Oliver Stone‘s JFK is a movie as admirable in its technique as it is troubling in its agenda. Much like Birth of a Nation sought to rewrite the early history of the original Ku Klux Klan, JFK represents a concerted effort on Stone’s part to insert certifiable falsehoods into the historical record of the Kennedy assassination. He gets two basic facts correct. John F. Kennedy was indeed assassinated on November 22, 1963 and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison did actually prosecute businessman Clay Shaw for his role in an alleged conspiracy. After that, the facts and Mr. Stone have a strained relationship at best. I sincerely hope that this movie will be as routinely dismissed by future generations as Birth of a Nation is today.
It would be one thing if Stone were simply presenting an alternative explanation of the known facts, but not content with that, he openly distorts or outright invents facts to advance claims that not even the nuttiest conspiracy theorists support. The most egregious such fabrication comes in a scene in which David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) breaks down in a hotel and confesses to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). It simply never happened. It wasn’t speculation about what really happened at a meeting between the two men, nor was it a real conversation moved to a different location, nor was it the synthesis of two or more real conversations. It simply never took place. Ferrie never said any such thing to Garrison or to anyone else. In fact, he said exactly the opposite many times.
The film ends on a note of equal dishonesty when it asserts that, under oath, CIA director Richard Helms admitted that the target of Garrison’s prosecution, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) did work for the Central Intelligence Agency. In fact, Shaw had merely been debriefed by the agency’s Domestic Contact Service, as would any of the thousands of American citizens doing business overseas.
I could write a book detailing the factual liberties taken by this film but since others have beaten me to it, I’ll talk about the movie itself. It really is a damn shame that Stone used his considerable talents to such a dishonest end because, as an exercise in pure film technique, JFK is almost without equal. It’s little wonder that the two Oscars it did win were for film editing and cinematography.
Stylistically, Stone pulls out the stops, varying film stocks and seamlessly mixing his own footage with documentary film until it’s almost impossible to tell where reality ends and his inventions begin.
The film itself details the attempt by Garrison to prosecute Clay Shaw for his alleged role in the assassination of President Kennedy. Under Stone’s direction, Costner very effectively plays Garrison as an upright family man and a tireless seeker of truth. Forty years ealier, he would have been played by Jimmy Stewart. The movie character named Jim Garrison has little to do with the unscrupulous publicity hound who actually prosecuted Clay Shaw, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is easily among the best performances of Costner’s career. Just remember that he’s basically playing a fictional character.
The film touches on more than a few historical figures, or more accurately, characters with real names that bear only passing resemblances to the actual persons. It’s probably not a coincidence, however, that the two characters who provide the most damning information are composite characters loosely based on wholly unreliable people.
Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a gay hustler, was loosely based on several persons who allegedly saw Clay Shaw together with David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). None of these witnesses can credibly place these people together. Either they said something else entirely or are not reliable witnesses. For his part, the account of the real key witness, the not-at-all-gay Perry Russo, appears to have been partially coerced under the influence of sodium pentathol.
Just as problematic is the character known only as X (Donald Sutherland), a covert intelligence officer who lays out the background of the whole conspiracy for Garrison. It’s a long, masterfully executed scene and Sutherland mesmerizes the camera for almost fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, X is based on L. Fletcher Prouty, one of the JFK conspiracy industry’s more colorful crackpots who had none of the credentials presented for “X”.
This propensity for substituting more respectable-sounding fictional creations for wholly disreputable sources should be enough to throw the veracity of the entire enterprise into serious doubt.
I’m not asking you to take my word for it that this movie is three hours of pure bunk (more with the Director’s Cut). Read on your own and balance the conspiracy books with a few alternative sources. Other than the Warren Report, a good starting point is Gerald Posner’s book, Case Closed, a splendidly focused examination of Lee Harvey Oswald and his role in the assassination.
Update: For the more ambitious among you, I direct you to Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Vincent Bugliosi‘s massive 1,600-page magnum opus on the assassination. For completeness, rigorous attention to the evidence and sheer volume of information, it is unparalleled in the assassination literature.
There are also more than a few websites that can give you well-researched alternatives to the conspiracy theories. Here are a couple to get you started:
- The JFK 100: One Hundred Errors of Fact and Judgement in Oliver Stone’s JFK.
- John McAdams’ Kennedy Assassination Homepage – JFK: The Movie
- An insightful review of JFK by Edward Jay Epstein, an early Warren Commission critic who worked for Jim Garrison.
In almost all of its technical aspects, JFK is a virtual clinic on filmmaking and is well-worth seeing to learn how Stone used multiple techniques to tell his mostly fictional story. Too bad there is such an ethical vacuum at the center of this movie.