Oliver Stone’s JFK: A Masterful Blend of Fact and Fiction

Kevin Costner headlined an all-star cast in Oliver Stone's JFK. It was a film that led to an act of Congress being passed...

Oliver Stone’s epic conspiracy-thriller JFK, surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the case brought about by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in relation to his murder, was released in 1991 to an astonishing level of critical backlash. Even before JFK arrived in theaters it was being pilloried and attacked by many in the media. The attacks were kick-started by Washington Post correspondent George Lardner, an investigative reporter who wrote a piece called On the Set: Dallas In Wonderland; How Oliver Stone’s Version Of The Kennedy Assassination Exploits The Edge Of Paranoia, which was actually based solely on a leaked copy of Stone’s first draft of the script.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive of the Motion Picture Association at the time, Jack Valenti ,compared the film to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda piece, Triumph Of The Will, and Conservative columnist George Will described it as “an act of execrable history and contemptible citizenship by a man of technical skill, scant education, and negligible conscience.”

Clearly it’s no exaggeration to suggest Stone’s movie is a highly evocative piece of cinema. However, in addition to this, it’s also an incredibly effective movie that directly contributed to an act of Congress being passed, which is not something that many other movies can boast.

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Critics have pounded on Stone’s movie primarily due to its highly controversial blending of historical fact with huge swathes of artistic license. Defenders of Stone meanwhile point out that he was not making a historical documentary but rather a piece of cinematic drama, seeking not to portray strict truth but rather prompt discussion and offer his own alternative narrative on an historical event. Whatever side you may take in this debate, I think I’m fairly safe to suggest that one criticism that very few people would level at JFK is that it is a technically bad movie. Call it untruthful, call it misleading, heck you can even call it unpatriotic if you like, but you would struggle to deny its artistic merit. Personally I think it’s a true masterpiece: an enthralling, gripping, and powerful story that is a technical marvel and a visual feast from start to finish.

I should state that my intention isn’t to settle any debate over the responsibility of the filmmaker with regards to historical accuracy, nor is it to list everything Stone got wrong and right in his movie. These issues are near impossible to ignore completely when discussing JFK of course, but most of all, this is an article celebrating Stone’s movie for its cinematic brilliance rather than picking out his inaccuracies.

Oliver Stone

Stone’s experiences fighting in the Vietnam War, a conflict in which he spent 360 days serving with distinction in the United States Army, have unsurprisingly formed a huge part of his outlook as a filmmaker. From his critique of American foreign policy in South America in Salvador, his condemnation of the American government’s treatment of veterans in Born On The Fourth Of July, and his portrayal of the true horrors of the Vietnam War in Platoon, Stone’s anti-establishment streak is clear to see. It’s something he has always worn with a badge of honor and made no attempts to water down. Bringing what he sees as the harsh realities of American foreign policy into the conscious of mainstream cinema audiences is a recurring theme throughout his work.

Platoon is understandably seen as Stone’s most personal work, given its direct link to his own tour of duty. However, I’d argue that JFK is a very close second. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was a pivotal moment in the life of the young director. According to Stone it marked the start of what he saw as a fall from grace for America and their embarking on a dark road that began with Kennedy’ successor Lyndon Johnson escalating the war in Vietnam. In the production notes for JFK Stone stated:

“Kennedy to me was like the Godfather of my generation. He was a very important figure, a leader, a prince in a sense. And his murder marked the end of a dream. The end of a concept of idealism I associated with my youth.”

These strong feelings flow right the way through the movie and it’s clearly a passion project which Stone made with an intense verve. However critics could arguably point out that it was this passion which blinded Stone to certain realities and led to him to take some fairly strong liberties with the truth.

Historical accuracy

Now, as I previously stated, my intent here is not to get bogged down by issues of what is accurate and what is not in this movie. It is simply undeniable that Stone presented conjecture as fact (Kennedy’s desire to withdraw from Vietnam is highly debatable), created composite characters who never existed (Willie O’Keefe and the mysterious ‘X’), omitted key facts (Garrison drugged a witness with ‘truth serum’) and simply made other points up (David Ferrie never once admitted complicity in the assassination as Stone suggests).

