“Oliver Stone’s Paranoid Propaganda”

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Published in U.S. News & World Report, January 13, 1992. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1992 U.S. News & World Report, L.P. U.S. News & World Report is in partnership with FRONTLINE for the 2002-2003 season of FRONTLINE.

A column requires its writer to undertake many unpleasant tasks, few of them more repugnant than sitting helplessly in the dark suffering a three-hour rant from Oliver Stone. It’s an amazing experience. Stone is a remarkably shrill, righteous and humorless man. If you plan to endure “JFK,” be prepared to slap your forehead in disbelief 30 or 40 times. Most of the media got this one right: Stone’s movie has a few moments of dramatic power, but it’s essentially several hours of shameless propaganda.

The dishonesty of the movie is breathtaking. By ignoring uncongenial information, elevating rumor to fact, mixing real and fake footage, Stone would have us believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was an innocent patsy and that the assassination was a coup d’etat involving the Mafia, Cuban exiles, the military-industrial complex, the intelligence agencies and Lyndon Johnson as “an accessory after the fact.” Alexander Cockburn of The Nation calls Stone’s movie a “$40 million equivalent of ‘MacBird,'” referring to the scurrilous 1960s play that has LBJ murdering Kennedy and then copulating with the corpse.

Varieties of truth. The bad news is that large numbers of the young seem to be accepting Stone’s overheated version as the truth. Months ago, Stone told the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “I cannot say — I do not say — that this is a true story” but that it “speaks an inner truth.” Kevin Costner said something similar in Vanity Fair: The film’s whole case might be dismantled and discredited, but “the movie as a whole, has an emotional truth.”

But inner truths and emotional truths are the stuff of fiction, or used to be. What I think Stone and his actor are saying here is that it doesn’t much matter whether this is literally true or not, so long as it steers the culture where we want to go. This has become an increasingly modish opinion as the line between fact and fiction grows ever more blurry in the culture. At the height of the controversy over Tawana Brawley, The Nation ran an article saying “it doesn ‘t matter” whether she had been raped by a group of white men, as she charged. Newsweek, in printing excerpts from the fictitious Hitler diaries, said it almost didn’t matter whether they were real or not. A national political columnist wrote much the same thing about Anita Hill’s charges.

Let us say that these opinions were ethically careless. But the equivalent evasions of elementary truth in film and docudrama are considered harmless, or brushed away as artistic license. Isn’t there an ethical problem with “Mississippi Burning,” which falsifies much of the civil-rights movement and makes J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. a moral force in key historical events? What are the ethics of the docudrama showing Nixon collapsing, sobbing and beating the carpet, when the only two witnesses (Kissinger and Nixon himself) said it never happened? Both could be lying, but the unsubstantiated and humiliating image of Nixon’s breakdown is now part of our visual history, with few ethical questions being raised. “A viewer watching a well-done docudrama will find it nearly impossible to keep in mind the difference between its factual basis and the dramatic embellishments,” wrote former Nixon counsel Leonard Garment, who failed to recognize himself in the sappy TV version of Woodward and Bernstein’s “The Final Days.”

Oliver Stone is the obvious beneficiary of all the fact-blurring TV infotainment shows. What these programs have established is that the public no longer makes a sharp distinction between news and entertainment or between real and fake footage. Jumping back and forth between real people in the news and actors portraying them seemed so legitimate that “Saturday Night With Connie Chung” had no problem using re-enactments. ABC’s “World News Tonight” crossed that same line in 1989, using a simulation in reporting part of the Felix Bloch case.

Since then, television news departments have pulled back from the brink, but the problem is that television is a medium made for stories and action, not
talking heads and analysis. And entertainment values are now so pervasive in the culture that it is hard for even the most serious newspeople to withstand the pull. Daniel Schorr, former CBS-TV correspondent, accuses television journalists of “using the tools and techniques of entertainment” and blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

There’s also a longer-term and more abstract problem. Can it be that the electronic media themselves discourage interest in literal truth? Marshall McLuhan, the late communications theorist, thought so. He argued that the print culture (circa 1560-1960) encouraged rigorous analysis and debate about truth, while the rising electronic culture, which is “retribalizing” the world, tends to weaken critical abilities and gradually encourages acceptance of almost all images as valid.

If so, this would leave us ever more open to manipulation by visual imagery. In my opinion, “JFK” is neither entertainment nor art, but a political bid to make Stone’s rather paranoid vision the established view of a traumatic national event. Like the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Stone is rearranging the past for future effect. If McLuhan is right, strong visual propaganda has a chance indeed to become the basic historical record of a people whose diet is changing from the printed word to the visual image. Stone is bad enough. What comes next?

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