Political Paranoia as Cinematic Motif: Stone's "JFK"

Robert S. Robins
Professor of Political Science
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA 70118
Jerrold M. Post, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology, and International Affairs
The George Washington University
Address: 7106 Broxburn
Bethesda, MD 20817


This paper argues that the paranoid theme has a particular resonance with politics and lends itself both artistically and financially to film. Oliver Stone's JFK serves as the principal illustration.

Paper presented at the August/September, 1997, meeting of the American Political Science Association. Washington, D.C.

Paranoia in Political Context

paranoia, n.
mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions and the projection of personal conflicts, which are ascribed to the supposed hostility of others; chronic functional psychosis of insidious development, characterized by persistent, unalterable, logically reasoned delusions, commonly of persecution and grandeur
paranoid, n.
suffering from paranoia
a. morbidly or excessively suspicious
paranoid style.
[Qualities] of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy. Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."

The paranoid personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent. Individuals with the paranoid personality disorder

At its most malignant, the paranoid response is associated with serious mental illnesses, both functional and organic. Severe paranoid symptoms are associated with paranoid schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorders, the late stages of substance-abuse diseases, and organic psychoses.

Increasingly the term paranoia has been used more broadly to refer not only to this specific diagnostic entity but also to a personality trait and a personality style, characterized by guardedness, suspiciousness, hypersensitivity, and isolation. An important aspect of this style is a pattern of disowning uncomfortable personal feelings and attributing them to others, the psychological defense mechanism known as projection.

With the understanding that the paranoid response springs from diverse sources and varies in consistency and intensity, throughout this essay we will interchangeably use the terms paranoid and paranoia in this broader sense, to subsume both clinical paranoid illnesses as well as paranoid style and paranoid outlook.

Although the paranoid outlook affects many areas of human affairs, it is most evident in the adversarial world of politics where it is a constant feature. At its extreme, the paranoid style is more destructive than any other political style. Paranoids do not have adversaries or rivals or opponents; they have enemies, and enemies are not to be simply defeated and certainly not to be compromised with or won over. Enemies are to be destroyed. As Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, would say to those who opposed him: "I'm not just going to beat you. I'm going to ruin you!"

What makes paranoia so difficult to define and to understand is that it begins as a distortion of a healthy political response-- suspicion--but then far overshoots the mark. The paranoid message is not restricted to government leaders like Hitler and Stalin or to paranoid agitators like David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. Because it is so deep within the human condition, and because it so resonates with politics, it readily appears in the popular culture of political cinema.

Paranoia in Popular Cinema.

The Event was so great; its consequences threatened to be so dangerous, that it seemed almost blasphemous to attribute so world-shaking a crime to a young, highly unstable, badly educated, semi-literate partisan of what he called "Marxism." The event deserved a greater cause, to amend Horace.
   D. W. Brogan, "Death in Dallas."

When they killed our president.
   Caller to C-SPAN referring to Kennedy Assassination.
    September 11, 1992

Always leave them asking for more.
   Old show business maxim

The paranoid message will give more and more, and then it will give even more. The entertainment resources of the paranoid message are unrivaled. It offers puzzles, drama, passion, heroes, villains, and struggle. If the story-line can be tied to an historical event, especially one that involves romantic characters and unexpected death, then fiction, history, and popular delusion can be joined in the pursuit of profit. The story, moreover, need never end. If evidence appears that refutes the conspiracy, the suppliers of the discrediting material will themselves be accused of being part of the conspiracy. The paranoid explanatory system is a closed one. Only confirmatory evidence is accepted. Contradictions are dismissed as being naive or, more likely, part of the conspiracy itself.

The death of Marilyn Monroe and the assassination of John F. Kennedy have engendered films, television programs, books, and articles. The Kennedy assassination has even produced study groups and an annual convention in Dallas. One of the most remarkable examples of conspiracy portrayed as entertainment, is the film JFK, directed by Oliver Stone (Warner Brothers, 1992). Our purpose is not to review the controversy concerning the circumstances surrounding President Kennedy's assassination (although we do reject the idea that the assassination was part of a conspiracy). Nor is our purpose to review the film (although we will evaluate the film within an aesthetic and literary tradition). Rather we intend to show how the paranoid theme added narrative power and commercial value to the film, to illuminate the part that the paranoid message plays in popular entertainment.

