Former NS editor John Freeman reacts to JFK's death: The man we trusted

29 November 1963: "The shock and the grief are universal and so great. Emotions have poured out - and they have gilded the truth."

The most grievous assassination in modern history has transformed John Kennedy from an embattled president, deadlocked with a hostile and suspicious Congress, into the brightest legend of our time. It was inevitable. The shock and the grief are universal and so great. Emotions have poured out – and they have gilded the truth. Yet that too may be misleading, for the emotions were part of the truth; and if Kennedy is remembered along with Lincoln and FDR as one of the great presidents, it will be more because he captured the imagination of a whole generation in almost every corner of the world than because he succeeded in fulfilling the purposes to which he dedicated his presidency. 
 
His great achievement, for which the world outside America chiefly honours him this week, was his leadership of the western alliance. When he took over, we walked in the shadow of nuclear war. Two years and ten months later, the dialogue between the White House and the Kremlin has proceeded so far that no one can doubt the genuineness of Khrushchev’s dismay at the young President’s death. Yet he wrought this change without any surrender of vital interest, by strength and not by weakness. He persuaded Khrushchev that negotiations were practicable, because he was himself clear about what could be negotiated – and firm about what could not. The test-ban treaty and the hotline are the visible signs of a business relation between the Soviet bloc and the West, in which each side recognises the power of the other and the suicidal folly of pressing points of difference to the brink of war. The differences still exist; the Cold War goes on; errors of judgment by less sagacious men on either side can still plunge us all to catastrophe; there is no more than an agreement to disagree – but that, after all, is the essential prelude to an eventual harmony. 
 
Kennedy’s achievement in all this was not one-sided. Nuclear war would be as deadly to Russia as to the West, and Khrushchev has played his part. But few would deny that the initiative has lain most of the time with the White House or that Kennedy’s own qualities have been decisive. The three personal gifts which lifted him into the realm of international statesmanship were intellect, steadiness of nerve and the capacity to take decisions. Indeed, this week’s inevitable anxiety about the future is based not on half-baked guesses about President Johnson’s capacity or intelligence as a politician, but on the fact that the decision-making machine – largely extra-governmental – which Kennedy created proved so uniquely well-suited to the strategic demands of the Cold War. The doubt must exist whether President Johnson, operating through more normal political channels, will be able to match the speed, logic and certainty of his predecessor. For Kennedy’s decisions were his own. The professors, the soldiers, the computers, seldom the professional politicians, were detailed to provide the data and rehearse the arguments. The President listened, reflected, balanced the equation and, fortified by all that intellect and calculation could bring to bear, finally took the decision.
 
Naturally this method of government was unpopular on Capitol Hill, and the unpopularity was reflected in Kennedy’s inability to secure the legislation he needed to implement his domestic policies. This inability amounted to something like failure. Whether it stemmed fundamentally from a lack of profound conviction about liberal causes with which he was saddled by his 1960 campaign managers, or from the intellectual’s contempt for the log-rolling of the workaday politicians, or from over-caution about the electoral consequences of controversy, or from a constitutional inadequacy of Congress to live with the speed of modern decision-making will long be argued by American historians. What we can say this week is that, despite his visible achievement in foreign affairs, the quality of Kennedy’s presidency as a whole – apart from the noble and historic decision to stake the whole prestige of the presidency on his civil rights legislation – is arguable. 
 
His quality as a man is to me beyond argument. He brought to public life not only the hard assets of leadership, but the rarest capacity to illuminate ideas by the grace of his personality and the clarity of his speech. One can only guess, for instance, at the legislative outcome of his battle with Congress and his own party over civil rights. But one can be sure that individual American opinion about the cause of justice for the Negroes has been touched, as never since Lincoln, by the words he spoke. 
 
Perhaps his greatest achievement in the end was to turn the gaze of his own people towards some of the more distant goals of political action and to infuse his pragmatic programmes with the radiant light of tolerance, idealism and purpose. If so, the glossy wrappings of the New Frontier may be remembered as a permanent landmark in the evolution of American democracy.
 
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” Those words struck the keynote of his inaugural address; they form a message which evokes a response in every radical heart. However limited his social achievement, his approach to politics was fundamentally a challenge to conservatism everywhere. That is why, with all our reservations about where his ultimate convictions lay and with all our disappointment at his comparative failure to make good the promise of 1960, the left in Britain admired and, when the chips were down, trusted him. He was the golden boy of the post-war world, and we mourn him as a friend.
 
This article was first published in the NS of 29 November 1963. It appears in “The New Statesman Century”, an anthology of some of the finest writing from the first 100 years of the NS, available in selected WHSmiths and online: newstatesman.com/century.
The wax likness of former US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy stands on June 24, 2013 in front of the town hall of Berlin's Schoeneberg district, where he held his famous speech 'Ich bin ein Berliner' on June 26, 1963 to underline the support of the Unit

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump