JFK, The X-Files and David Duchovny’s knowing Zoolander cameo

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There’s an intriguing connection between Oliver Stone’s JFK, The X-Files and David Duchovny’s brief role in Zoolander. AJ explains all…

The 22nd November 2023 is a significant day in the history of America and its national psyche. It’s 60 years to the day since President John F Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas, Texas, triggering a million conspiracy theories and keeping Oliver Stone, for one thing, in work for a good long while.

I watched his 1991 epic JFK recently for an episode of my podcast At the Movies in the 90s, which will drop the weekend after next, and it was thrilling. I’d seen it before, probably about five years ago, and loved it then. This second watch – which I confess took me about three sittings given the three hour-plus length – felt even more immersive, studying it as I was for what I think is a tremendous discussion (you can be the judge soon).

Given how much JFK influenced The X-Files, my favourite TV series of all time, it’s amazing that I didn’t watch it back in the 90s. It certainly served as a huge inspiration on Chris Carter in creating the show. Indeed, in a recent episode of The X-Cast podcast, Carter discussed writing with JFK playing on his TV in the background. A perfect crystallisation of his influences.

The X-Files ended up suffused with the same kind of obsessive conspiracy theorising as Stone brought to JFK. You can see elements of David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder in Kevin Costner’s Texas District Attorney Jim Garrison. Both become convinced the American public are being lied to. Both uncover a vast, labyrinthine plot to change and control the country through assassination and espionage. Both cultivate sources, particularly in JFK’s case the government insider X, played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland.

You recall the scene, right? It’s probably the best moment in JFK, and that’s saying something. Walking around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, surrounded by the statues and ghosts of the Founding Fathers, Garrison listens as X uncovers in a blistering monologue the possible truth – the underpinning reasons why a cohort of dark forces within the American military-industrial complex would want to kill Kennedy. Sutherland is only in the film for fifteen minutes, but he gives a staggering performance.

Carter borrows this wholesale in two ways. First, he gives Mulder his own X, more than once. He takes the name ‘Deep Throat’ from the informant in the Watergate scandal – perhaps the second best conspiracy after Kennedy’s death in 20th century American politics, the difference being that it was proven. He later uses X as the name of Deep Throat’s successor, replacing Jerry Hardin’s mercurial, grandfatherly conspirator with Steven Williams’ hard-nosed foot soldier. Others follow, but they’re the two informants who most articulate the X model in that show.

Second, Carter replicates the JFK conversation with X, in style and tone, for the fifth season premiere, Redux, in which Mulder breaks into a secret Pentagon facility looking for a cure to his partner’s terminal cancer, along the way being given an alternate American history of the last 50 years by a DOD employee named Michael Kritschgau (John Finn) – a one-time, X-like informant character. Carter pulls the same trick as Stone, matching Finn’s monologue with real-life stills and footage as he paints a Cold War narrative of secret military-industrial complex programs that have used the promise of alien life as a smoke screen.

While not quite as powerful as the JFK moment, Carter’s take runs it close. Ultimately Kritschgau’s alternate history itself turns out to be a lie he has been fed, concealing the genuine alien conspiracy at the heart of the American government (it’d be a bit boring if there wasn’t!), but for a time Mulder is genuinely convinced he’s been fooled into believing in aliens all these years. “But I’ve seen aliens. I’ve witnessed these things,” he says.

“You’ve seen what they wanted you to see,” Kritschgau retorts. It’s a similar message from X to Garrison – don’t believe the official line. Believe the truth beneath the truth.

Three years later, Duchovny left The X-Files at the end of the seventh season as a regular, for multiple reasons well chronicled elsewhere. One factor was his desire to launch a film career after close to a decade playing Mulder on television, turning he and Dana Scully into pop culture icons of the 1990s in doing so. It never quite panned out for Duchovny, with his co-star Gillian Anderson reaching greater success in cinematic terms and beyond the shadow of the FBI. Duchovny has since become a successful novelist and touring musician, alongside film and TV performances, but he never struck gold as a leading man as the 90s gave way to the 21st century.

