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Truth Wrapped in Controversy: Oliver Stone's JFK

Updated on December 12, 2016

Without question, JFK is the most controversial film that Oliver Stone has ever made. That’s quite an accomplishment for a man whose resume includes Natural Born Killers, Platoon, and Wall Street among others. But while blood thirsty psychopaths being watched by a blood thirsty media, the Vietnam War, and greed being good are subjects capable of causing numerous reactions, it’s safe to say none of those three could, or should, compare to a film that suggests one of the most famous events in American history was the result of a government conspiracy. That doesn’t even include the fact that it largely uses circumstantial evidence to support its claim nor that the protagonist of the film is/was considered one of the least reliable people to have been involved with the tragedy. There aren’t many things that can be more controversial than that. But while many journalists, film critics, and historians raked JFK over the coals for its falsehoods it appears they missed the point. One viewing of JFK clearly shows that Stone never set out to make a historically accurate, or historically comfortable, adaptation of what happened before, during, and after the horrific events of November 22nd, 1963. What he attempted instead was a whodunit detective story that offers, as Stone described it, a counter myth to the one he felt the Warren Commission presented. You may find that appalling depending on your mileage. That you may also come to find the counter myth Stone presents is as compelling, watchable, and surprisingly true in the face of the so called truth is a testament to what remains the greatest thing the acclaimed filmmaker has ever done.


Though his presence looms large (the film is about his death after all), John Fitzgerald Kennedy is no more the protagonist of JFK than I am the protagonist of Batman Returns. That honor falls to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), whose book On the Trails of the Assassins served as one of two inspirations for the film (Jim Marrs' book Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy is the other). The film begins with the New Orleans District Attorney learns the President has been shot while eating lunch alone in his office. A brief investigation into Lee Harvey Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) connections in New Orleans leads nowhere and Garrison moves on. Only not really, as something about the case continues to bug him for several years until a chance encounter on an airplane ride home convinces him to take another look. From that point on Garrison and his team (Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, Jay O. Sanders, and Wayne Knight among others) find themselves caught in conspiracy of endless participants, with New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) the most likely domino to fall. But as Garrison chases informants like X (Donald Sutherland), watches witnesses like David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) die and starts to watch his marriage to Lynn (Sissy Spacek) crumble, it becomes uncertain if Garrison is really on the right path or a noble man led astray by what he wants to see, running after something he can never kill.

Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone on set
Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone on set

Of all the many talking points regarding JFK, few people ever focus on what an achievement in filmmaking it is. It goes without saying that a film regarding Kennedy’s assassination and a conspiracy behind it cannot be a regular 90 minute film; it needs time to breathe, time to explore every possible facet. As a result Stone’s film turned out to be a three hour and eight minute film, with the director’s cut running twenty minutes longer than that. How many times have we seen really great films o a little too long and lose steam? It never happens with JFK, as the three hours fly right by thanks to both the subject matter and the way Stone explores it. The key, besides Stone successfully is recreating both the look and feel of three different stages in the 1960s (he notably spent $4 million out of pocket to recreate 1963 Dealey Plaza, the scene of the assassination) is in the editing. Armed with longtime editor Joe Hutshing, assistant editor turned partner of Hutshing Pietro Scalia and with contributions and consulting from commercial editor Hank Corwin, Stone’s film becomes something that never stops moving. Present day scenes manically jump back and forth to the past and vice versa, all while the legendary John Williams’ score clicks, clacks and thunders about as if it were a patriotic burst. This strategy of quick cuts and hyper energy doesn’t always work; see Baz Lurhman’s recent films for example. The difference is Stone and his editors didn’t do quick cuts for the sake of quick cuts. Every cut from past to present to past again makes sense, every one of them moves the story forward and most importantly every single one puts the audience into Garrison’s shoes. Not only is he getting closer to the truth but so are we, which makes us even more invested and sympathetic to Garrison when he and us don’t find it.


But what is that truth? That question has largely been the reason JFK remains such a controversial subject over the years. Believing that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy has never been a fringe theory; as recently as three years ago more than 60% of the US believed Oswald hadn’t acted alone (and that was actually the lowest percentage in years). The problem people had with this film is the blatant twisting of truths Stone employs to create this film. For example, the famous scene where Garrison meets X in Washington? Never happened. The stuff about Kennedy’s parade route being altered? False. That’s just the tip of the iceberg too. There is no question that Oliver Stone didn’t present a historically accurate retelling. But what many people missed, and the reason I won’t hold the direction he chose to take against him, is that he never intended to. The point of JFK isn’t to be historically accurate; it’s to get people to do their own work and their own thinking on the subject, as X suggests to Garrison in that famous scene.

