by Jerry White
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 14-18
Mainstream films which focus on governmental conspiracies have a value in making viewers question mainstream assumptions about people in power. But often times these films have their political cake and eat it too. Two recent examples of conspiracy thrillers are the U.K.'s HIDDEN AGENDA (Ken Loach, 1990) and the U.S. feature JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991). Both films level serious charges against their respective governments, suggesting governmental complicity in political conspiracies (a term that both films make heavy use of). But neither film attempts at a serious institutional analysis, indicated by the way both use as characters mainstream authority figures crusading for justice. These feature fictions seem to be, in Hannah Arendt's terms, rebellious films which want to pass themselves off as acts of revolution.
HIDDEN AGENDA deals with the special section of England's military known as M15. The film begins with the assassination of a U.S. human-rights lawyer, whose organization is critical of the English actions in Northern Ireland, and his IRA-affiliated friend. Both were on their way to meet a member of the IRA right outside Belfast. The U.S. lawyer was carrying a tape which would incriminate high-level members of the Thatcher administration. The two were killed by the M15 forces. A cover up has followed.
An outside investigator is brought in, fiercely independent. This, of course, raises the ire of the local police chief, who sets obstacles along every inch of the British investigator's path. The British investigator joins up with the U.S. lawyer's wife, who works as a lawyer with the same human rights organization that her husband did. When the investigator discovers that the assassination has implications that date back to the Thatcher administration's destabilization of the Labor party in the late 70s, high-level officials begin to block his path. He is ultimately defeated. The U.S. lawyer perseveres, however. She manages to get a copy of the incriminating tape, which she promises to try to make public.
The crux of this film is the accusation that the Thatcher administration engaged in dirty tricks to damage the Labor party and win control of the country. The tide HIDDEN AGENDA refers to the real reasons for subsequent crackdowns in Northern Ireland. This film shows British military action in Northern Ireland as the Conservatives' way of asserting authority in a country they sensed was coming apart at the seams. M15 was given carte blanche in Northern Ireland, arresting, torturing and killing whomever they pleased, confident that no questions would be asked. Their tactics were an extension of the destabilizing efforts used against the Labor party. By creating a sense of domestic unrest, the Conservatives were able to justify their authoritarian policy on Northern Ireland.
HIDDEN AGENDA problematically fails to engage in substantial institutional analysis. For example, Loach never wonders what might have happened in Northern Ireland if the Labor patty had remained in power. His quarrel is with the Conservatives, who serve quite well as the "bad guys" in this intrigue, and not with British imperialism as a distinct social structure. He sees the assassination of the U.S. lawyer as part of a huge, at times very confusing, conspiracy. The Conservative party's actions are identified specifically as a "conspiracy" throughout the film. Michael Albeit writes:
Loach's film provides an excellent example of this methodology. He directs his wrath at one specific group of individuals, not at the corrupt political system that created them. HIDDEN AGENDA has a structure which leads viewers to believe that solely because the Conservatives are power hungry and ruthless, does the British government authorize such heinous actions. These actions are not placed in the historical context of British imperialism, which the situation in Northern Ireland derives from. The film can only speak in simplistic formulas. The Conservatives are clearly the bad guys, the lawyers and the investigator are the good guys, and their IRA contacts are somewhere in between.
The investigator's clear role as the protagonist is the film's most problematic aspect. What Loach does with this character is validate the system that he's trying to criticize. Much like the heroic FBI agents of MISSISSIPPI BURNING, the investigator of HIDDEN AGENDA gives the impression that authority structures can be constructive, given good people to participate in them. The narrative places the focus on the individual and not on the institution that he is a part of. When the British investigator first joins forces with the surviving U.S. lawyer to get to the bottom of the assassination, the investigator claims that he "doesn't care whose toes I step on." She later confirms her favorable impression when she tells a friend that he can be trusted, that "he's different." This notion of the heroic authority figure suggests that a strong willed English guy in a position of power is what's needed to fix the problem that is Northern Ireland. Recognizing the oppressive power structure would more likely lead to lasting change, yet this investigator belongs to that power structure and functions within its hierarchy.
But HIDDEN AGENDA does not ask viewers to replace the system it criticizes but to be patient and hope that democracy will correct itself. The film misses this aspiration's paradox. As Albert writes, conspiracy theories allow people to believe that "the government and law per se are okay. We need only to get rid of the bad apples" (19). In that way, conspiracy thriller films can never lead to lasting social change. HIDDEN AGENDA's heroic investigator affirms his belief in conspiracy theories. He clearly identifies the Conservative party as the "bad apples," rather than check the roots of the apple tree for signs of disease.
