Analysis of JFK (1991) and Thin Blue Line
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Published: Mon, 26 Feb 2018
Both films, for example, pore over minutae that may or may not be significant (umbrellas opening in JFK, a dropped thickshake in The Thin Blue Line) to draw the viewer ever more deeply into the world of the crime scene. Yet neither film stops at a simple recitation of facts: both look at the State’s role in events and suggest an explanation for the alleged cover up. In JFK, this is Stone’s highly controversial suggestion that the CIA and the military-industrial complex had a vested interest in seeing President Kennedy dead because he was shortly to scale down America’s involvement in Vietnam.
In The Thin Blue Line, two related theories are suggested for the official insistence on trying Randall Adams: firstly, that David Harris’ account had the advantage of providing the police with an eye-witness, while if Harris was himself the murderer, no reliable witness existed; and secondly, that Harris could not be tried as an adult, thus robbing the District Attorney of the much-sought death sentence for the murder of a policeman.
These theories are communicated through devices commonly associated with fictional narratives, such as a highly evocative musical score (Phillip Glass’ music for The Thin Blue Line invokes a melancholy sense of helplessness, while John Williams’ score for JFK has a more urgent tone, suggestive of furtive conspiracies and forces careening out of control). And both counterpoint different modes of filmmaking as they do so, contrasting invented material filmed in a classical Hollywood style with documentary or faux-documentary footage.
The similarity in effect of the two film’s fast-paced juxtaposition of styles is striking, and suggests Stone’s approach may have been influenced by Morris’ work. Yet while both films have an over-riding concern with the filmmaker uncovering facts, that might be called the “outer narrative,” each constructs a contrasting relationship between the narrative and documentary elements within the text. In JFK, Stone uses an interior narrative of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) investigating the case. While Garrison is essentially a surrogate for the filmmaker, so that the film cannot be considered as “the story of Jim Garrison,”3 this narrative is provided moments that function simply as character drama with little or no relationship to the larger argument (such as Garrison’s arguments and reconciliation with his wife, or a “Norman Rockwell moment”4 with his children).
This, then, is an example of classical Hollywood-style fictional filmmaking. This is then ruptured by the moments of documentary and faux-documentary that expand on Stone’s argument as it is being expressed by Garrison. This includes what we might call genuine documentary material: the Zapruder film of the assassination and archival photographs (such as of Kennedy’s autopsy, or the photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald holding the rifle).
It also includes a large number of re-enactments, which are very often presented in a simulated documentary style (grainy or black and white film stock, hand-held cameras). This faux-documentary material is often juxtaposed with the genuine documentary material in a manner that blends the two together (the Zapruder footage is matched by staged footage using similar film stock, and the autopsy photographs are intercut with shots of a wax dummy of Kennedy).
The Thin Blue Line shares the same “outer” narrative (filmmaker investigating), but the inner narrative (the story of Randall Adams) is not constructed in a classical Hollywood style. Instead, it is told through one of the standard modes of documentary filmmaking identified by Bill Nichols5: direct address by participants in an interview format (with the interviewer removed through editing).
As with Stone’s film, this inner narrative is supported by evidence, but again the mode of presentation is reversed: the principal method used to support the witnesses testimony is through reconstructions of the crime scene that, while stylized and fragmented, are constructed as a miniature classically constructed narrative. This “nesting” of different modes might be tabulated as follows:
My point, however, is that the films differ in mode, but use “mirror-image” forms of the same structure. JFK is primarily a fictional film, which employs a documentary style when re-enacting speculated events. The Thin Blue Line is primarily a documentary, but employs a style borrowed from fictional films in its re-enactments.
If the two films share so much in common, and slide so fluidly from documentary to fictional modes so quickly, does this suggest the difference in the two forms might be largely cosmetic? Fiction can be used to express truths about the real world, and the documentary is can be used in ways that obscure the truth or construct falsehoods. If the fundamental difference between fiction and non-fiction is taken as the link to the real, and it is shown that documentaries and fictions share similar relationships to the real, then the two forms start to look more alike: not the same, exactly, but similar. JFK and The Thin Blue Line, by this way of thinking, are then only superficially different types of movies.
