Oliver Stone may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him. ”Every paper and magazine in America,” the director maintains, ”has devoted more space in the last three months to attacking my attack on the Warren Commission than they devoted in the previous 28 years to examining the Warren Commission.”
Stone is speaking with his customary hyperbole, but he does have a point. JFK, his three-hour, high-voltage inquisition into the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is the most controversial movie in recent history. Indeed, it was on its way to that distinction while the cameras were still rolling. Starting last May, when, on the basis of a first-draft script, The Washington Post skewered the film in an article titled ”Dallas in Wonderland,” almost every major newspaper, magazine, and TV pundit has taken a swing at Stone’s vision of a vast conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination. Since JFK was released by Warner Bros. on Dec. 20, the fire storm has intensified, The New York Times alone has found room for at least 20 articles on the picture.
In Stone’s view, there is something unfair, even insidious, about these attacks. He isn’t above hinting that his critics are part of what he believes is a nearly three-decade cover-up. ”My question is, why are they so scared of this movie?” he asks. ”What are they defending?” In endless interviews, he has charged that ”the Establishment” is trying to quash his film.
If the Establishment is indeed trying to silence Oliver Stone and his work, it has done a stunningly inept job. In the three weeks since JFK opened, it has been seen by more than 5 million people, earning a solid $31 million and making more money per screen than Steven Spielberg’s Hook. ”The negative publicity became a positive for Warner Bros.,” says The Hollywood Reporter‘s Anita Busch. ”It fed people into the box office.”
What the moviegoers see is a technically astounding avalanche of flashbacks, flash-forwards, sound bites, reenactments, star cameos, and conjecture involving 212 speaking parts, over 1,000 camera setups, and 15 different types of film stock. But Stone does more than ask penetrating questions; he provides answers to the question that has haunted the country since shots rang out in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. A recent Time/CNN poll indicated that most Americans are convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, as the Warren Commission concluded in 1964, and that a conspiracy — some conspiracy — was involved, Stone’s presentation of a vast, well-oiled plot seems to tie neatly together all the strands of one of the most maddeningly snarled episodes in modern history.
JFK is also dazzling entertainment. The welter of facts and suppositions Stone and cowriter Zachary Sklar muster has been laid onto a simple detective plot that plays like Frank Capra by way of Dashiell Hammett. And there at the center of it all is America’s favorite Everyman, Kevin Costner, as the stalwart truth-seeker.
It’s this choice of a hero — Costner plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who in 1969 unsuccessfully prosecuted Clay Shaw, a local businessman, for his involvement in an alleged JFK assassination conspiracy — that has most provoked the film’s detractors. In reality, Garrison was a reckless DA whose prosecution of Shaw aroused charges of witness fixing, But Garrison’s 1988 book, On the Trail of Assassins, gave Stone the one thing he knew he needed: a hero on which to hang his movie. ”It’s classic Sam Spade stuff,” he says. ”It’s the idea of one man walking into a den of corruption and taking a stand.” In the final analysis, Garrison’s case against Shaw was technically sloppy and ethically questionable. That’s unintentionally reflected in JFK, where — like the jurors in the Shaw trial — the audience comes out willing to believe there was a plot but unclear how Shaw was supposed to have been involved.
Stone is vigorous in Garrison’s defense. ”I’m so tired of this man run down,” he says, calling him ”a real hero, the best of America.” That seems something of a bluff. There was no strong effort to turn Costner into a replica of the flamboyant Garrison. ”I wanted to use Garrison as a vehicle to include the researchers and to get us through the looking glass,” he says.
Costner acknowledges that ”I don’t believe that’s the true Garrison that you see in the movie,” adding, ”I just played the shit out of the lines that were written.” Stone splices the dramatic momentum of Garrison’s story with the factual underpinnings of Jim Marrs’ 1989 Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, considered by many the best one-stop-shopping conspiracy tome. ”They’re haranguing me for using Garrison’s book,” Stone says, ”but nobody mentions Marrs’ book. Much of our research came out of that.”