What HIDDEN AGENDA advocates is a rebellion, as Hannah Arendt defines the term. Of classical rebellions, she writes:
HIDDEN AGENDA merely suggests that the wrong people are in power, not that the power they wield is in itself corrupt. HIDDEN AGENDA's focus on the specific makeup of the ruling class is exactly what Arendt identifies as being wrong with rebellions. We do not need a different ruling class or to "exchange the person who happens to be in authority." We need to recognize the problems that such authority by definition creates.
Oliver Stone's film JFK also makes serious allegations against a government it ends up vindicating. As the film chronicles the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it presents a conspiracy theory that implicates rogue elements in the government's highest levels. The film has as protagonist the heroic figure of Jim Garrison, determined to bring the conspiracy to light. Like the investigator of HIDDEN AGENDA, he claims he doesn't care whose toes he steps on in his idealistic pursuit of the truth. "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall," he says to a crowd of skeptical reporters. Garrison finally manages to bring Clay Shaw, a figure tangentially related to the assassination at best, to trial for conspiracy to kill the President. After Garrison loses, he takes solace in the fact that he has at least raised doubts about the Warren Commission's report.
Stone's quest to discredit the Warren Commission's report is a worthwhile one. Few people still believe the official account of the assassination, which placed Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone killer. The report's flaws were too numerous: the missing brain, the destroyed autopsy notes, the failure to account for much of the action in Abe Zapruder's accidental filming of the assassination, and most of all the "magic bullet" theory. Stone's frontal assault on the Commission's report represents a legitimate effort to expose the lies and distortions that our government routinely engages in. The film has had tangible effects, to say the least. Because of the public outrage created by the film, most of the documentation on the assassination is about to be declassified. Not even the 1977 House Select Committee on Assassinations could manage that The film has made the public question the official story and accept the fact that our government will engage in incredible deception when threatened. JFK has without a doubt had a positive effect on the current U.S. political climate. Nonetheless, the film has serious problems in the way it represents efforts towards social change.
First, the President of JFK bears little resemblance to John Kennedy, President in 1963. This distortion of history is apparent in the first five minutes in the film. In the film's opening sequence, Stone gives the viewer a quick history lesson to set the foreign and domestic context of the film. "Kennedy found himself embroiled in conflicts in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam," the narrator says over newsreel footage. He does not say, however, how Kennedy got "embroiled" in these conflicts. The narrator's voice fails to note that Kennedy invaded these countries, that these were conflicts of his own imagining. The notion that John Kennedy was too progressive for the military-industrial complex does not rest well alongside the facts of his foreign policy. Alexander Cockburn notes,
Like HIDDEN AGENDA, JFK indulges in a simplistic, conspiracy-based analysis of the assassination. The film puts forth the theory that Kennedy was too much of a reformer for the military industrial complex to handle. They had to rub him out, lest he end the war in Vietnam and take steps toward nuclear disarmament and normalization of relations with Cuba. According to the film, "rogue elements" in top levels of the government, mostly in the military and the CIA, plotted to kill him and cover it up. This image of "rogue elements" suggests the possibility of a positive version of the CIA or the military, given better people to participate in these organizations. Such an "honorable" person is presented in the form of Colonel X, Garrison's contact inside the Pentagon. Stone never discusses how the very nature of the military and intelligence agencies in the U.S. government contribute to their violent, right wing mind set, only that in this case they did heinous wrong. Stone, like Loach, presents a binary conflict wherein bad government officials, solely because they are bad, go after good government officials, who will be stopped solely because they are good. While the film makes reference to the influence and power of the "military industrial complex," it fails to analyze what has structured our social order to irreparably link industry with the military. Because of the awesome economic benefits of war making, the two institutions will always function together under capitalism, no matter who is President. JFK tries to deny this structural economic and political reality with its portrayal of a heroic, rebellious President.
Albert writes that conspiracy theories "imply that all was once well and that it can be okay again, if only the conspirators can be dealt with" (19). Stone longs for the days when the good guys were in power, and his film tries to mobilize the public into identifying the bad guys in order to rectify the situation. What Stone fails to realize is, as Billy Joel put it, "the good old days weren't all that good." He certainly doesn't try to explain history with an economic, political, and institutional analysis.
