"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 17, 2021


There’s only one thing everyone can agree on regarding the assassination of American President John F. Kennedy: he was killed on November 22, 1963. Everything else around this watershed event in American history has been subject to intense debate and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely assembled puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like triggerman Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.
Stone’s film filters an examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person's point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — the New Orleans District Attorney who then assembles all the evidence at his disposal to deliver a powerful and persuasive case for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Stone saw his film consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a key figure in the assassination, Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C. JFK is the mother of all paranoid conspiracy thrillers, the ultimate one man against the system film with Garrison taking on the establishment, attempting to uncover one of the most nefarious plots in history. It created such profound shockwaves in the real world that Stone was criticized and vilified in the press.
“God, I’m ashamed to be an American today,” says Garrison when he finds out that Kennedy has been shot and we see people in the bar he’s in applaud the man’s death. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson desaturate the colors in the 1963 scenes, which creates a somber tone as the country reacts to the Kennedy assassination.

Six years later, the color returns to the film as Garrison shares a plane ride with Senator Russell B. Long (Walter Matthau) who plants the first seeds of doubt in the District Attorney’s mind about the Kennedy assassination. He points out that Oswald was a lousy shot and couldn’t have made all those shots in that time with that kind of accuracy. He also scoffs at the “magic bullet” theory – that one bullet created seven wounds and came out in pristine condition. “I’d round up 100 of the world’s best riflemen. Find out which ones were in Dallas that day. You’ve been duck hunting. I think Oswald is a good old-fashioned decoy.”
This encounter provokes Garrison to go through all the volumes of the Warren Commission Report and find that, “Again and again credible testimony ignored, leads are never followed up, its conclusions selective, there’s no index. It’s one of the sloppiest, most disorganized investigations I’ve ever seen.” He concludes that this was by design: “But it’s all broken down and spread around and you read it and the point gets lost.” He continues to dig deeper and the testimony of Lee Bowers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who hints at another shooter on the grassy knoll, is the final straw.
Garrison walks the streets of New Orleans with two of his investigators Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders) and Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker), recounting Oswald’s time in the city in a brilliantly written and performed monologue (one of many). He points out to them that Oswald, a supposed communist sympathizer, spent his time in the heart of the government’s intelligence community with the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service and the Office of Naval Intelligence all within spitting distance of each other. As Garrison tells them, “Isn’t this seem to you a rather strange place for a communist to spend his spare time?” He tells them that they are going to reopen the investigation of the Kennedy assassination and this is where the film really begins to gather narrative momentum.

Garrison starts interviewing people that had some link to the conspirators, namely Clay Bertrand a.k.a. Clay Shaw, which gives Stone the opportunity to trot out a parade of name actors such as Jack Lemmon, John Candy and Kevin Bacon to portray a very colorful cavalcade of characters. The interviews paint a vivid picture of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Shaw working with Oswald. Stone uses Bacon and Lemmon to detail the conspiracy on a local level, expounding a ton of expositional dialogue brilliantly, while Candy’s hipster lawyer conveys the danger Garrison faces digging into the murder of the President.

Stone presents a series of lengthy dialogue-driven scenes conveying an incredible amount of information in palatable fashion by having recognizable actors as his mouthpieces while dynamically shooting and editing them. He has a character spout a fact or theory and then cuts to a dramatic reenactment that depicts it in black and white and/or different film stock, often blurring the line between fact and fiction, which is the point. In a case as complex as this it is hard to discern which is which as witness testimony conflicts one another making it difficult to make sense of it all.
A great example of this is the sequence where Garrison and his team explain Oswald’s background leading up to the assassination with Stone cutting to staged footage, actual documentary footage and the famous Life magazine cover photograph that cemented Oswald’s guilt in the public’s mind but might be a doctored image. It is a bravura sequence that marries complex editing, pasting together all kinds of different formats, with past events being discussed in the present with many characters talking as the conspiracy deepens and the thriller elements take hold. It culminates with Broussard disbelievingly saying, “We are talking about our government!” to which Garrison replies, “No. We’re talking about a crime, Bill. Plain and simple…We’re through the looking glass, here, people. White is black and black is white.”
The scene where Garrison first meets Shaw is a fantastic clash between two characters as the former goes after the latter who defiantly deflects and denies any involvement in the assassination plot. During the conversation, Stone intercuts footage that shows he is lying or, at least, that is Garrison’s interpretation. Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant here as he changes tone on a dime, going from amused elegance to angrily indignant and back again all the while maintaining an air of cultured sophistication. Finally, Garrison tires of his act and accuses him of killing Kennedy. When Shaw finally leaves, he gives parting pleasantries but Jones gives Costner a lingering, threatening look. From this point on, the pressure on the D.A. and his team increases as the powers that be attempt to discredit him.

