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The Allure of Conspiracy Theories: On Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ and Hulu’s ‘11.22.63’

The Allure of Conspiracy Theories: On Oliver Stone's 'JFK' and Hulu's '11.22.63'

There is enough
mystery in the facts as we know them, enough of conspiracy, coincidence, loose
ends, dead ends, multiple interpretations. There is no need… to invent the
grand and masterful scheme, the plot that reaches flawlessly in a dozen
directions.  –
Don DeLillo,
Libra (1988)

Though it’s as sticky with portents as a New Orleans summer,
the scene on which Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) turns is set on the
National Mall, the Washington Monument pinning the slate sky in place. As
Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) leans in close,
scribbling in his pocket notebook, the high-ranking intelligence official known
only as “X” (Donald Sutherland) weaves together a coup d’état
from a fistful of disparate threads — a journey to the South Pole, a New
Zealand newspaper’s front page, the “unusual curve” of a Dallas street.
“That’s the real question, isn’t it? Why?” he says. “The how and
the who is just scenery for the public.”

Of course, stories are built from the how and the who as
well as the why and the wherefore, from plots and characters that draw us into
another world until we fall, for a spell, out of our own. Conspiracy theories
are simply stories that presume the weight of the why, committed to the notion that
grasping every thread, ordering every detail, will ultimately produce the grand
explanation. Conspiracy theories are, in this sense, stories par excellence:
Unfazed by the inexplicable, the fateful, and the unimportant, conspiracy
theories are perfect wholes, closed circles, which truer stories can never be. This
is what makes them so compelling.

READ MORE: “How Amazon’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ Uses History’s Icons to Create Tension” 

“JFK” and Hulu’s new miniseries, “11.22.63,”
both of which re-narrate the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to the
assassination of President John F. Kennedy, offer two distinct — you might say
opposing — approaches to “the real question,” and their divergence
when it comes to the events in Dealey Plaza points to the tenacious power of
what Richard Hofstader once called “the paranoid style in American
politics.” Despite the fact that “11/22/63” involves time
travel, Stone’s furious masterwork is the more fanciful, and the more
effective, of the two, for it is, to quote Hofstader, “a vast theatre for
[the] imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail.”

Indeed, as Garrison and his colleagues compile the case for
X’s hypothesis, spinning suspicious deaths, mishandled evidence, and scraps of
biography into connections among Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, the CIA, the
military-industrial complex, and the “homosexual underworld,”
“JFK” assumes the shape of the conspiracy theorist’s fever dream,
winding up its conjectures so tightly as to resist cross-examination. With due
respect to Stone — who takes issue with critics that question the film’s truth
content while praising its style — its rapid succession of stocks, speeds,
textures, and colors, of archival footage, faux archival footage, photographic
stills, and re-enactments, if not “paranoid” exactly, is closer to
stream-of-consciousness than to argument, closer to memory than to fact:
unreliable but incomparably powerful. Each time I see it, I find myself re-reading
fragments of the Warren Commission report, seeking out the naysayers’ many tracts
and testaments, wondering anew if there’s something the rest of us missed. To
me, this is the foremost mark of its brilliance.

By contrast, “11.22.63,” adapted from Stephen
King’s 2011 novel, comes at conspiracy theories with surprising care — and
loses the fretful charge of Stone’s retelling in the process. Though the series
pursues JFK’s assassination down “the rabbit hole,” as the first
episode’s title has it, its interest is in the quotidian: as public
schoolteacher Jake Epping (James Franco) reminds his students in the early
going, screening a documentary on the Tuskegee experiment,  “People tend to think the important
stories are wars, elections, political movements. But these people matter.
Little things matter.”

Urged on by his friend Al (Chris Cooper), the owner of the
Maine diner in which the portal to the past is located, Jake travels from the
present day to October 21, 1960 to investigate JFK’s assassination before the
fact, and then, he hopes, to stop it — changing the course of history via the
butterfly effect, from the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to the escalation
of the Vietnam War. From this intriguing premise, “11.22.63” derives
a few clever ideas — Jake earns money by placing bets on baseball games and
boxing matches of which he already knows the outcome — but in general the
series skirts science fiction. “11.22.63” prefers to focus on the

The infamous photograph of Oswald (Daniel Webber) posing
with a rifle outside his apartment, for instance, is not the painstaking
fabrication depicted in “JFK,” but a genuine artifact. Our very first
glimpse of him is not of a “patsy,” but of a dispossessed man with
delusions of grandeur — one who asks his mother (the sorely underutilized
Cherry Jones), upon his return from “defecting” to the Soviet Union, which
members of the press have come to meet him. (None.) Though the series’ period
detail is uninspired — a high-finned pink Cadillac playing Maurice Williams and
the Zodiac’s “Stay” on the radio; a milkman dropping glass bottles
and cursing, “For the love of Mike!” — its treatment of historical
events hews close to the truth.

The problem, as Jake picks up a sidekick (George MacKay) and
encounters the woman of his dreams (the luminous Sarah Gadon), is that
“11.22.63” detours from its protagonist’s purpose too often to
fashion this truth into drama. Drifting into strange, lurid subplots, speckled
with flashes of the past fighting not to
be changed, the series never settles on one subject long enough to pull the
threads taut, as “JFK” does time and again. Its delights — a slip-up
involving “The Manchurian Candidate,” a high school dance, a
surprising phone call in a police precinct — are fleeting, for as much as
“11.22.63” seems interested in examining the life Jake creates for
himself in the past’s far country, the deadline of the title looms large. There
is no escaping it.

READ MORE: “How ‘American Crime Story’ Explains Our Obsession with the O.J. Simpson Trial” 

As DeLillo’s own reimagining of the Kennedy assassination suggests,
the temptation to construct conspiracy theories has more to do with the
narrative impulse than the political one. Nicholas Branch, the cloistered CIA
historian of the author’s 1988 novel Libra, has at his disposal all the
classified, top secret evidence Garrison lacks, and yet his is “an area of
research marked by ambiguity and error”; even the Zapruder film, for
Branch, is at once a “basic timing device” and a “major emblem
of uncertainty and chaos.”

This, I suspect, explains why the far-fetched
“JFK,” and not the more circumspect “11.22.63,” succeeds in
dramatizing the Kennedy assassination. Where the latter leaves history’s loose
ends hanging, the former’s visual chaos resolves, as Garrison lays out his
theory in closing arguments, into the masterful scheme, the flawless plot.
People aren’t “suckers for the truth,” as X tells Garrison. They’re
suckers for a good story.  

“11.22.63” premieres today on Hulu.    

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