Stone's use of strong male authority figures as heroes further illustrates the film's limits for encouraging meaningful social change. Stone wants everyone to follow him Garrison, a white male, the New Orleans D.A. thoroughly entrenched in the mainstream power system. Garrison is following the memory of Kennedy, another white male thoroughly entrenched in the mainstream hierarchy of power. As Arendt writes about this kind of power,
A progressive film would not lament the loss of a "good" ruler but analyze the oppression involved in being ruled. Nor would a progressive film ask the viewer to believe in the heroic role of a single individual. Such a film would understand the dangers of citizens' being content with being ruled or lead by some glorified individual. Stone does not have a problem with such dangers per se, only with the specific people who embody them.
An image used throughout JFK is the "coup d'etat." Garrison claims that this is what Kennedy's assassination amounted to. Ironically, this image solidifies the rebellious is opposed to revolutionary outlook of the film. As Arendt writes,
If Kennedy had remained President, would there have been noticeable change in the lives of "the people at large"? Cockburn writes ironically, "whether JFK was killed by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy has about as much to do with the subsequent contours of U.S. politics as if he had tripped over one of Caroline's dolls and broken his neck" (22). Kennedy's policies and their effects on the general public derived more from institutional and ideological structures than from his individual, romantic vision. Lyndon Johnson, even if a co-conspirator (who knows if he really was?), belonged just as much to those ideological structures; therefore, his policies could be expected to have an effect similar to Kennedy's. In glorifying Kennedy, Stone is merely rebelling against the status quo, angry only that the names in the power structures changed and not concerned with the structures of power themselves.
Both HIDDEN AGENDA and JFK fit nicely into the category of "Z Movies," or films in the tradition of Costa Gavras' political thriller Z. Outlined in an article by Guy Hennebelle in Cineaste, Z Movies "only use 'politics' as a convenient reference to create the illusion that they are seriously dealing with a problem" (30). One of HIDDEN AGENDA's major problems is that Loach does not examine the sociopolitical reasons for British domination of Northern Ireland. Rather, he just creates an interesting detective story, complete with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys. Politics serve as a means to that end, but not as an end in and of itself. The same is true of JFK, which prefers to dwell on the hunt for Kennedy's killers as opposed to giving its viewers any analysis of Kennedy's own ties to the power structures that killed him.
Hennebelle further writes that Z Movies "revive most of the Hollywood gimmicks in their glossing over of reality — the recourse to out-of-the-ordinary heroes who are all put into extraordinary situations, contrivances of editing, pounding musical scores, and deliberate ideological fuzziness..." This certainly applies to both JFK and HIDDEN AGENDA. Both their "heroes," be they from Scotland Yard or the New Orleans D.A.'s office, find themselves in a situation which is by definition extraordinary since the films depend on shocking viewers to maintain their tension. Both films have very "fuzzy" ideology. Are viewers of HIDDEN AGENDA supposed to sympathize with the members of the IRA? According to JFK, anti-Castro Cubans may have had a role m Kennedy's assassination, but where does Stone come down on the question of U.S. involvement with Cuba? Neither film has a coherent ideological perspective. Rather, both dispense with ideology whenever they can in order to concentrate on the heroic quest of their middle class, white male protagonist To do otherwise would alert viewers to the contradictions that rooting for these fellows entails.
The key differences between these two films lies in their divergent visual styles. HIDDEN AGENDA uses a classical realist, narrative cinematic style with invisible editing, emphasis on narrative causality, etc.. No visual pyrotechnics here, just the facts, ma'm. JFK, on the other hand, makes use of a highly stylized form, with high-speed montage sequences, use of black and white footage, and crosscutting staged and documentary material. The difference between these two forms-realist and montage-in many ways signals the films' respective goals.