Nonetheless, Garrison’s rousing one-man-against-the system story and Marrs’ relentless sifting of the evidence are not a perfect mesh. And when they conflict, Stone follows his dramatic instincts and sticks with Garrison. In one scene, Stone has Garrison make light of a suggestion that the Mafia might be involved. What’s left unsaid is that Garrison himself was the subject of repeated but never proved allegations of involvement with the Carlos Marcello crime family in New Orleans. (In 1973 a jury found Garrison not guilty of taking payoffs from underworld pinball operators.) According to Crossfire, Garrison’s failure to pursue the mob angle ”has caused many raised eyebrows among researchers otherwise kindly disposed toward the former DA.” Stone concedes that ”why Jim didn’t ever investigate Marcello is a legitimate question.” But JFK sidesteps the entire debate.
”An artist has a right to interpret history as much as a newsman,” Stone argues. Nowhere does he lean on artistry more than in his ambitious conjecture about who was responsible for Kennedy’s death. JFK‘s elaborate web of plotting — including the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, Lyndon Johnson, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and military contractors — has been roundly denounced element in the film. It is also part of its seductive appeal.
The notion of our central institutions have been engaged in a systematic campaign of lying to the public is hardly a new one. That has been a theme in entertainment — and in real life — for almost 30 years. When Stone’s political insider ”X” (Donald Sutherland) spins out is intricate tale of government secrecy and corruption, it’s a moment most moviegoers hardly find shocking. In fact it is quite familiar, recalling scenes in movies ranging from All the President’s Men to Rambo.
But Stone goes the classic paranoia genre one better by linking the JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King assassinations as well as the Vietnam War in what The New York Times dubbed a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory. By implying that someone is responsible for all these tragedies, Stone’s thesis can be seen almost as an antidote to the nihilistic cynicism of his generation. He cheerfully describes JFK as ”a bit of agitprop.”
At theaters around the country, JFK is reaching a sympathetic — but not completely accepting — audience. ”A lot of what’s written about current events in the newspapers is a lie,” says L.A. moviegoer Linda Weinberg, 45. ”So give Oliver Stone a chance to lie if he wants to.” ”It makes me really mad that they only present one side of the Kennedy killing at my school,” says 14-year-old Daniel Kirschner, a student in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, ”This film makes me want to learn more.”
Stone hopes the point-counterpoint of the debate will yield ”a synthesis of informed public opinion”; at least, the arguments are sure to go on for a while. Two more movies — Ruby, starring Danny Aiello, and Libra, based on the 1988 Don DeLillo novel about Oswald — are in the works. Even politicians are getting in on the debate. On Dec.19, JFK was shown to members of Congress at a screening organized by Frank Mankiewicz of the powerhouse D.C. PR firm Hill and Knowlton, hired by Warner Bros. One result has been new calls for the release of sealed records from the 1977 House Select Committee on Assassination investigation. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana — who hasn’t seen JFK — has been pushing since last March for release of the records. ”They ought to be made available so people can make up their own minds,” he says.
Asked about the controversy recently, President Bush reiterated his faith in the Warren Commission, comparing conspiracy theories to rumors that Elvis is alive. Stone promptly fired off a statement to Daily Variety virtually accusing Bush of being part of the cover-up. In his 30 years in the ”executive branch establishment,” Stone writes, Bush ”has had ample opportunity to stonewall the American people.”
No matter how many files are opened or how much evidence is reconsidered, it’s probably too late to expect a definitive resolution of the Kennedy mystery. By now the urge to find dark conspiracies behind every national crisis is so imbedded in our culture, it may never be extirpated. And that is the deep cultural craving that JFK exploits and satisfies so well.
— Additional reporting by Giselle Benatar, Terry Catchpole, David Kronke, Cindy Pearlman, and Michael Swindle; research by Paul Foglino