Costner's Jim Garrison meets with Donald Sutherland's X in the famous coup d'état scene
Costner's Jim Garrison meets with Donald Sutherland's X in the famous coup d'état scene

And therein lies JFK’s strengths, because even with a film that doesn’t dot every I or cross every historical T it still asks many questions, ones built on common sense really. If Oswald really did defect to Russia in the late 50’s, why was he then allowed back to the US with little to no fuss? Why would Oswald wait for Kennedy to turn onto Elm when he had at least two clean shots of the President as the motorcade drives down Houston? How could Oswald, who was to sharpshooters what Dwight Howard is to free throw shooting, get off three shots in less than six seconds, the last two of which many witnesses claim came were immediate? And perhaps most importantly, how earth could one bullet travel through Kennedy’s neck and then zig zag through Governor Connally like the Warren Commission claimed; better yet, how could it be going upward out of Kennedy’s neck when a shot from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository could only lead to the bullet trajectory going down? You can say what you want about the stuff Stone presents on witness intimidation, mysterious deaths and this and that, but all those questions he presents are legitimate.


The answers he provides make sense too. The reason Oswald wasn’t prosecuted for defecting to Russia; because he never really did and was a member of the CIA the whole time. Why wait to shoot Kennedy on Elm instead of Houston; because then you have him in a triangulated crossfire between the Book Depository, the Dal-Tex building and the world famous Grassy Knoll. How could a poor shot like Oswald have gotten three shots off that quickly; he couldn’t have. Ditto for how that bullet went through Connally and Kennedy as the Warren Commission claims it did. I’ve seen many things JFK related discounted over the years, but I never heard better explanations for those questions than the ones I just gave. And once you reach those conclusions, the only logical conclusion you can come up with is that, at best, Oswald was not alone and there was an indeed a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. It’s in those truths that you see Stone’s greatness. Yes he created many fictions within this film, but those fictions are used as scenery to get our attention and keep it while building to these truths. That’s what many people lost sight of with this film. JFK isn’t about proving whether or not it was the CIA, FBI, Secret Service, Lyndon B. Johnson, Cuba, anti-Cuban immigrants, the Mafia, Russia or whoever that was responsible; those entities are merely one large McGuffin designed to rope us in and keep us glued to the screen until it’s time for Stone to the knockout blow. Only then can one realize that Stone, through a lot of deception and covert truth, has brought the Warren Commission to its knees.

Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw
Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw
Gary Oldman as the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald
Gary Oldman as the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald

The controversy doesn’t end there though, as just much of the outcry over JFK was about who Stone chose to make the main character. On the surface Jim Garrison was an ideal choice; to this day he remains the only person to bring forth a trial for the assassination of Kennedy, which gives him a level of credibility that a random conspiracy theorist wouldn’t have had. At the same token Garrison is considered by many, from both the conspiracy theorists and debunkers, to be one of the least reliable people to try and prove a conspiracy. For example, it’s believed Garrison and his staff used unconventional methods, such as sodium pentothal and hypnosis, to get information on Clay Shaw and the conspiracy. Whether or not there was someone who could’ve better represented Stone’s vision ultimately doesn’t matter as, much like the subject matter, Stone is less interested as presenting the true version of Garrison in favor of presenting Garrison the idea. This is a Jim Garrison that is supposed to represent the average Joe of America since the assassination, a man who believes he’s been lied to by his own government and cannot fathom nor understand it.


The only difference is that, unlike the average Joe, Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar send Garrison further down the rabbit hole. The result is a three dimensional protagonist that, despite claims to the contrary, isn’t an angel by any stretch. This Jim Garrison may not be the flawed Jim Garrison of the real world but he’s still really flawed. He does push on despite a circumstantial case and refuses to believe he could be wrong. Most importantly he becomes so obsessed that he neglects everything else in his life, including his wife and children, and fails to realize it until he’s gone too far. Even if this wasn’t what the real Garrison was like, Stone gives us a very real, imperfect character, and thus one who the audience can relate and sympathize with. This Garrison is a man whose intentions and values are pure; that he gets carried away with them is something many can relate to.

Costner as Garrison and Jay O. Sanders as his friend/co-worker Lou Ivon
Costner as Garrison and Jay O. Sanders as his friend/co-worker Lou Ivon

It certainly helps that Kevin Costner was cast as Garrison, the first of many (and I mean many) brilliant casting decisions from Stone. Costner was actually the third choice behind Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, but both men declined and Costner’s white hot streak of hit films (he had just won the Oscar for Dances with Wolves the year before and was coming off a five year streak of films that included Wolves, Silverado, The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams) was too much for Stone to ignore. Thank Goodness because I cannot imagine Ford and especially Gibson doing the job Costner does. Playing up his “everyman” strengths that have made him a star for over four decades, Costner is the epitome of decency, righteousness and obsession that ultimately threatens to overtake the good man that Garrison is. It allowed Costner to be the JFK’s center as the supporting players steal the first two thirds of the film and then allows Costner to steal the show himself during the Trial of Clay Shaw. I don’t know how to describe it other than saying that trial is the performance of Costner’s life; he singlehandedly shreds the Warren Commission and the magic bullet theory to pieces in a bone chilling monologue, all while fighting the judge, jury and defense attorney at the same time he’s trying to keep himself from falling to pieces (Costner got so emotional during this sequence that he actually broke down, which wasn’t in the script. Stone wisely kept it in). It’s a breathtaking piece of performance and one that I’m quite surprised didn’t get Costner an Oscar nomination. Regardless, it remains a watermark moment for the star’s career, up there with A Perfect World for his best performance.