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He was also heavily criticized for making such a highly divisive figure as Jim Garrison the centerpiece and moral compass of his story.

Stone, however, argued that he is simply offering what he described to Cineaste as “a countermyth to the official myth of the Warren Commission.” His supporters would argue that a degree of dramatic license is permitted due to issues such as time constraints and the need for narrative clarity that a Hollywood director will inevitably face. Likewise, it can be argued that Garrison merely stands in as a symbol for various other people who over the years have also fought for their side of this grand debate. It should perhaps also be pointed out that Stone does bring up some valid points in amongst it all, especially with regards to the inadequacies of the Warren Commission Report. His critique of their findings is supported by the fact that the 1979 US House Select Committee on Assassinations went against the Warren Commission and actually concluded that Kennedy was, in all probability, killed by a conspiracy.

Most crucially though, Stone’s movie is not there to act as a source of historical evidence. Instead, it is perhaps fairer to say that the director intended for it to represent broader historical truths, about a distrust of government, distrust of the Warren Commission, and what he sees as a general national decline. Perhaps it should be seen therefore as a means of provoking debate and encouraging discussion more than anything else. As Roger Ebert himself said in his Great Movies entry for JFK:

JFK will stand indefinitely as a record of how we felt. How the American people suspect there was more to it than was ever revealed. How we suspect Oswald did not act entirely alone. That there was some kind of a conspiracy. JFK is a brilliant reflection of our unease and paranoia, our restless dissatisfaction. On that level, it is completely factual.”

It comes down to personal taste however as to whether or not you feel this argument is correct. Many will quite understandably question whether “artistic license” is a valid defense and whether there is in fact a responsibility of a filmmaker to portray historical events as truthfully as possible. That, however, is a debate for another time. Let’s linger on such matter no further and instead move on to discussing what makes this movie so damn good.

The film itself

Treated purely as a piece of drama, JFK is a mesmerizing blend of styles and formats. It has elements of documentary, historical recreation, family drama, criminal investigation, political thriller, and courtroom drama coursing through it. At its center sits District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and the story of how he and his team successfully brought about the first trial relating to the assassination of President Kennedy. The dramatic thrust of the movie is deliberately simple, underneath all the layers of intrigue, it’s a group of dedicated and tireless public servants seeking to uncover the truth and expose the shady goings on of those in power. It’s compelling and passionate cinema that whips you up and demands your attention.

From the very outset it’s easy to see why JFK won Academy Awards for both Cinematography and Editing. The opening montage which begins the movie is a bravura introduction that condenses down a wealth of crucial information into a very short space of time. We see historical archive footage of Kennedy’s speeches, his family life, his meetings with other politicians, as well as footage of other key players and events from the era.

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As the footage begins, a key theme is immediately articulated via Dwight D. Eisenhower’s ominous warning against the rise to prominence of the military-industrial complex. We are then shown newsreels documenting Kennedy’s narrow election victory over Richard Nixon as the ground is set for his arrival in power.

The tempo then begins to pick up, the editing quickens and the tone becomes more serious, as the Cold War and its milieu unfolds. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, the annexation of Cuba, Kennedy’s deal with Krushchev and his apparent desire to withdraw from Vietnam are all explained in brief via archive footage and calming narration by none other than Martin Sheen. Key concepts and themes are now lodged in our minds. These include Kennedy’s willingness to work with Russia, his supposed weakness on Communism, and the threat he posted to those with a vested interest in war.

Suddenly, in amongst the newsreel footage comes our first fictional scene involving a call girl being ditched by the roadside. It marks a sudden shift that sees the montage’s pace and intensity increase once more. The music shifts from a brisk military drum roll to a far more menacing and tense piece. From here the momentum ramps up towards that fateful day in Dallas as footage of Kennedy’s arrival in the city is blended with recreations of his route to Dealey Plaza. Eventually it cuts to footage from the Zapruder film and as his car makes that final turn, we hear a gunshot ring out and it all fades to black.