He did, however, pop up in one of the seminal comedies of the 2000s, in a memorable cameo where he not only expressly lampooned the tropes in The X-Files discussed here, but also the memorable JFK scene. Zoolander (2001), directed by and starring Ben Stiller as effete, dim male model Derek Zoolander, is not only a satire on the fashion industry, but in part a homage to 1970s conspiracy cinema, as Zoolander is drawn into a plot by sinister fashion guru Mugatu (Will Ferrell) to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, in order to stop him passing progressive laws against child labour that will hurt his fashion business overseas.

Zoolander, a character created by Stiller for several short films including a VH1 fashion award skit in the mid-1990s, is considered an easy mark to brainwash (to the tune of Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood) in the style of The Manchurian Candidate or The Parallax View, setting Derek up as the ‘patsy’ in the vein of Lee Harvey Oswald, or so the Kennedy conspiracy theory goes. Zoolander has a great deal of silly comedy, memorable one-liners, broad fashion satire and enjoyable cameos (hello, David Bowie), but the plot is rooted in conspiracy fiction. This feels a vein of Zoolander that often goes untapped.

If ever proof existed of it, just look at Duchovny’s one-scene appearance as JP Prewitt, who covertly meets with Derek and journalist/love interest Matilda (Christine Taylor, Stiller’s real life wife) in a graveyard filled with former male models who were themselves brainwashed over two centuries into assassinating US Presidents who wanted to push through progressive reforms – including Abraham Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth, here played by a pouting James Marsden) and Kennedy himself. “Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a male model,” Matilda says.

“You’re goddamned right he wasn’t – but the two lookers who capped Kennedy from the grassy knoll sure as shit were,” Prewitt retorts.

Stiller expressly borrows elements from the JFK informant scene for this whole moment in Zoolander. The sombre cemetery, in the shadow of American monuments. The walking and talking. Prewitt delivering information as we see footage and stills, this time in comedic fashion, of models and assassinations past. For Duchovny, it’s all kinds of meta. He himself has the looks of a model. Not only was he cast in the role precisely because of his association with the conspiracy arcanum of The X-Files, but he himself played the Zoolander to his Prewitt in Redux, as Mulder. He’s now informant and the informed. It’s a great bit of knowing casting from a film that completely wants audiences aware of conspiracies and conspiracy fiction to enjoy, conscious of these callbacks and allusions.

One of the reasons this came back to me is the ongoing possibility of a reboot or revival of The X-Files. This was leaked by Carter earlier this year, supposedly under the auspices of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler for Disney, but no official confirmation has occurred at this stage. Nobody knows whether it would reboot Mulder and Scully completely or continue their story. Should it do the latter, there’s every chance that Duchovny (unlike Anderson) would be open to returning as Mulder and it got me wondering… would an old Mulder be a little bit JP Prewitt?

Consider that Duchovny is aged up a good thirty years in 2001 to play the haunted, paranoid hand model, with wispy grey hair and a rough beard. By the time The X-Files likely returns to screens, Duchovny and Mulder would be in their mid-60s, so might we once again see Mulder, detached from Scully, as a grey-haired ‘informant’ character? Not someone in the government like X from JFK or earlier seasons of The X-Files, but more like Prewitt? The somewhat paranoid old soldier passing down information and wisdom to younger, fresh-faced agents investigating a new era of alien conspiracy?

This strikes me as a more fitting end for Mulder and Scully than the about-to-be-parents happy conclusion at the end of the eleventh season of The X-Files. Mulder is, like Garrison in JFK, a perennial searcher. Garrison was a real person, but Mulder is an archetype as much as a character; eternally on a quest for knowledge, doomed by the tragedy of never knowing The Truth for sure. I would prefer him as the lone older man, still spooky, still convinced there were forces lying to the American people, and still trying to find answers.

The Kennedy assassination has never quite left western culture, and perhaps Duchovny’s Zoolander cameo makes this point. Maybe it’s quite prescient. Maybe, if and when Mulder and The X-Files do return, we’ll never be able to see it in quite the same way again.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his Patreon and books, via Linktr.ee here.

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