by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

A lot of people are making a lot of fuss over “JFK,” the new movie by Oliver Stone.

It has been the cover story on Newsweek, Esquire and GQ. It’s the hot issue on the chatty morning TV programs.

You cannot find a newspaper this week without a photo of Kennedy, an article about the film or an in-depth feature on Stone, the angst-ridden Hollywood director who likes to create movies about his favorite decade, the
’60s — such as “Platoon” and “The Doors” — then pass them off as truth, or semi-truth, and watch the money come pouring in.

In a recent article, Stone, a rich kid who went to prep- school, furrowed his brow and said, in his best ’60s echo: “I don’t have much faith in the older generation.”

He is 45.

Yet apart from Stone being your basic Hollywood ninny, why are people so nuts over his movie? I see three reasons: 1) It gets ratings. 2) It sells magazines. 3) Responsible people are afraid the American public will go see the film and come out believing there was a CIA conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and that Oliver Stone knows what really happened.

That last one should really scare you. Hollywood: Truth or dare?

Not the part about a conspiracy: such theories have existed since the day Kennedy was shot in 1963. Although the Warren Commission concluded after an exhaustive investigation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that he fired the shots, there have been doubters. I guess there always will be.

What should scare you, however, is that the “real” truth would somehow come to us in a movie — especially a movie made by a man who used to pile cocaine up his nose, bed every actress he could get his hands on and now mopes around his expensive Hollywood digs saying, “I’m a child of distortions.”

In this, Stone is about average for the movie business, a kook. So it is not as much his problem as it is ours. We Americans have become so dependent on films for history that we now believe Indians danced with wolves and Moses looked like Charleton Heston.

Movies have become our information source. They are everywhere. Once, the cinema was a family outing on a Saturday night; now we rent bags-full from the video store; we flip through HBO and Cinemax and Showtime. You can see 10 films a week, easy.

This is bad enough from a social viewpoint: that we are turning into a nation of watchers who can recite Warren Beatty’s love affairs more correctly than we can the Bill of Rights.

But the real danger is this: Watching a two-hour film is a lot easier than taking a dozen books out of the library. And since we are a nation that prefers the quickest, easiest approach, you can see how we let films tell us how the Vietnam war was lost, what gangster Bugsy Siegel was really like, and how Jim Morrison saw visions in the desert.

The question is: Does any of this have anything to do with the truth? Money talks

The answer is: Movies don’t care. Despite all the articles depicting directors (like Stone) as brooding, thoughtful, deeply concerned individuals, the fact is, their first priority is to make films that succeed. If they don’t, they don’t get to make any more. It’s a big-money business, and if you think the studio heads give a hoot if Americans walk away with a distorted sense of history, you’ve been watching too many movies. If people promised to buy tickets, they’d make “JFK II: John Lives!”

In “JFK,” Stone depicts Jim Garrison, once the New Orleans district attorney, as a hero for putting a businessman named Clay Shaw on trial for conspiracy to kill the president. The fact that in real life the jury acquitted Shaw in an hour and made Garrison look stupid doesn’t bother Stone. He says his film is largely myth — with special implications.

“I don’t know who killed Kennedy,” Stones whispered in one recent interview. “But I have a feeling. . . .”

Stop the presses! He has a feeling!

Why are we taking this guy seriously? Because we don’t know any better. Most people haven’t read the volumes of books on the Kennedy assassination. They trust cinema to sum it up. And even if they realize “it’s only a movie,” if it’s their only information, they’ll remember it that way. How many people now think Navy pilots are all like Tom Cruise and Wall Street is full of Michael Douglasses?

It’s sad. Should filmmakers be more responsible? Viewers more educated? Sure, but neither will change. As long as it’s profitable, we will get slick movies from ego-crazed directors, and many of us will walk out saying, “Hmm, you know, I bet he’s right.”

It is not without irony that Pauline Kael, the longtime film critic for The New Yorker, retired last year and gave as one of her reasons that she couldn’t bear to watch another Oliver Stone film.

Hopefully she’s at the library right now, reading some good books.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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