The rest of the cast is just as good as, and at times even better, than Costner. Stone was inspired to get as many big names as he could and not only succeeded but got everyone to give A effort despite limited screen time. Stars like Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matheau, Brian Doyle-Murray, Frank Whaley, John Candy, Ed Asner and Vincent D’Onofrio have maybe a combined 35 to 40 minutes of screen time between them, but all leave a mark on the film in some shape or form (Bacon as Willy O’Keefe and Murray as Jack Ruby are particularly interesting). More substantial roles are Sissy Spacek as Garrison’s wife, Gary Oldman as Oswald, and Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw. Spacek could’ve been just another “supportive wife” cliché, but she presents a feisty Liz Garrison who isn’t afraid to call Garrison out on his obsession and actively doubts him and his investigation. Even when she does come around in the end it feels natural, and Spacek, one of the more underrated actress ever, is a big reason for that. Oldman effortlessly steps into Oswald’s shoes and captures the mysterious complexity of an infamous historical figure that we still don’t know nearly enough about as we should. It’s a role Oldman, famous for his villainous portrayals, was born to play. As for Jones, the only member of the cast to earn an Oscar nomination, he easily slides into the role of the charismatic former International Trade Mart director who seems to struggle more secrets than just his “alleged” involvement with the assassination. Even still, this nomination appears to be more due to Jones being a striking resemblance to the real Shaw than anything else, and his role is more or less an extended cameo. In a way it’s fitting; Shaw may be the man Garrison put on trial in real life and in this film, but it’s clear Garrison and Stone see him as a means to an end more than someone of importance. Shaw, and thus Jones by extension, provides Garrison a platform to reveal his theories and little else.


Even amongst the great cast though there are a few unsung heroes that stand out. Donald Sutherland’s X appears in only one scene but he ends up being just as memorable as Costner, a Deep Throat esq informer in search of the truth falling into the right hands. The role remains one of Sutherland’s best known performances and has become iconic, helping to influence the portrayal of the characters Deep Throat and X in The X-Files. Garrison’s staff, comprised of the lesser known names of the cast, is terrific across the board. Michael Rooker keeps viewers guessing as Bill Broussard, one of Garrison’s closest confidantes who seems less inclined to believe a government conspiracy than his boss and coworkers. TV veterans Laurie Metcalf and Wayne Knight (“Hello Newman!”) are the most supportive members, with Metcalf getting a few great monologues explaining Oswald’s early life. Most effective of the group is Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon; the character actor of over 137 films makes a great impression as Garrison’s no nonsense right hand man and at times feels like the best performer in the film. All of them however pale to Joe Pesci’s Dave Ferrie. The court room scene and Garrison’s meeting with X are considered JFK’s two crowning moments, but in my book Pesci’s manic rant to Garrison and his staff is right there with them. More than any other character in the film Pesci’s Ferrie seems cursed by demons, a man who wanted to be good and ended up on a path that’s left him so fucking exhausted he can’t see straight. It’s a breathtaking scene and, coupled with early scenes that present Ferrie as both a unique character and a madman engulfed by rage, suggest to me that Pesci, not Jones, should’ve gotten the Best Supporting Oscar nod. He is something to behold in this film.

Joe Pesci as David Ferrie
Joe Pesci as David Ferrie

In the end, the lone thing holding JFK back from being rightfully considered one of the greatest films ever made is the subject matter. From an acting standpoint it’s excellent across the board. Stone and Sklar’s screenplay, which I’ve only mentioned once, is a gem. The editing is some of the best ever. The reconstruction of the 60’s by Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson and the set designers is top notch. John Williams’ score is your typical John Williams score. The only knock against the film is Stone’s unwillingness to tell a historically accurate film and honestly, if JFK had done that it would’ve likely been a bore. No one wanted/wants to see a film where the Warren Commission opens and closes a case or Garrison being presented as a nut (really, outside of JFK, I’m not sure anyone would want to see a film involving Garrison at all). Hell most historical films aren’t that historical accurate anyway; as Kingdom of Heaven writer William Monohan once put it, “what you use, in drama, is what plays.” That’s what JFK does and that’s what ultimately makes it so good. What it lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for with thrills, twists, turns, curiosity and, most importantly, doubt. It’s a detective story about a man in search for the truth who uses rhetoric, McGuffin’s and smokescreens to gain a platform and show the world what really happened November 22nd, 1963. As X famously puts it in that famous scene, “fundamentally people are suckers for the truth.” Oliver Stone understands this and also understands one way to get people to truths in by deception. Is that sound strategy? I’ll let you be the judge. I just know that that’s JFK, that’s Oliver Stone and that’s why this film is his masterpiece.

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