They share the same structure and the “fiction” versus “documentary” dichotomy is more like a difference in genre than a fundamental distinction. This is not to invest the superficial crossover of techniques between the two forms with a significance it does not posses. Documentaries are not fictions just because The Blair Witch Project (1999) does such a good job of pretending to be a real document, or even because Rats in the Ranks (1996) works so well as a narrative. Rather, the downplaying of the documentary / fiction division is based upon a deep-seated cynicism about claims to “truth” in documentary.
That there is such reluctance to accept “truth” at face value in documentary should not be surprising. Early – or classic – film studies was based largely on arguments about the relationships between film and reality. While this debate is too detailed to fully explore, it is important to touch upon briefly because much writing upon documentary echoes the arguments of these early writers.
The direct link to reality might be seen as a defining feature of the documentary, but it was also seen in the first half of the century as one of the defining features of the film medium itself. The cinema appeared to be an even more perfect method for mechanically reproducing reality than the still photographs that preceded it. This added urgency to arguments of aesthetics that centred on whether the role of the artist was to attempt to recreate the real world, or rather to interpret or even transcend the real.6 These arguments were therefore central to classic film theory and resolved into two broad strands of argument that echo the aesthetic positions described.
Thus writers such as Siegfried Kraceur and Andre Bazin had approaches that emphasised film’s role as a mirror to the real. Of more interest to the current discussion, however, are early “anti-realists” such as Rudolf Arnheim. In his Film as Art, his defence for cinema’s status as serious artistic medium (rather than a mechanical process) is built a round a series of explanations of the way in which film differs from the real.7 Three dimensional surfaces are projected on a plane surface. Perception of depth is lost. In the black and white cinema with reference to which Arnheim formulated his thesis, colour is eliminated. Lighting distorts. Editing interrupts the flow of time and creates artistic possibilities through the use of montage. Non-visual stimulus is absent (or, after the coming of sound, limited), and even the visual world is limited by the edge of the screen.
This catalogue of distortions is, for Arnheim, the very basis for the creation of aesthetic systems by which films can signify meanings. After establishing the above points, he sets about demonstrating how each of these limitations in depicting the real is used as a method of artistic expression8. Subsequent film theory moved beyond Arnheim’s formulations, but has tended to take them as a given in the sense that few would still argue that the central project of film is limited to the reproduction or reflection of reality.
Given that such formulations are at the foundation of later film theory, it should not be surprising that they were echoed when subsequent theorists turned their minds to issues regarding documentary, and particularly its relation to the real. Noël Carroll attributes much of this writing to a backlash against premature claims by proponents of direct cinema that their method of cinema provided unmitigated access to the real.9 These documentarists attempted to avoid the filmmaker’s intervention and interpretation, reacting to the overt imposition of a viewpoint present in traditional Griersonian forms of documentary. However, as Carroll puts it, “[d]irect cinema opened a can of worms and then got eaten by them.”10 It was quickly argued that direct cinema was every bit as interpretive as Griersonian documentaries.
For the distortions of reality that were identified by Arnheim are equally present in documentary cinema, but with different implications. Instead of being the unambiguously positive means to artistic expression, every limitation of the medium is instead a problematic point of mediation by the filmmaker. The limitations of the film frame, for example, force choices upon even the most non-interventionist direct cinema filmmaker. And with every choice the filmmaker is placing the film at a greater distance from reality. Carroll quotes Eric Barnouw making this point:
To be sure, some documentarists claim to be objective – a term that seems to renounce an interpretive role. The claim may be strategic, but it is surely meaningless. The documentarist, like any communicator in any medium, makes endless choices. He [sic] selects topics, people, vistas, angles, lens, juxtapositions, sounds, words. Each selection is an expression of his point of view, whether he is aware of it or not, whether he acknowledges it or not. Even behind the first step, selection of a topic, there is a motive… It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself; these choices are, in effect, comments. And whether he adopts the stance of observer, or chronicler or whatever, he cannot escape his subjectivity. He presents his version of the world.11
Such an argument certainly seems to cast doubt over the potential for objectivity in documentary cinema. Carried to an extreme, it is the presentation of a “version of the world” rather than the world itself that can be seen as rendering documentary a form of fiction. Either way, the prospects for documentary “truth” in such a model seem grim indeed.
