Judged purely on its merits as a Hollywood movie, Oliver Stone’s epic political drama JFK is an outstanding piece of work. As an historical reference point and a depiction of a pivotal moment in American history, it’s sketchy at best. Set aside the fact that JFK is based on real life events for a second and you have a sprawling yet engaging narrative that takes in a broad range of characters and mixes them up in scandal, intrigue, murder and a conspiracy that goes right the way to the top. It’s political drama on the grandest possible scale.
The problem comes however that the filmmaker Oliver Stone, whilst conceding that he took some artistic licence with certain events and characters, does believe the central thrust of the story to be grounded in truth. Regardless of whether some of Stone’s interpretations of the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy are right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well with many reviewers and historians alike that he seemingly treats historical drama as historical fact. Is the director obliged to produce an entirely historically accurate film however? Does he have an obligation to present only the known facts and refrain from suggesting the unknown and making assertions that only could possibly be true? More on these questions later.
Stone’s picture starts with an opening montage, narrated by future President Bartlett Martin Sheen. This montage mostly consists of archive newsreel footage which briefs the viewer on the dangers of ‘military-industrial complex’ and emphasises the important events which occurred in the build up to JFK’s assassination. This sequence in itself deserves great praise, condensing decades of historical back story into a relatively brief intro. The action then turns to New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) who after hearing the terrible news of JFK’s death, learns of possible links to the President’s assassination right on his own front doorstep in New Orleans. After identifying several possible conspirators, including the remarkable David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), Garrison’s team has their case publicly dismissed by the Federal Government and as such the case is closed.
Cut to several years later and Garrison is pouring over the infamous Warren Report. This was the document compiled by a commission into the assassination, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) murdered the President and acted alone. The inquisitive Garrison notices several flaws in the report including conflicting testimonies and un-followed up leads. In light of what he perceives as a majorly unsound piece of investigation, Garrison reopens his own case into the assassination and begins to interview a motley cast of characters who are all seemingly connected to Oswald, his killer Jack Ruby and the enigmatic Ferrie. Garrison and his team get deeper and deeper into a web of lies and political intrigue and things really heat up after Garrison meets with a mysterious former General referred to only as ‘X’ (Donald Sutherland). ‘X’ reveals to Garrison an intricate conspiracy that goes to the very top of the US government including high ranking CIA , FBI and Army officials, the mafia and even the sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson. ‘X’ explains that Kennedy’s softer approach to foreign policy, his desire to withdraw from Vietnam and his attempts to curtail the power of the CIA, all meant diminished profit and power for those who benefit from the military-industrial complex.
Garrison is spurred on by this revelation and puts together a case against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a New Orleans businessman who Garrison believed was a CIA operative who was involved in the plot to kill Kennedy. At the resultant trial, Garrison and his team set out to prove a conspiracy had taken place and pick various faults in the Warren Commission’s version of events. This includes the memorable ‘magic bullet’ sequence where they attempt to debunk the concept that just one of Oswald’s bullets could alone have caused the damage attributed to it.
*MILD SPOILER ALERT. STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE END*
Ultimately, Garrison and his team put forward a compelling case, but the jury finds Shaw not guilty. They explicitly state however that they do believe a conspiracy to kill Kennedy existed but that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to link Shaw to it. Garrison walks away with his head held high and we are informed that he remains to this date the only investigator to ever bring a public prosecution attached to the Kennedy assassination. The end credits also inform us that:
“In 1979, Richard Helms, Director of Covert Operations in 1963, admitted under oath that Clay Shaw had worked in the CIA…. Southeast Asia: 2 million Asian lives lost, 58,000 American lives lost, $220 billion spent, ten million Americans air-lifted there by commercial aircraft, more than 5,000 helicopters lost, 6.5 million tons of bombs dropped. A Congressional investigation from 1976-1979 found a “probable conspiracy” in the assassination of John F. Kennedy and recommended the Justice Department investigate further. As of 1991, the Justice Department has done nothing. The files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations are locked away until the year 2029.”
