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.
"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 facts.
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.
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.