It should be noted that Carroll puts little faith in such an approach to documentary, and his counter-argument will be returned to. Before doing so, however, it is worth noting that more recently, Carroll has drawn the distinction between what he calls the “selectivity” argument (recited above) and more “global” postmodern scepticism of claims to truth.12 The latter is based not in the assumptions of classical film studies, but rather the wider discussions about the way any human discourse imposes meaning and structure on real events. For example, historical accounts impose a narrative structure onto events to make them intelligible, and a distinction must be drawn between the real events (which actually occurred) and the account (which lacks an independent historical existence):
The states of affairs and events the historian alludes to do have a basis in historical reality, and the historian’s claim’s about those states of affairs and events can be literally true or false. But the narratives in which those states of affairs and events figure are inventions, constructions, indeed, fictions. The narrative structure in the historical recounting is not true or false; it is fictional.13
This point of such an observation may seem a little obscure. If the narrative structure imposed in a historical account is considered independently of the statements of historical fact that it is used to explain, then of course it must be considered fictional. If, however, a documentary text is considered in its entirety, then it is open to questioning about the validity of the historian’s factual claims (including analysis as to whether the “narrative structure” is an accurate or fair way of interpreting the real events) in a way that fiction is not.
Certainly the argument is here being posed by Carroll (albeit following Michael Renov and Hayden White) as a prelude to arguing that it is unsupportable14. However, Carroll also refers to an alternative model for looking at the link between non-fiction and fiction, mounted by Bill Nichols in his book Representing Reality, which is more subtle and worth dealing with directly.
Nichols, unlike the other theorists alluded to by Carroll, does not argue that documentaries must be considered fiction. He recognises that the existence of an external, real-world referent is an important distinction that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. The world of a fiction film is “a unique, imaginary domain,” but the world of documentary is different: “Instead of a world, we are offered access to the world.”15
This claim to representation of the real means that documentaries are not simply narratives: they are also argumentative, if only in the sense that they make claims (even if only implicitly) about what is true. They are therefore a “fiction (un)like any other.”16 However, Nichols remains troubled by these claims to truth. While the documentary is distinguished from fiction by its links to the real, this representation is rendered problematic by the apparent impossibility of rendering truth objectively. Documentaries, while not fiction, share with fiction
those very qualities that thoroughly compromise any rigorous objectivity, if they don’t make it impossible Objectivity has been under no less siege than realism, and for many of the same reasons. It, too, is a way of representing the world that denies its own processes of construction and their formative effect. Any given standard for objectivity will have embedded political assumptions In documentary, these assumptions might include belief in the self-evident nature of facts, in rhetorical persuasion as a necessary and appropriate part of representation, and in the capacity of the documentary text to affect its audience through its implicit or explicit claim of “This is so, isn’t it?”17
Nichols’ argument is reminiscent of those strands of theoretical thought that view ideology as an inescapable and all pervasive force. Documentaries do make claims about the truth that are open to evaluation, but unfortunately, according to Nichols, our institutional mechanisms for assessing such claims are themselves suspect.
If such an approach is accepted, evaluation of the arguments made by Oliver Stone and Errol Morris might be highly problematic. Carroll, however, is not willing to concede that any of these arguments establish either that non-fiction is a form of fiction, or that objectivity is impossible. Firstly, he argues that the cinema does not posses any unique tendency towards bias compared to other media. The same arguments about selectivity that Barnouw raises with respect to film are equally applicable to other media and fields of enquiry.18 The particular causes of distortion may be different, but any historian – for example – may select, manipulate, interpret or emphasise aspects of their material just as a documentary maker can.
