When I watched JFK in eighth grade, it blew my little mind on two equally important fronts: First off, it’s a balls-out cinematic masterpiece that deploys just about every visual trick in the book to keep it compelling for over three hours. On top of that, Oliver Stone directs his magnum opus with the frenzy of a coked-out chef, frantically hurling factoids and theories at the wall and hoping that at least a few will stick. Brilliant and fearless, JFK really put the hook in me. In response to its clarion call, I tracked down the Warren Commission’s final summary of the assassination, hoping to see how much truth lurked within this film’s maniacal fury. But before we get to the devil and the details, let’s bring any newcomers up to speed.
JFK views the assassination through the eyes of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the amiable district attorney of Orleans Parrish. (Stone co-wrote the script with Zachary Sklar, based on Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins and Crossfire by Jim Marrs.) Garrison’s patriotic naiveté gets shattered with Kennedy’s death, ultimately sending him on a deep dive into a murky ocean of CIA spooks, mafia goons, and sketchy witnesses. Garrison finds an orgy of evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) did not act alone in killing the president, and may not have even committed the crime at all. His investigation leads him to Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a respected New Orleans businessman, who could also be a powerful player within the CIA. From there, Garrison uncovers evidence of a sprawling conspiracy, one that involves a plethora of powerful people.
Stone presents this deluge of information and conjecture in a dizzying, dazzling hodgepodge of meticulous recreations and stock footage. Cinematographer Robert Richardson deploys 8, 16, and 35mm cameras, while editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing somehow stitch all these narrative squares into a breathtakingly beautiful quilt. All three won well-deserved Academy Awards. Also of note is John Williams’s original score, which alternates between lush orchestral cues and the pulsating percussion of a taut political thriller.
Now that we’ve sufficiently patted this film on the back, let’s wade out past the breakers and talk about Stone’s theories, and how they’ve aged over the years.
The Case for a Conspiracy
For three breathless hours, Oliver Stone switches between fact and fiction with the precision of a master illusionist. This approach might sway some viewers into wild-eyed belief, while alienating others into committed skepticism. The irony is that most of JFK warrants a response somewhere in between those extremes. Stone pulls a lot of information directly from the Warren Report, while also slipping in a decent amount of apocryphal hooey. It’s a strategy a lawyer might use to keep a defendant off death row: Stone doesn’t need to make a slam-dunk argument to win; he just has to sow the seeds of doubt.
And while all this histrionic conjecture isn’t built to withstand a ton of scrutiny, it does perforate the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and stocked with luminaries like Gerald Ford and Allen Dulles, this group conducted a mammoth investigation that spanned 27 volumes–or, roughly the size of a complete Encyclopedia Brittanica. Those thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of words can be reduced to one surprisingly flimsy conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist-Leninist and loner, killed John F. Kennedy by firing three shots in 5.6 seconds from the corner window of the Texas School Book Depository’s sixth floor.
That’s a run-on sentence, but that’s pretty much everything you need. The Commission’s conclusion is adamantine, which allows Stone to expose its flaws. For example: Immediately after the assassination, Dallas Patrolman Marion Baker spotted a puff of smoke from the Book Depository window and raced into the building. He encountered Oswald in the snack room on the second floor, buying a Coke from the vending machine. Baker pulled his gun on Oswald and demanded to know his business in the building. Depository Superintendent Roy Truly vouched for Oswald, and Baker went on his way. When asked by the Warren Commission, Baker placed this encounter at no more than 90 seconds after the shooting.
If the Commission’s conclusion is correct, that means Oswald carried out the assassination, sprinted across the sixth floor, stashed the rifle between two stacks of boxes, raced down four flights of stairs, and plunked down change for a Coke, all within 90 seconds. Baker testified that Oswald did not appear out of breath or anxious at all. Like so many other things in the Report, this is not technically impossible, just difficult to believe. Combine Baker’s official testimony with the conflicting accounts of Oswald’s coworkers–some place him awkwardly loitering around the sixth floor right before the shooting, while others have him in the snack room up to and beyond 12:30–and it’s difficult to conclusively say that he was even in position to do the crime at all.
So many pieces don’t fit the puzzle the way the government would like, and Stone gives just about all of them a good look: Oswald’s defection to Russia and subsequent repatriation. Jack Ruby’s dubious presence at Oswald’s press conference. Also, why did Oswald purchase a weapon and have it shipped to a traceable post office box? Why do witnesses give conflicting accounts of Oswald murdering Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippit, and why weren’t these investigated further? After the assassination, why did he walk into a movie theater without buying a ticket, even though he had the money to do so?
Of all the lapses in logic surrounding this case, Stone gives the most airtime to the most egregious one: It was Warren Commission’s claim that Lee Harvey Oswald was a pitiful loner, an unstable malcontent determined to do evil. Except…that’s not entirely true. Oswald was a married man, and had two young daughters. In Dallas, he befriended George de Mohrenschildt, a wealthy, well-spoken older gentleman. When he lived in New Orleans, Oswald was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a Marxist group dedicated to preserving the Castro Regime. Oswald didn’t have many true friends, but he did have a bizarre and expansive list of associates, some of whom had the motivation and means to take part in the Kennedy assassination.
