deep) state to do bad things and boom, there you go. All those theories I mentioned require you do go down the same rabbit hole. It’s just a matter of how deep you’re willing to go.
This is not to say that we should abandon all scepticism in regards to government, politicians, criminals (and they’re sometimes the same), corporations and such like.
There was a genuine conspiracy just a few years after Kennedy was killed that did go all the way up to the president of the day, not just the vice president, in the form of Richard Nixon. Its aim was to break into and bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building.
It was investigated and proved thanks to the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post. Some of those involved were convicted in a court of law.
Governments and corporations do bad things and then they try to cover them up. Efforts to expose them by journalists, investigators, lawyers, politicians have proved successful and future efforts deserve our support. Democracy depends on it.
One of the problems with the media culture that we live with today is that it has become increasingly hard for the woman or the man in the street to discern between genuine scandal and partisan hokum whipped up for political purposes.
But that only enhances the case for dismissing historical hokum unless, and until, someone can definitively prove it’s more than that.
It speaks volumes that no one has done so after all the effort that has been poured into investigating Kennedy’s killing. No one has found a smoking gun other than the one used by Oswald.
Rewatching JFK, which contains a nasty strand of homophobia, made one thing clear: its conspiracy theorising needs to be laid to rest.
Lee Harvey Oswald did it on his own, and as Gerald Posner said in his exhaustively researched book, one of only a small minority aimed at debunking conspiracy: Case Closed.
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