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Pundits turned critics miss point of film

Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone's "JFK."

Thank God for President Bush's stomach flu. It gave the op-ed pundits something to write about other than Oliver Stone's "JFK." Never in my years as a newspaperman have I seen one subject pummeled so mercilessly and joylessly as this movie that questions the official wisdom on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Saddam Hussein did not receive half the vituperation the op-ed crowd has aimed at "JFK." Nothing Oliver North did was remotely as shocking to them as this film by the other famous Oliver.

It is always a little daunting when the deep thinkers of the editorial department venture out to the movies. There is condescension in their voices when they return. They're going to set us straight. What is strange about "JFK" is that few of the pundits seem actually to have "seen" the movie. You will search the clippings in vain for their visceral response, for their answer to the question: Politics aside, how was it as a movie?

I think it is a terrific movie experience. Audiences seem to agree. But it's important to draw a distinction between the movie's politics and its entertainment value. The op-ed team seems to begin with the premise that if they disagree with a movie, if it offends their ideological and historical beliefs, then that makes it a bad movie. It does not. It makes it a movie they disagree with. Quality is a separate question. Even if I disagreed with the arguments in each and every frame of "JFK," even if I thought the whole film was an irresponsible paranoid fantasy, I would have to be honest enough to admit that it engaged my attention, it entertained me, it challenged me, and it made me think.

That cannot be said about many movies in the course of a year. Here on the movie beat, I see a lot of movies that are shameful, lazy, corrupt, boring and exploitative. "JFK" isn't one of them. It's a labor of love and risk by Oliver Stone, who has dramatized the doubts many people have about the official version of Kennedy's death. He is entitled to his beliefs.

If it has done nothing else, "JFK" has achieved the remarkable feat of making the op-ed people livid with anger - greater anger, apparently, than was generated by Watergate, or Irangate, or the vast, looming specter of Vietnam, or such issues as gun control. Most of the pundits pride themselves on a certain measured tone; why does this movie make them so mad they lose their cool?

Consider political columnist Tom Wicker. He attacked the film in the entertainment section of the Sunday New York Times, a week before it opened. Oliver Stone responded in a letter to the editor, where he made the mistake of referring to himself as an artist. Wicker chose not to reply to anything of substance in Stone's letter, limiting his response to a smartass comeback:

"Mr. Wicker replies: "The director of 'JFK' is not, as he claims, an artist. He is a polemicist."

Here you see the anger. Wicker doesn't answer the letter, he dismisses it, in a show off moment I imagine he is ashamed of by now. Tom Wicker should know that it is possible for the same man to be an artist and a polemicist, that it is not forbidden for an artist to express political opinions.

Dan Rather is as angry as Tom Wicker. He has attacked the movie twice on the CBS News. Why are these guys so worked up? There is one obvious reason, one not so obvious:

1. If Stone is right, then their own reporting on the Kennedy assassination is discredited. They got the story wrong. They have spent the last 30 years tacitly acting as if there were no substantial stories still to be generated by the Kennedy assassination. What are they going to do now? Thank Stone for directing their attention back to some of the bothersome questions in the case?

2. It is human nature to reserve a special dislike for those whose lives are a rebuke to our own. In the 1960s, this same generation of op-ed guys saw themselves as anti-establishment, hard-nosed reporters who brushed aside official versions. Today, the former anti-establishment rebels are themselves the establishment. Then here comes that nuisance Ollie Stone, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, rattling the skeletons in all those old cupboards and upsetting everyone.

Even if Stone is completely wrong, isn't there a story in the fact that two-thirds of Americans believe we don't know the full story of the Kennedy assassination? Even if Stone is a paranoid polemicist, why can't those government files on the assassination be opened until after most of us are dead? What's in them? Why aren't the op-ed guys demanding to see them? Why is Stone a nut for wanting them to be unsealed?

A man named Robert Warshow once wrote a few words that I have pinned to the wall in front of me. He wrote:

"A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." In other words, a critic must acknowledge the feelings he really had, the thoughts he really formed, the opinion he really believes. Even if you hate everything a movie stands for, you have to acknowledge how it made you feel.

Sometimes Warshow's credo gets me into tricky situations, as it did not long ago when I was reviewing a skillful but reprehensible movie named "The Last Boy Scout." I had to acknowledge the craft of the movie even while deploring its debasement of women and its basic indecency.

As a polemicist, if you will, I disagreed with the film. But as the man who was watching the movie, I had to admit that it delivered. I wrote: ". . .This film panders with such determination to the base instincts of the action crowd that it will, I am sure, be an enormous hit."

The ads for "The Last Boy Scout" have dishonestly distorted that sentence. They quote me in big letters: "An enormous hit!" Well, at least I can live with what I did write.

What about the op-ed guys? Did they watch "JFK"? How did it make them feel? What did they think about the performances, the energy, the skillful mixture of documentary and reconstructed footage? Did they admire Stone's sheer technical ability to keep us interested through 188 minutes of densely woven fact, fiction and speculation? Did they consider what an indigestible mass of disorganized material the movie could have been? Did they see it as a movie at all? Or did they have their op-ed blinkers on, and only judge it in terms of their politics?

"A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man."

Clip it out. Stick it where you can see it. It's not only about the movies.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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