On Saturday, I finished DeLillo’s Libra and the Kennedy assassination was going through my mind so much, I was desperate to finally watch JFK. But Nicole had already seen it, so I also got out Death of a President as well, a mock documentary made in 2006 about the assassination of George W. Bush. Death of a President was so weak, Nicole went to bed after half an hour and I turned it off to start watching JFK. I stayed up late, but still only got halfway through. I woke up early and put it on at 7am to watch the second half, the earliest I’ve ever seen a film. I think I was dreaming about it all.
Libra and JFK make for interesting comparison. DeLillo uses the contradictions and paradoxes of the assassination and of what we know of Lee Oswald to create a complex situation and a paradoxical character, represented by the scales of Libra – a man weighing contradictory things at the same time, ready to tip one way or the other. The paradoxes make for a postmodern novel, a postmodern character, a postmodern world like DeLillo always evokes.
In JFK, Stone takes the same contradictions and paradoxes and irons them out with a much more elaborate conspiracy theory. A surface reading makes it much more convincing than DeLillo’s vision, but that is exactly because it is so neat, so unwilling to accept that the truth of JFK’s assassination might be impossible to get to.
So, for example, what are we to make of Oswald setting up a pro-Castro organisation in the same building as Guy Bannister, a far-right private detective working against Castro? For DeLillo, it is about Oswald’s own contradictions, wanting attention and taking it wherever he can get it, giving some information to FBI agents, applying for work with a man like Guy Bannister – anything to get noticed. For DeLillo, pro- and anti- Castro forces in this context are not opposing forces, but two sides of the scales, the same type of men, disenchanted, extreme men. In Libra, Oswald doesn’t know what he actually wants, beyond being listened to, glory, vindication of his genius, of his confused view of the world. And this, in its own way, is utterly convincing.
Stone’s interpretation of the same event? Jim Garrison, the DA heading the New Orleans investigation, sees it as clear proof that Oswald is not a communist at all, but an undercover agent for a nefarious coalition of the Office of Naval Intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, all three with offices within a block of the building. Which, in the context of a conspiracy thriller is, in its own way, utterly convincing.
While Libra is a brilliant novel and JFK is an excellent film, Death of a President is a competent waste of time. It has the exact feel of what a decent, uninspired documentary might be like if George W. Bush had been assassinated in 2007. As I watched, I imagined how fooled a class of sixteen year olds would be in a few years if I was an English teacher showing it to them. It has all the tedious overnarration and overexplanation of certain documentaries, intercutting each action scene with interviews with key players. Utterly convincing; but because we know none of it happened, rather boring.
It needed an edge to it. Think Woody Allen’s Zelig, the fake documentary of a man with chameleon abilities who manages to make it into every significant event of the early twentieth century. It was worthwhile because it was funny, the fake documentary had a purpose.
But they didn’t have to make this one funny. They could have made it hallucinatory and surreal, using the plausibility of the documentary style to lead the viewer not just over a tedious fake assassination but one with outrageous elements. Or it could have been political, with some interesting point about either Bush or the anti-Bush protestors, about what it meant for a country to live under his rule for eight years. But it studiously avoided doing this. It did exactly what it was trying to do and gets marks for that, but what it was trying to do was so unremarkable.