On Oliver Stone’s JFK and the Academic Mindset

Oliver Stone’s JFK released in 1991 and became the highest grossing film of that year. Its success was met by a hostility unprecedented in the major media, with an early draft of a leaked script coming under criticism months prior to coming out. The entire script, with several essays both pro and con regarding the film, were collected in JFK: The Book of the Film, by Stone and Zachary Sklar and it is highly recommended if you are interested in the case.

When I saw it, I was out of college where I had been a philosophy major. I had always been interested in film, especially foreign films, and during the 1980s I would go to the local VHS tape video store and rent pictures that I had read about in film books, such as Aguirre the Wrath of God and Blowup. Most crucially, however, I had grown up the son of a history professor, and spent the formative years of my youth living in on-campus housing at a university in Laredo, Texas. The result was that I spent many days in the college library, had access to a huge number of books, and had grown up with a kind of academic mindset.

The reason I bring this up is that it affected my viewing of JFK in a way that may prove instructive. I’d like to make two general points about the academic mindset.

The first point is that one of the ways university professors survive and obtain tenure is by acquiring a unique sandbox. That is, they find a particular specialty and become the expert in that specialty through long hours of dedicated study. In some ways that is a good thing; the universe is a big place, with an infinite number of topics that cannot all be covered by a single person, so the piecemeal assignation that goes on is helpful toward a goal of general knowledge. When the AIDS epidemic first hit, many of the top scientists who ended up working in the field of AIDS had backgrounds in veterinary science. That’s because the first cases involved cryptosporidium, a disease that had typically only been found in cattle up to that time. The morphology of the AIDS virus (that is to say, what it looked like) is similar to a sheep or cattle virus. In this case, having specialists who had experience in this area proved useful in another area, and this is the sort of the thing that happens all the time.

It can also be something that inhibits knowledge. Once the sandbox is acquired, and a person’s personal reputation, livelihood, and status is dependent on that sandbox, a person can be very reluctant to give it up. When the English scientist Bertrand Russell was a teenager, he wrote a letter to the German logician Gottlieb Frege that destroyed his entire system of thought. Frege first denied it, then claimed that “the whole of mathematics is undermined.” Which of course it wasn’t. It’s just that his theory was wrong. He never recovered from this, and we can have empathy for him while recognizing that sandboxes can be as dangerous as they are helpful. The key, as in most things in life, is to remain flexible and adaptable.

There’s one more aspect to this sandbox concept. When a professor spends all or most of his or her time in that sandbox, the rest of his or her information about the world tends to stay frozen. They may retain some general knowledge about the rest of the world, but it becomes sketchier and less relevant over time. To their credit, they know this, which is why they rely on experts in their own sandboxes in discussions about areas not relevant to their own. And so everybody is an expert in one thing and vaguely cognizant of everything else.

That’s point one. Point two is that there is a specific manner in which academic professors think that can best be captured, I think, with the term categorization. Everything about the university experience is categorized. Art History 101. British Literature 1 and 2. American History is often broken up from the revolution to the Civil War, then the Civil War to the present. And so on, in more and more specific detail. I am not arguing against this. It is natural and right if the desired goal is efficiency. I am only saying that the university professor tends to categorize everything in these terms, including the other professors. (“Well, of course, that’s going to be her argument, she’s a postmodern feminist.”) So a philosophy professor might be a Kant guy or an epistemology specialist or – God forbid because everyone hates this type – a Wittgenstein guy. And you have a certain knowledge and expectation of what that particular type is going to bring in terms of intellectual opinions and objections. And they might be wrong. We are all individuals. But we generalize and categorize, and professors do it more often and more efficiently than nearly everyone.

Okay, that’s point two. Now I was heavily influenced by this type of thinking. So, among other things, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise shows the influence of Communist groups in America, for example. Or the great passages about living a natural life in Tolstoy are clearly influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau. There’s nothing wrong with noting such things, but what can happen is that you create a mental world of wit and reference that folds back on itself without ever impacting the real world.

When the Socialist painter Diego Rivera refused to take down a politically motivated mural (which included a portrait of Lenin) at Rockefeller Center, the Rockefellers had the mural destroyed and paid him off in full. They then funded abstract art, possibly for aesthetic reasons, but also because abstract art can only reference itself and cannot carry political messages. One of the most famous museums in America, MOMA in New York City, was built by the Rockefellers. It isn’t just art, either – music also shows a steady progression into abstraction and self-reference, and arguably film does as well.

So I saw JFK. And I thought it was excellent. I thought the montages were brilliant and the performances superb. I agreed with Stone’s casting of Kevin Costner in the lead, seeing in him a kind of Gary Cooper-Jimmy Stewart solidity with which to revolve all the other eccentrics. I thought the story was tremendously interesting and thought-provoking and went back and saw it again.

However, during all that time, it never occurred to me to think of the conspiracy it depicted as something real, or as something to be taken seriously on a human level. I treated it as a categorizable point of view; that is, the film is an example of an artistic talent demonstrating a certain take on historical events. It’s a Conspiracy Thriller. And although intellectually I understood there was a real debate going on under the surface, I treated the whole thing as an abstract and went back to reading about other things. It would be another ten years before I ever studied the case in detail.
Now maybe I’m just stupid. It’s certainly possible. But one thing I know happened is that my academic training prepared me to slot certain ideas in certain categories which ended up being a substitute for real thought. I just never asked the question, the behavior that pains Jim Garrison (Costner) in the film when he yells at the Warren Report: “Ask the question! Ask the question!”

For a long while, I didn’t.

Fortunately, many others did. Most of them weren’t academics, although a fair number of researchers do come out of university jobs. It’s still a dangerous thing to get into, and one risks both status and livelihood by writing seriously about it. Michael Parenti’s career has been dotted with troubles for being both a committed Marxist and for writing about politically controversial issues his whole life, despite having published numerous books and being much in-demand as a speaker and commentator. It’s not easy.

As far as JFK went, however, for whatever flaws one wishes to assign to it, it played a real historical role in the creation of the AARB and the release of millions of JFK-related documents to the public. Not bad for a movie that was excoriated by the mainstream press long before it ever showed up in theaters. It remains a great film and a solid entry point for interested people.