I think this final coda is of special importance when it comes to appreciating what Stone set out to achieve with JFK. While some of the conclusions Stone draws may be misleading or ill-informed, for example the real David Ferrie always protested his innocence and the movies’ ‘magic bullet’ theory leaves out some important bits of information, the director does nonetheless also raise valid questions. Why did Shaw deny he worked for the CIA? Why has no further investigation been carried out? Why were changes made last minute to the President’s parade route? How did Oswald, an average marksman at best, make the extremely difficult shot that is attributed to him? Why were testimonies ignored and Doctors reports changed? I could go on.
Of course, there may well be perfectly simple explanations to all of these questions. Calmer and less quizzical heads may not see the benefit in what they see as speculative theorising by Stone. What I would argue is important however is the fact that Stone was even raising these questions at all. Not only was he willing to question faults in the official government explanation of events but he was also seeking to encapsulate the anger and sense of distrust which remained with many Americans of Stone’s generation which was caused by the terrible events in Dallas that fateful day in 1963.
To put it another way, a filmmaker like Stone is not purporting to be producing a documentary, he is making a piece of drama that is intended to spark debate, raise issues and most of all entertain. Composite characters (there was no General ‘X’ as such, but there were military liaisons who spoke to Garrison) and sequences showing how events ‘might’ have happened are all necessary in order to provide a workable narrative both in terms of length and of comprehensibility of plot. Stone used his artistic licence to play fast and loose with characters and events, that is undeniable and he himself would conceded this much. He never set out to provide a cast iron historical recreation of what happened that day. He set out to capture a mood, a sense of injustice and one version of what plausibly could have happened.
The film was adapted by Stone and Zachary Sklar from the books On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. Garrison has been derided in some circles but he impressed Stone when the two met. Stone said of Garrison, “[He]made many mistakes. He trusted a lot of weirdos and followed a lot of fake leads. But he went out on a limb, way out. And he kept going, even when he knew he was facing long odds.” Clearly by borrowing from Garrison’s own work, Stone’s film was always going to be biased to his story, but Stone was never actually really making a film about Garrison. Garrison’s personal story was merely a microcosm of a broader story which Stone utilised to great impact.
Many critics will point out that Stone never explicitly says when he is making assumptions or when he is not presenting historical fact. Personally I don’t think he should have to. Unless it is a documentary, filmmakers are creating their own piece of art which is to be enjoyed and absorbed by the viewer and not taken to be precisely what happened. Movies can seek to replicate historical events but can never be said to represent them entirely truthfully, there will always be errors and discrepancies, such is the nature of recreating a real life event. They can make it as accurate as possible but this wouldn’t necessarily make for an entertaining film and a balance needs to be struck between creating a sense of the time and creating something that will be interesting to a viewer. Stone himself said that he felt that the Warren Commission was, “a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a counter-myth”. And that is exactly what he did.
The film will continue to divide critics but in purely artistic terms it is a triumph. There are numerous top draw performances from the likes of Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek, while Gary Oldman simply becomes Lee Harvey Oswald. Stone blends a variety of directorial tricks and styles over the course of a film which can be seen as a triumph of editing. There’s flashbacks, imagined events, real newsreel footage and compelling court room drama all combined together to produce a chaotic yet controlled plot which revels in its layered nature.
The DA’s investigation into Clay Shaw unravels slowly over the course of the film with little pieces of the puzzle gradually falling into place. The first two-thirds of the film plays out like a very slick crime thriller. The final third focuses on the trial of Shaw and is itself a compelling courtroom drama. Stand out moments like Garrison’s heartfelt speech to the Jury about fighting for the truth and questioning authority give the final moments a sense of triumph and manages to tread just the right side of schmaltzy.
It may be historically suspect but it provokes debate and encourages viewers to do their own research, which is ultimately what Stone wanted more than anything. Set aside the issue of accuracy and whether or not you are swayed by Stone’s passionate assertions, it’s a riveting piece of work. It also led to the passage of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 and the formation of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, which carried out fresh interviews and forced some classified documents to be made public. In addition a law was passed which ensured that all existing assassination related documents had to be made public by 2017. How many other films have made such an impact that they resulted in government action?
Ultimately perhaps, the prime message that Stone wished to convey with JFK was highlighted by ‘X’ in the film itself:
“Don’t take my word for it. Do your own thinking.”
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek
Runtime: 189 min