Thanks to Stone and his editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, the movie’s entire tone and raison d’etre is perfectly laid out before us. This whole sequence runs just shy of seven minutes. In those seven minutes a huge amount of information is relayed to us. You are thus launched into proceedings imbued with a sense of both historical context and atmosphere, as well as a range of questions already primed and ready to go.

Hutshing and Scalia utilized a range of sources for their visual jigsaw including newsreels, stock photos, home movies, and Stone’s own new footage. The blending of historical fact and fiction begins here, with real-life footage and dramatic re-creations mixed together through a series of quick cuts in order to develop Stone’s story. The issue with this perhaps being that it’s sometimes hard to tell when the archive footage ends and the new footage begins. This process of merging together fresh footage and archive pieces comes not only in the introduction, but several times throughout the movie.

When the mysterious ‘X’ (Donald Sutherland) lays out his version of events for Jim Garrison, we again witness an onslaught of visual information which seemingly backs up his claim. Likewise, when Garrison is in the courtroom laying out his own version of events, we again view it via a gripping montage of moments which reinforce his argument. In all three cases, the fast paced editing drives the story along and gives each sequence a sense of urgency and vitality.

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The film’s cinematography is also a joy to watch and more than worthy of its Oscar win. Robert Richardson and Stone delivered a film that could go from brooding and sombre, to vibrant and urgent in the blink of an eye. Moments such as Garrison interviewing Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) on a rain-soaked Easter weekend or Garrison’s solitary viewing of Robert Kennedy’s shooting are shrouded in gloom and despondency, reflective of the sense of despair Stone himself felt over these moments. Meanwhile, the dizzying courtroom sequence delivers many little gems, from the camera stalking Garrison as he prowls the debate floor, to the way it cuts away to capture the shocked looks of the sweat-laden fan-holding courtroom audience.

There’s an undeniable thrill to be found in any case being unravelled before your eyes in a film. Whatever your feelings may be on the real life case at hand, seeing Garrison plunge down the rabbit hole and make sense of the conspiracy is gripping to watch. Moments such as the revelation that Clay Shaw and Clay Bertrand are the same person where Garrison’s team have their own moment of clarity, to Garrison’s own moment of disbelief at the sheer scale of X’s story, drill home how twisting and uncertain the case is. The sequence where Garrison and his team sit around a restaurant table each providing their own little extra snippet of new information is a treat, with Laurie Metcalf’s Susie Cox stealing the scene with her wonderfully passionate unveiling of her findings on Oswald’s time in Russia.

It’s seeing how the pieces fit together that makes the film so fascinating. Pieces which are hinted at in the opening montage, characters referenced in or even merely glimpsed in flashbacks, come back in to proceedings later on as the puzzle takes shape. For example, one of the ‘Nazi-type’ mercenaries shown early on in the background at one of David Ferrie’s (Joe Pesci) training camps, shows up later on as an apparent contact on the ground giving a signal to the ‘hobos’ on the day of the assassination. This man never utters a line, yet he offers a subtle through line linking earlier moments with the broader story.

While Stone himself deserves great credit for producing this huge piece of work, he was helped majorly by a brilliant all-star cast. To name but a few we saw Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, and Sissy Spacek all throwing themselves into their roles. Even John Candy and Walter Matthau, who both only have very brief cameos, are scintillating to watch. Candy’s perspiring jazz-talking dodgy attorney oozes screen presence, while Matthau’s good ol’ Senator is the cynical doubter who reignites Garrison’s interest in the assassination.

Spacek is wonderful as Jim’s loving and patient wife Liz. As the hardworking mother who raises the kids while Jim is constantly distracted by work, she helps to drill home just how committed Garrison had become and how much he was risking. The home life he valued so much, that cherished domesticity, was personified by Spacek and her tested patience. Equally though she also acts as a necessary air of doubt over Garrison’s pursuit of Shaw. She voices her concerns and puts forward the counter point of view. It can definitely be argued that she is often used to represent those who doubted Garrison and illustrate that at times, almost everyone seemed to be against him. However Spacek still slips under the radar somewhat and her graceful and subtle performance shouldn’t be ignored.