Stone’s portrayal of Garrison is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – the last honest man in government – and he tries to temper this by showing the trouble he faces at home as his wife (Sissy Spacek) complains that he’s never around anymore and that he cares more about the Kennedy assassination than his own family. She is the film’s weakest character whose sole purpose, initially, is to provide strife on the home front. Stone then has her come around to her husband’s way of thinking after he tearfully tells her late one night that Robert Kennedy has been shot and killed. She admits he was right all along and they make love in a scene that is unnecessarily maudlin. These scenes feel shoehorned in and take away from the main thrust of the film. Stone is on more comfortable ground when he returns to more familiar turf as we see the press arriving in droves to Garrison’s office, making it impossible for he and his team to get any work done. Funding for his office has dried up and he is forced to use his own savings to keep the investigation going. We also see infighting among his staff and Ivon and Broussard butt heads as we see the latter scared off the case.
Another bit of tour-de-force acting comes from Joe Pesci in the scene where Ferrie rapidly unravels as he fears for his life based on what he knows about the plot to kill Kennedy. Ferrie gets increasingly manic as he rattles off the people and organizations involved, getting worked up until he utters the iconic line, “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!” It’s hyperbolic and over-the-top to be sure but it does illustrate how complex the assassination plot is with fake Oswalds and conflicting eyewitness accounts. After the incredible outburst, Ferrie winds down as Pesci elicits sympathy for this terrible man who is under a lot pressure and is incredibly paranoid. This scene threatens to throw the film right off the rails as Pesci goes for it, acting his ass off, chewing up the scenery in breathtaking fashion.
The centerpiece of the film is when Garrison travels to Washington, D.C. to meet with an ex-high-ranking CIA officer known only as Mr. X (Donald Sutherland). In this bravura sequence he lays out the motivation for killing Kennedy including how and why. It’s an incredible amount of dialogue and Stone wisely cast a skilled actor such as Donald Sutherland to convey it in a coherent and engaging way. X lays out the most important aspect of the assassination: why? “The how and who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia – keeps ‘em guessing like some kind of parlor game preventing them from asking the most important question – why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefitted? Who has the power to cover it up?”

X posits that Kennedy was killed because he wanted to break up the CIA, make peace with Russia and end the Vietnam War, which not only pissed off a lot of powerful people but would cost a lot of money as he tells Garrison, “The organizing principle of any society, Mr. Garrison, is the war. The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.” He encourages Garrison to “come up with a case. Something. Anything. Make arrests. Stir the shitstorm. Hope to reach a critical mass that’ll start a chain reaction of people coming forward. Then the government’ll crack. Remember, fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth.” This is the film’s idealistic mission statement. Judging from the critical reaction towards the film, Stone certainly succeeded in stirring up the shitstorm and in the court of public opinion he helped reshape the perception of the Kennedy assassination.
These increasingly dense and dynamic exposition scenes lead up to the mother of all courtroom scenes as Garrison goes in knowing he’s going to lose and goes for it anyway. It is Costner’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster moment by way of Gary Cooper as Garrison debunks the Warren Commission Report’s account of Oswald by audaciously showing the real Zapruder film that depicted the Kennedy killing in real time. Stone edits in recreation footage with actual footage of the assassination as Garrison lays it all out. The filmmaker also recreates Kennedy’s controversial autopsy and shows actual photos of the man taken at the time.
This scene involves a massive amount of dialogue and information to convey and Costner handles it like a pro, making this exposition compelling, especially at the end when the actor performs his final speech without the aid of intercutting other footage. It’s Costner out there on his own, even getting emotional towards the end at the most powerful moment when Garrison address the jury, “Show this world that this is still a government of the people, for the people and by the people. Nothing as long as you live will ever be more important. It’s up to you.” And with that last line, Costner breaks the fourth wall. That line is meant for us and is one of the most moving parts of Garrison’s speech.

While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and he eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Columbia University’s Professor of Journalism Zachary Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.”
Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser on the film.

In 1989, Stone met with the three top Warner Bros. executives – Terry Semel, Bob Daly, and Bill Gerber – who had been interested in his work for some time. At the time, Stone was trying to make a film about Howard Hughes but Warren Beatty owned the rights. Stone then pitched JFK to them in 15-20 minutes: “I told them I wanted JFK to be a movie about the problem of covert parallel government in this country and deep political corruption.” Semel remembers Stone asking them, “’Are you concerned politically? Would it affect your company? Are there negative reasons why you wouldn’t do it?’ My immediate reaction was, ‘No, we should do it.’ If it’s entertaining and it’s intriguing, a great murder mystery about something we all cared about and grew up thinking about, why not?” A handshake deal was done and the studio agreed to a $20 million budget.
Stone could have shopped JFK around in the international market but chose WB because, “I knew the material was dangerous and I wanted on entity to finance the whole thing and the history of WB, given Terry Semel’s record of political films (All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields), was my first choice.” Kevin Costner signed on to play Garrison in 1991, which pleased the studio who wanted a bankable movie star attached to the project. In addition, independent producer Arnon Milchan came on board as an executive producer and doubled the budget allowing Stone to cast a star-studded supporting cast around Costner.
Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. That took five months of negotiation.

Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film in the press surfaced in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most as he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”
The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation," and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in Warren Report. Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback ... I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence
Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the Costner’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.

The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck's The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars ... the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.
Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top-notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.
Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far.” In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue.” However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.” On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant.” A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them.” Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade.
Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. This isn’t a documentary or even a docudrama. It is a fever dream straight out of Stone's head. He’s a Baby Boomer upset that the death of Kennedy obliterated the idealism of the '60s and uses the film to vent about it. JFK is an important work in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Stone’s film presents an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing with one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone's film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill the President. Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that this film openly advocates. For better or for worse, it helped cultivate a conspiracy culture that has only grown larger and more unwieldy with the rise of social media. JFK continues to serve as a powerful piece of cinematic agitprop whose conspiracy theories can be questioned and criticized but its power as an engaging and moving thriller cannot.

Fisher, Bob. “The Whys and Hows of JFK.” American Cinematographer. February 1992.
Petras, James. “The Discrediting of The Fifth Estate: The Press Attacks on JFK.” Cineaste. May 1992.
Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.
Scheer, Robert. “Oliver Stone Builds His Own Myths.” Los Angeles Times. December 15, 1991.