Thus if non-fiction film is said to be subjective due to its selectivity, so must any field of human enquiry, such as history and science. In the earlier of the two articles I have discussed (written in 1983), Carroll is confident that such a wide-ranging scepticism would not be seriously proposed.19 As we have seen, by 1996 that was exactly the argument Carroll was responding to. Nevertheless, in 1983 his defence against the selectivity argument is based upon the notion of objectivity. In any given field of argument, at any given time, there are patterns of reasoning, standards for observation, and methods for assessing evidence which are used for getting to the truth.20 A piece of research is considered objective insofar as it abides by these norms.
Likewise, non-fiction films may be assessed against similar codes, and will be considered biased or subjective if they fail to meet them. That selectivity may make bias possible, or even likely, does not preclude the possibility of a film according with established standards of objectivity. The obvious differences between the real world and the filmed presentation prevent film from substituting for lived experience, but they do not prevent documentaries from being objective.
This central assumption of this argument – that there are standards of objectivity that can be used to judge the truth – is exactly the assumption that we have seen Bill Nichols question. Carroll, however, disputes all of Nichols’ contentions that are cited above. Firstly, he does not accept that objectivity demands that a film call attention to its processes of construction. After all, the fact that a non-fiction film is constructed is understood by any audience and does not need to be spelt out. Self-reflexive analyses of the filmmaking process or the author’s own subjectivity might be a feature of many recent documentaries, but for Carrol this is an artistic device, rather than a necessary benchmark for objectivity.
Nor does he accept that any standard for objectivity has embedded political assumptions, even accepting Nichols’ very broad definitions (outlined above) of what constitutes a political assumption. A “belief in the self-evident nature of facts”, for example, might be a political assumption when the facts being presented are politically charged falsehoods. Yet the acceptance that some claims of self-evident truth are suspect does not mean that there can be no self-evident facts. With regards to rhetorical persuasion, he argues that films can either eschew such devices altogether (he cites nature documentaries as an example),21 or employ rhetorical structures in the service of objective discourse.
Similarly, he regards the implicit claim that “this is so, isn’t it” as present in virtually any assertion and hence neither a political assumption nor a barrier to objectivity. Carroll’s approach to these arguments about the prospects for truth or objectivity in documentary is often to return to examples where the “truth” claimed by the documentary seems clear and uncontentious (as with his common use of nature documentaries as discussion points). The linking thread of the arguments he presents is that the theorists he criticises have mistaken the difficulty in presenting objective truth for an impossibility, often by focussing on exactly the texts where the truth is most problematic.22
It is worth returning to The Thin Blue Line and JFK at this point, since these films both explore events that are subject to considerable conjecture. Neither could be accused of assuming the truth about these events is self-evident (quite the opposite), yet both nevertheless ultimately make vital factual claims. As noted already, these claims question state-sanctioned verdicts, and both films led to a public discussion that forced official re-examination of the cases: The Thin Blue Line forced the retrial of Randall Adams, while JFK contributed to the passing of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which appointed an Assassination Records Review Board (AARB) to re-examine unreleased information about the assassination.23 More than a decade later, with Randall Adams freed from jail, it seems fair to say that Morris’ case has been widely accepted as true.
Oliver Stone, too, has been partially vindicated by subsequent re-examination of the case, with records released by the AARB that support some of his allegations (such as tampering with records of Kennedy’s autopsy).24 Yet, despite such small victories, and acceptance by many filmgoers of Stone’s theory of the assassination, JFK remains subject to fierce scholarly criticism of both its methods and conclusions that stands in contrast to the reception of The Thin Blue Line. Linda Williams, in her discussion of the two films, dismisses JFK as “paranoid fiction,”25 and the widespread condemnation of Stone’s film by both popular and academic press is well documented.26 Clearly this has much to do with the nature of the case Stone discusses.
The Kennedy assassination, for obvious reasons, is a much more familiar event and one that had been the subject of considerably more public discussion than the Randall Adams prosecution. Furthermore, while The Thin Blue Line avoids underlining the political implications of its own conclusions, JFK is explicitly critical of the government and media, calling the assassination a coup d’etat and coming very close to suggesting former president Lyndon Johnson was involved.27
However, the difference in the reception of the two films cannot be explained simply through reference to the argument each presents. Within the very similar structures outlined at the start of this essay, there are also crucial differences that also explain much of the negative response to Stone’s film compared to Morris’.