Loach's film is a tightly constructed narrative about what happens to an U.S. lawyer. Nothing is left for the viewer to wonder about. The lawyer's fate is explicitly shown-even if the characters themselves are left a bit fuzzy. Of the classical narrative in the mystery film, David Bordwell writes
No loose ends in this film are left untied. HIDDEN AGENDA presents a linear exposition of events that have supposedly been hidden from public view. Its editing style works in the same way, leading viewers along by the hand, never engaging in any stylistic invention might make them uncomfortable. The film's ideology acts in the same way, as discussed previously. HIDDEN AGENDA breaks no genuinely new ground, be it in terms of narrative structure or political information. As Hennebelle writes, "What usually happens ...is that these forms, being far from innocent, revenge themselves" (29). Loach is constrained by his use of the classical style because this style assumes a simply and directly told story. The ideology matches the form that carries
What, then, to make of Stone's highly stylized JFK, much of which is presented in a rapid fife montage style and which finally leaves many questions unanswered? Stone has said,
This style fits classical theories of montage, considering the film's ambiguous conclusions and relatively non-linear structure. Soviet film theorists had been concerned above all with montage as a collision of ideas and an attempt to form a synthesis. As Eisenstein writes, the "formulation and investigation of the cinema as forms of conflict yield the first possibility of devising a homogeneous system of visual dramaturgy" (55). JFK, on the level of its narrative and its visuals, presents the conflict of a large number of concepts or images. JFK assumes a far more sophisticated viewer than does HIDDEN AGENDA. Stone paints a complex picture of the assassination, one that may or may not involve, among others, the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, far-right survivalists, the mafia, the U.S. Army, and the Postmaster General. Correspondingly, the film has a very dense visual style, frequently based on quickly cut, associative montages. An example of such image conflict is the sequence where a gunshot is heard and there is a quick cut to the Zapruder film and then back to a nervous-looking Garrison, twitching his head with each shot JFK's style owes much to MTV for its flashiness and willingness to experiment and to the avant-garde for its brash use of found footage-
An example of an avant-garde film that uses found footage to make a political statement is Bruce Conner's REPORT. REPORT also presents a collage (both aural and visual) about Kennedy's assassination. Both films re-construct the documented event in order to try to make sense out of it and explore its social ramifications. Conner's film fits in with his ongoing concern with the relation between vision and violence. Stone's film lacks the analysis of voyeurism that is key to Conner's work. In fact, JFK works in a way that Conner would probably be appalled by. Stone has said about JFK:
Stone's statement here invites viewers to relive the national tragedy, to once again take an intense and personal part in the event's voyeurism in a way that owes much to modernism's demand for personal involvement with the aesthetic object. Conner's film, on the other hand, insists on distanciation from the event itself. P. Adams Sitney writes of REPORT,
Stone's project utilizes its material for an effect that is just the opposite of distanciation, thus missing the point of his stylistic source material. Conner wants to say that what is really sickening is not so much what we're watching (although that is appalling) but that we are so obsessed with watching it. Stone's statement suggests that he welcomes such obsession, just as he welcomes hero worship of Kennedy. A more progressive text would be suspicious of such blind, rigorous involvement with aesthetic objects and political figures.
On many levels, Stone gives his viewer a lot more to chew on than does Loach. The "splinters to the brain" analogy is perceptive; JFK's viewers get little bits and pieces of both images and facts and are expected to assemble them cohesively. But neither Stone nor Loach move beyond the candy of the political thriller into a meatier analysis of the conflicts that produced the systems that the films' "heroes" are supposedly fighting against. HIDDEN AGENDA and JFK forsake their potential to be empowering films in favor of being entertaining ones. Albert writes,
As mainstream films, HIDDEN AGENDA and JFK predictably simplify subject matter to make it appealing to as large an audience as possible. But in so doing, the films sacrifice the integrity of the significant accusations they level against their respective governments. Because they fail to engage in substantive institutional analysis, these films do not point to any more societal change than putting new names in positions of (already corrupted) power. When the heroes of both JFK and HIDDEN AGENDA express just how "shocked" they are to discover the extent of corruption in mainstream political institutions, I cannot help but think of the scene in CASABLANCA where Chief of Police Claude Raines says he is "shocked" to discover gambling going on at Rick's American Cafe, and right then a young waiter hands him his winnings.
Albert, Michael. "Conspiracy? ...NOT!" Z Magazine, January 1992: 17-19.
Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. London: Pelican Books. 1986.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press. 1985.
Cockburn, Alexander. "Beat the Devil." The Nation, January 6/13 1992: 6-7. Reprinted as "John and Oliver's Bogus Adventure," Sight and Sound, February 1992: 22-24.
Conners, Laila and Nathan Gardels. "Splinters to the Brain." New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 1992: 51-53.
Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form. Translated by Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich. 1977.
Hennebelle, Guy. "Z Movies, or What Hath Costa-Gavras Wrought?" Cineaste 6:2. 28-31.
Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978. New York Oxford Press. 1979.