Stone imagines–but can’t definitively prove–an eccentric cast of characters orbiting around Oswald: David Ferrie (a brilliant Joe Pesci), a scroungy Renaissance man whose journey of self-discovery may have led him off the deep end. Clay Shaw, a suave businessman with heavy interests in Latin America. Guy Banister (Ed Asner), a grouchy ex-FBI man with a vitriolic hatred of President Kennedy. From these disparate men, Stone assembles a sweeping conspiracy, involving J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Allen Dulles, Maxwell Taylor, the CIA, the FBI, Naval Intelligence, the Mafia, exiled Cubans, covert Russians, the Dallas Police Department, the Texas National Guard, and many others. Pretty much anybody this side of Englebert Humperdinck. Again, Stone doesn’t have to sell you on the whole menu. You can build your own conspiracy theories a la carte.
The Case Against
Ironically, Stone embeds a voice of reason within JFK‘s craziness. Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) is a mercurial young lawyer on Garrison’s staff. In many ways, he represents the audience–doubting, confused, but insatiably curious. Broussard often plays counterpoint to Garrison’s wilder theories, such as Lyndon Johnson staging a coup d’état on behalf of wealthy benefactors at Bell Helicopter and Brown & Root. Toward the end, Broussard blows his top, and puts a hard question to his boss: “How the hell can you keep a conspiracy going between the mob, the CIA, the FBI, Army Intelligence, and who the hell knows what else when you can’t keep a secret in this room between 12 people?”
Broussard nails it. I read somewhere that if the Apollo 11 landings were truly fake, it would take somewhere on the order of 30,000 people to make it happen and stay silent for a lifetime. A conspiracy of the galactic magnitude Stone proposes would require a similarly impossible number of accomplices–before, during, and after the fact. If the cliché says that every murderer makes ten mistakes at the crime scene, how many colossal blunders would be committed by how many people in this scenario? Sure, the Warren Commission’s case was a leaky raft, and more water has flowed in as the years have passed. But, Stone’s behemoth murder plot could be easily undone by the smallest of things: A deathbed confession. A drunken slip-up. Some crucial document left out for the wrong eyes to see. Nothing stays secret forever, and even this alleged coup would eventually find its way into the sunshine.
Somewhere in Between
I’ll admit it: It’s tempting to follow Stone deep into the rabbit hole. It’s also easy to forget the scientific tenet that the simplest explanations tend to be the right ones. Epic tragedies like Kennedy’s assassination cloud our logic and muddy our perspective. Kennedy was a handsome, intellectually engaged young man in the prime of his life. He had a wife as beautiful as any actress in Hollywood history and two gorgeous kids to complete the closest thing this country has ever had to a royal family. A man with so much to give and so much to lose couldn’t possibly be ended by a loner loser in less than six seconds. Our national innocence doesn’t come so cheaply and can’t be shredded so easily. No, no, no–it had to be a Byzantine plot, replete with corridor whispers and smoky backroom deals. Its perpetrators must’ve been Shakespearean villains to rival Brutus and Cassius. Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t have acted alone. Our very nature won’t allow it.
The thing is, we can build a credible conspiracy around Oswald without going off the rails and into the ravine. Hell, if I say, “Let’s go across the street and steal the neighbor’s newspaper,” then you and I just engaged in a conspiracy. (I would never do that, because…you know, karma.) Oswald knew some sketchy people, many of them with a burning hatred for the government. All it would take is for one or two of them to jump on board.
This scenario would actually fill a lot of the credibility gaps in the Warren Commission’s case. An additional assassin would explain why Oswald waited for the motorcade to turn onto Houston Street, thus setting up a partner on the ground for an ideal shot. It would also satisfy why so many witnesses heard shots coming from the picket fence behind the grassy knoll. This situation would verify the testimony of Lee Bowers, a watchman in the tower of the Dallas rail yard. He saw two men hanging around that fence, and noticed a flash of commotion at the exact moment of the assassination. Those persons would have almost instant access to the freeway, making a getaway to leave Oswald to fend for himself.
It’s also possible–as Stone conjectures–that Oswald may not have taken part in the assassination at all. Nitrate tests were inconclusive about whether or not he had fired a weapon that day. Once he got into position, Oswald could’ve panicked, ran, and left an accomplice to carry out the shooting. Maybe he tried to calmly walk down the stairs to the snack room, so as not to draw suspicion. Once Officer Baker stormed into view and brandished his weapon, it could’ve become clear that Oswald was officially in over his head. His fear and anxiety would only grow, until it consumed him. This would cover why Oswald murdered Officer Tippit, and then staggered into the Texas Theater without buying a ticket. With his cohorts long gone, Lee Harvey Oswald may have ended up as exactly what he told the media: A patsy. Unfortunately, Jack Ruby destroyed most of our chance of ever knowing anything, with one point blank bullet.
That’s the saddest truth of all: We’ll never know what really happened. Oswald, Ruby, and just about everybody else associated with the assassination are dead. Many classified files have been made available, but nothing gives any obvious answers. Despite advances in technology, despite years of escalating national outrage, we’re no closer to a definitive answer than I was as an eighth grader, pouring over the Warren Report.
At this point, maybe this has all become more about the search than the actual discovery. We know we probably won’t find anything that will blow the lid off, but the fact that we’re still looking means we’re not forgetting. And that’s Stone’s biggest accomplishment in all this: Whether or not you think JFK is pure codswallop it has stoked the curiosity of a lot of people. It provoked a lot of hard questions, and sometimes those mean more than the eventual answers. Stone channels our collective grief and anger into a single outlet, and ensures that we will never forget our dying king.
188 min. R.