In his consideration of JFK, Robert Rosenstone notes that there are considerable constraints over the depiction of historical events on the screen.28 In particular, he sees the need to invent detail and compress events to shape a narrative as a limitation that must be negotiated by any historical film. While he is referring to narrative features such as JFK, his argument is equally applicable to the summaries of and suppositions regarding events in The Thin Blue Line. This argument has clear overtones of the discussions of documentaries’ distortions of truth through selectivity that have already been cited.
Like Carroll, Rosenstone argues that when a historical filmmaker such as Stone invents or compresses events, he or she is exercising the same type of discretion that the author of any written history must.29 Such inventions can be considered true (at least to a point) in the sense that they can be verified, documented, or reasonably argued. The problem, notes Rosenstone, is that the verification must occur outside the world of the film. When Stone argues in JFK that President Kennedy was about to withdraw troops from Vietnam, the information is justified by reference to a real memorandum (National Security Action Memo 263), but a fictitious character makes the reference.
Assuming no foreknowledge of the case, the audience has no way while watching the film of even knowing that the memorandum really existed, let alone being sure that it supports the conclusion Stone draws. If Stone’s conclusion is to be examined, the audience must go beyond viewing and read the relevant documents (or scholarly discussion of them) for themselves. If they do so, they will, as Rosenstone states, be undertaking the same kind of critique and review that a work of written history is subjected to. This process of measuring a film against standards of objectivity is exactly that which Carroll highlights as the means of linking non-fiction films to the truth. Stone has actively sought to enter into such debates, mounting extensive defences of the historical accuracy of JFK and his other works.30
That JFK was so controversial was perhaps partly due to the fact that audiences do not necessarily judge films within such evaluative frameworks: unlike the target audience for written history, they may assume that what they see is true and not enter into the debates as to the film’s veracity. Even assuming an engaged, sceptical audience, however, it is also the case that Stone’s film does not make the separation of truth from fiction a straightforward task. I have already suggested that the film possesses three layers of exposition: an outer narrative (Stone’s case), an inner narrative (Garrison’s story), and evidence (presented as documentary material and re-enactments). The inner narrative story of Jim Garrison (which is likely to be understood by most audiences as at least partially fictional and not taken as literally true) is often weaved seamlessly in with the evidence (more likely to be seen as Stone’s presentation of true material).
Garrison, for example, meets the mysterious “Mr X” (Donald Sutherland) in Washington, who outlines a hypothesis about who killed Kennedy and why. This calls forth a series of re-enactments of high level discussions between officials that are weaved into Mr X’s account. The narrative is calling forth evidence, but the difficulty with this sequence is in separating what material is a fictional narrative device, what is speculated, and what is documented truth. For example, are we to accept that Garrison really did meet an anonymous official who told him this information, and take that as evidence that Stone’s case is true? Or are we to take this as simply part of the inner narrative, a method of presenting evidence? As mentioned, Mr X talks in detail of a real memorandum in order to put Stone’s case that Kennedy wished to withdraw from Vietnam.
An audience might correctly surmise that the existence of such a memo (putting aside its meaning) is a documented fact. However, this quickly leads into discussions of the reaction to this memo within high levels of the government, and the point at which history slides into speculation in this sequence is by no means readily apparent. The re-enactment portions of the sequence are presented in a stylised style using black and white photography, but this does not flag them as conjectural, since Stone switches between film stocks throughout the film without drawing such distinctions. (Elsewhere in the film, for example, the Zapruder film of the assassination, is alternated with simulated footage shot in the same style.)
The effect of these aesthetic decisions by Stone is to confuse the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction in a way that makes application of objective standards for assessing truth difficult. The audience can only infer which sections of the film are intended to be read as non-fiction and subject to such examination.
Written in October 2001 for the Melbourne University subject “Ethnographic and Documentary Cinema.”
1. This is the concluding sentence of Eric Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, (Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1993, 2nd Revised Edition), p. 349.
