Modern Myth-Maker

It's a movie that's being blasted by the critics. The Washington Post says it's riddled with errors. Time magazine says it distorts history. The New York Times dismisses it as paranoid. Yet the movie has already grossed nearly $7 million at the box office. What is this movie that the columnists hate and the people love? It's Oliver Stone's latest film "JFK," which portrays the assassination of President Kennedy. What has the critics hopping mad is Stone's cavalier approach to history. Stone's thesis is that Kennedy was not really anti-communist, and that he secretly planned to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam. To prevent that, he was knocked off by a mega-conspiracy involving the CIA, the FBI, the Mob, the Dallas police force, and the whole "military-industrial complex." The only way Stone makes this implausible thesis seem plausible is by a slick blending of cinematic techniques. He moves from real footage to black-and-white re-enactments so smoothly that even alert viewers find it hard to tell the difference. And to young people raised in the celluloid age, Stone's scenario will look like real history. When critics challenged Stone about his reckless disregard for historical truth, he appealed to a higher truth. He admitted that "JFK" is "not a true story per se." But, then, he told Newsweek, what filmmakers care about is not historical truth but cultural myth. In other words, who cares if the portrayal of Kennedy is inaccurate in the mundane, factual sense? It can still be true in what Stone calls "a mythic sense"; it can still convey "a larger issue." And for him, the larger issues all have to do with politics --with exposing the Big Bad Government. Stone is an aging 1960s radical, and he still sees everything through the ideological grid of the 60s. To him, the world is divided between young idealists and "the Establishment." Any story that conveys this basic world view seems to fit Stone's definition of mythic truth --even if it fudges on the historical facts. This is a strange, divided notion of truth. But it's nothing new: It's the same idea that's been laying waste our schools and universities. There it goes by the arcane name of "deconstructionism," and it means that there is no objective interpretation of history. History means whatever the individual takes it to mean. Deconstructionism has been fiercely debated in the ivory towers of college campuses for years, but in "JFK" for the first time it is invading popular culture. Stone openly admits he's not interested in historical accuracy--he's interested only in what Kennedy's death symbolized for him. In short, Stone has deconstructed Kennedy. He's used the medium of film to convey what the events meant in his private, subjective world. So the critics are right to be concerned about the film's historical inaccuracy. They are right to worry that young viewers who didn't live in the 1960s are going to absorb a false picture of what happened. But there's something much more dangerous here. The film's deeper message is that there is no objective truth, historical or otherwise--no objective reality. And if the movie succeeds in passing on that message, it will mean a lot more than the death of a president. It will mean the death of a culture.


Chuck Colson


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