Films are not simply entertainment, they are also cultural, intellectual, and political influences. Research demonstrates the influence on beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and behavior of such films as the anti-nuclear The Day After, the anti-Soviet Amerika, Holocaust, and the multigenerational saga of a black family, Roots. The effect, however, is not so much to change people's minds as to solidify and exaggerate beliefs and attitudes already held. Films do not create cultural trends, but they do accelerate and exaggerate them. A survey and analysis of viewer reaction to JFK demonstrated that this film and others like it can produce "markedly altered emotional states, belief changes spread across specific political issues, and ... an impact on politically relevant behavioral changes. [JFK viewers] reported emotional changes, [became] significantly more angry and less hopeful...Those who had seen the movie were significantly more likely to believe [the various conspiracies depicted in the film]."

JFK is not a historical film in the way that William Makepeace Thackeray's Henry Esmond, Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind are historical novels. Stone does not take fictional characters and put them in an historical context, as the fictional Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler are placed in civil-war Georgia. Stone takes genuine historical characters--New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison and civic activist Clay Shaw, for example--and presents his version of what happened. Films of this sort are called docudramas because they dramatize historical events and historical characters and for the screen. A film like Gone with the Wind attempts to tell the viewer what things were like, what sorts of things happened in a past historical period. In contrast, a docudrama like JFK attempts to convey a particular version of history; the film does not simply lay out the director's version of history; it seeks to persuade the viewer that the version is the truth.

Film as media presents opportunities and limitations that are absent in a written work. These strengths and restrictions were first demonstrated in D. W. Griffith's seminal American film, The Birth of a Nation (Epic, 1915). This film, which set the "grammar and syntax" of cinema as narrative entertainment, carried a powerful racist message. It idealized the Old South, praised slavery, described Klansmen as heroic saviors of the white South from bestial blacks and their Northern white allies, and opposed racial "pollution." Financially it was very successful. Politically it facilitated the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Its racism was so simplistic and offensive that, even in an era tolerant of racism, it was banned in several cities and became the object of small riots. Griffith saw himself as the victim of the forces (blacks and their Northern sympathizers) that he "exposed" in the film.

From The Birth of a Nation's release in 1915 to the appearance of JFK in 1992 American historical films developed a cinematic pattern with the following characteristics:

JFK adds several other techniques. It seamlessly interweaves newsreel footage from the assassination with fictional material, so that the boundary between historical fact and the director's or writer's fictional elaborations are progressively blurred. It is crammed with information, presented in words and suggested in pictures. It contains not only many short speeches and several long orations but much dialogue. More important, it includes many scenes without dialog, some seemingly only one or two seconds long, which impart or suggest information. Not one locus of conspiracy is suggested but eight: the CIA, weapons manufacturers, the Dallas police, the armed forces, the White House, the establishment press, renegade anti-Castro Cubans, and the Mafia. The persuasive value of such an onslaught is to leave the viewer, if not convinced, at least believing that "there has to be something to it." One viewer said that she and her companion "walked out of the movie feeling like we had just undergone a powerful 'paranoia induction.'"

These facts, inventions, and insinuations do not necessarily come from the director's private beliefs. They are driven by the commercial and narrative needs of the form. Popular art requires continuity and order, elements generally lacking in genuine events. The film depiction of events must grab the viewer's attention, keep him fixed in his seat, make him identify with the action and principal characters, and induce him to tell his neighbors to buy a ticket for the next performance. The paranoid perspective advances these commercial and artistic ambitions:

Thus, the paranoid message is uniquely suited to the form of a historical film drama, or docudrama. This message is seen most powerfully in JFK but also in other paranoid films: Silkwood, Missing, and The Parallax View.