2. The list of similarities between the two films that follows draws partly on Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History and The Thin Blue Line” in Barry Keith Grant & Jeanette Sloniowski (eds), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video (Wayne State UP, Detroit, 1998), p 381.
3. The film’s Garrison, for example, has access to information the real Garrison did not, in order to allow Stone to communicate it to audiences. For example, “In the movie we attributed to Garrison the information about Shaw’s background but in real life Jim did not have access to that information at that time.” (Oliver Stone audio commentary, JFK DVD, Region 4 “Special Edition Director’s Cut” release, Warner Brothers, 1 hour 28 mins approx.)
4. This phrase is Stone’s own: JFK audio commentary, op. cit., 2 hours 10 mins approx. While these scenes are also used to communicate information about the larger case, this is an example of narrative efficiency, and does not contradict my point that they do contain aspects (such as the melodromatic touch of Garrison’s children asking “Don’t you love us any more?”) which function simply as domestic drama, with no relation to the case against Clay Shaw.
5. Nichols has revisited and slightly reformulated these modes over time, but they can be summarised as expository (ie “voice-of-God” documentaries that use direct address to tell the audience a truth), observational (cinema verite style films that aim to observe events without participating), interactive (interview based films that allows for direct address by participants, while allowing for filmmaker’s interaction through questioning), reflexive (films that draw attention to the documentary’s own methods), and performative (stressing an individual, subjective position, while downplaying objective or referential aspects). See Bill Nichols: “The Voice of Documentary,” Film Quarterly 36, no 3 (Spring 1983); Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (1991, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis), Chapter 2; and (for the perfomative mode) “Performing Documentary,” Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture (c. 1994, Indiana UP, Bloomington), pp 92-106.
6. This point and the subsequent discussion of classical film theory draw on the discussions in the anthologies Gerald Mast et al. (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1992), pp. 3-7, and Antony Easthorpe, Contemporary Film Theory (Longman, London & New York, 1993), pp. 2-5.
7. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Faber & Faber, London, 1958), esp. pp. 17-37.
8. Ibid., p. 37-114.
9. Noël Carroll, “From Real to Reel: Entangled in Nonfiction film,” in Noël Carroll, Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996), p. 224-252. (Originally published in Philosophic Exchange in 1983, and will be cited in future as Carroll (1996/1983) to distinguish it from his piece in Post-Theory cited below). Reference to direct cinema is p. 225.
11. Ibid., p. 226. Carroll is quoting from the first edition of Barnouw’s Documentary, citing p. 287-288 of that edition (Oxford University Press, New York, 1974). The nearest equivalent to this quote I can find in the third edition (op. cit.) is at p. 344.
12. Noël Carroll, “Nonfiction films and Postmodernist Skepticism” in Noël Carrol & David Bordwell (eds.), Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1996), pp. 283-306.
13. Ibid., p. 288. Emphasis is Carroll’s.
14. Carroll is frequently belligerent about the texts he discusses but is particularly so about Renov’s Theorizing Documentary, describing it as “a state of the art compendium of received thinking about the documentary film,” and dismissing Renov’s argument as “a red herring.” Ibid., p. 285 & 291.
15. Both quotes Nichols, 1991, op. cit., p. 109. Emphasis is Nichols.’
16. This is the title of the second part of Nichols’ book. How helpful this argumentative nature is as a distinction between fiction and documentary (and how unlike any other form of fiction documentary can be said to be) is debatable given that fiction can be every bit as argumentative as documentary (as JFK demonstrates).
17. Ibid., p. 195.
18. Carroll (1996/1983), op. cit., p. 226.
19. Carroll: “I mention this because I do not think that commentators who conclude that the nonfiction film is subjective intend their remarks as a mere gloss on the notion that everything is subjective. But that, I fear, is the untoward implication of their attack.” Ibid., p. 226.
20. Ibid., p. 230. See also Carroll, 1996, op. cit. pp. 283-285.
21. Carroll, 1996, p. 294.
22. See, for example, Ibid., p. 293, regarding film scholars’ focus on “art-documentary.”
23. Michael L. Kurtz, “Oliver Stone, JFK, and History,” in Robert Brent Toplin (ed), Oliver
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