Another underrated performer in this movie is Michael Rooker as the fictional addition to Garrison’s DA team, Bill Broussard. When the likes of Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci and Tommy Lee Jones are all in fine form, with Oldman slipping seamlessly and chameleon-like into the part of Oswald, Pesci hamming it up as the flamboyant Ferrie and Jones oozing thinly-veiled menace as the shady businessman Shaw, Rooker’s role can understandably go unnoticed. However his hot-tempered and frustrated assistant DA provides a perfect pivot to Garrison’s calm and convinced boss. Where Garrison sees conspiracy and pieces falling in to place, Broussard sees only far-fetched reaching. Watching him slowly lose his faith and eventually betray his boss is heightened by Rooker’s typically intense and powerful performance.

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At the center of the movie, though, is Kevin Costner.

Fresh off both Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Dances With Wolves, he was not only a huge movie star, but also one who exudes that Jimmy Stewart-esque wholesome all-American persona. Many of course argue that Garrison in real-life, who incidentally has a brief cameo as Chief Justice Earl Warren, was anything but this clean-cut wholesome figure. However, for the role as written by Stone, Costner was perfect. You have no problem believing him as a stubborn yet well-intentioned man who would stop at nothing to unveil the truth.

Few people would argue that Costner is one of the all-time greats in terms of pure natural acting ability. However, in the trial scene in particular he really shows how powerful a performer he can be with Garrison’s impassioned closing statement his crowning glory.

This speech is a powerful monologue filled with soaring oratory and rousing quotes, from the opening “Treason doth never prosper” to the inspiring “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.” Costner’s Garrison captivates his courtroom and us as an audience, the actor pouring his heart into delivering the monologue of his career. It captures both the essence of the movie’s prevailing mood, as well as the important minutiae of Garrison’s case. He is also here channelling Stone himself, vocalizing his director’s plea to encourage debate, and encourage questions. It’s the storming speech’s closing thoughtful moments that really hit home thanks to Costner’s trembling voice as he allows himself to crack under the weight of his words:

“Do not forget your dying king. 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.”

It’s this courtroom scene that makes up a huge chunk of the film’s final third. While it starts off with Garrison’s team doing rather badly as a result of Broussard’s sub-par leads, it all picks up once we see the Zapruder film. This home video remains a shocking piece of real-life footage despite its impact perhaps lessening in modern times as we become de-sensitized to such visuals. However Stone utilizes it to powerful effect in order to aid Garrison in getting his points across. The video is presented as a vital puzzle piece and is permitted to play out at first without music or dialogue over the top. It is allowed to simply unfold before your eyes, almost as if Stone himself grants this one piece of undebatable historical artifact to just play out on its own merits. The audible gasps in the courtroom as the fatal headshot hits the President are understandable. It’s a powerful experience to see the real life murder caught on camera so vividly.

From the Zapruder film onwards we sense Garrison is truly hitting his stride, his dismantling of the so called ‘single bullet’ theory is so erudite and persuasive you’ll almost want to just believe he is right and completely avoid the fairly important factors Stone failed to include. The fact that Garrison does not go on to win his case and the jury instead finds in favor of Shaw, is utterly immaterial. It’s the seeds of doubt he planted and the broader idea he put forward that matters. As he walks off with his family, head held high, what matters is that he tried.

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JFK had a lasting impact far beyond any judgement over its cinematic quality. The President John F Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 was passed by Congress as a direct result of the film, and led to the setting up of the Assassination Records Review Board. This board had the purview to try and make public any evidence that would otherwise have been kept secret until 2029 as suggested by the coda at the end of the film. Also, it became commonly known that by law, all existing documents pertaining to the assassination must be made public by October 2017, with around 40,000 still not readily available to the public as the time of writing.

On a purely dramatic level, JFK is a triumph both in terms of what it manages to cram in and also what it delivers as a whole. It sets out to capture a mood and a sensibility and does so perfectly. To suggest Stone’s methods are not flawed would be foolhardy, but it’s hard not to get caught up and find yourself enjoying his epic movie brimming with history, crime and intrigue.

Perhaps the prime message that Stone sought to convey with his movie was articulated perfectly by X to Garrison himself during their meeting in Washington.

“Don’t take my word for it, don’t believe me. Do your own work, your own thinking.”