The paranoid theme complements another influence: deconstruction, a prominent feature of late twentieth century criticism and art. The most important part of the deconstructive position for our purposes is its contention that "texts" (novels, films, poems) have no meaning apart from how they are perceived. If the audience receives the "true" story, then the "facts" in the text are true. Truth is itself a shifting concept whereby the political interests of the creator and the audience (generally expressed in terms of race, gender, and economic position) define what is true. If what is presented persuades people that it is true and if this truth is "politically progressive," then the events presented in the text are true.

The political commentator Ronald Steel identifies this dynamic in JFK:

Because of the director's ability to cut, splice, fuse, restage, and invent, it is virtually impossible for a viewer of his film to tell if he is seeing a real or a phony event. Stone mixes real black-and-white footage, such as the Zapruder film of Kennedy's murder, with restaged black-and-white episodes that may or may not have happened. The result is a deconstructionist's heaven. Every event becomes a pseudo-event, fictions become fact, imagination becomes reality, and the whole tangible world disappears.
Stone acknowledges that what he shows as happening need not ever have happened. Asked whether he has a responsibility to historical fact, Stone replied that the questioner was getting "into the area of censorship" and that it is "up to the artist himself to determine his own ethics by his own conscience." In any event, Stone argues that he was creating a myth that "represents the inner spiritual meaning of an event."

Stone's reference to myth as central to the film is an appropriate one. Myths are meta-explanations: they explain beyond what we can see or understand. A paranoid message can also have a great role in developing and enhancing a myth.

The life of John F. Kennedy has become an American myth, symbolizing youth, vigor, progress, and glamour. In fact, the historical Kennedy was quite different from the mythic Kennedy, but for the most part the public has set aside the facts in favor of the symbols. There are many reasons for the generation of this myth in the face of the facts. The Kennedy family (and Kennedy himself when he was alive) and their partisans fostered it: they presented Kennedy as associated with other mythic figures (Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt), and they have made use of mythic archetypes (New Frontier, Camelot). Most important, however, were the timing and circumstances of Kennedy's death. Had Kennedy lived, he might be remembered as a successful or an unsuccessful president, but not as a legendary hero. His untimely death and the dramatic conditions surrounding it gave rise to his legend: in mythic style a young king promising a new world was killed in a public place in the presence of his beautiful queen, and his realm changed forever.

What is required in the myth-creating circumstances is a destructive force proportional to the event. A nerdish left wing sympathizer who manages to fire a couple of lucky shots from a cheap mail-order rifle is not a suitable instrument for the destruction of a mythic hero. In real life such things happen. In myth and film, never.

Only two destructive forces are suitable for creating the Kennedy myth. An occurrence that could be interpreted in supernatural terms would be appropriate to ending Kennedy's life and beginning the legend. An earthquake, a meteor, a tornado, the sudden collapse of an ancient bridge, or a heart attack or stroke during an historic event would all give mythic color to his death. The other possibility is that some great human source of evil was responsible.

Here we return to our initial point, the effectiveness of the paranoid message as a means of completing, or fulfilling, an artistic statement. The paranoid message is a dramatically strong one, like adultery or murder. In the case of Kennedy, it perfects the myth. Because the public has committed itself to believing the rest of the Kennedy myth, there is a natural inclination to believe in a conspiracy. It completes the story and fulfills the audience's desire for understanding. People cling to this belief with remarkable tenacity. For example, Gerald Posner, who wrote the well-reviewed anti-conspiracist Case Closed, was the object of threatening telephone calls and picketing by demonstrators carrying signs saying "Case Not Closed." Some conspiracists even advocated a day of national resistance to the book.

Thus, the great strength of the paranoid message in docudrama lies in its capacity to add an element that both explains an event and testifies to its importance. The technique, moreover, adds drama to a film. It also makes for a more profitable film. But such a film is not simply entertainment. As it entertains, it persuades. In fact, if the audience is not persuaded it will lose interest. The social harm that the film commits goes beyond the distortion of history. It creates a broader intellectual pollution. Each paranoid film gives weight to a popular mentality of paranoid belief. If event after event is "shown to be" the product of a malign conspiracy, then the public will accept that that is how the world works.


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