Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. His death remains a national obsession, as indicated by the dizzying array of TV programs that have popped up to mark the occasion. DirecTV is running JFK: A President Betrayed, TLC has Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy, National Geographic Channel aired Killing Kennedy, Smithsonian Channel gave us The Day Kennedy Died, CNN premiered The Assassination of President Kennedy and not to be outdone, the History Channel is pulling out JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide. Our obsession stems not just from Kennedy’s death but rather, the mysteries surrounding the tragic event. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Or did he have assistance? Was the mob behind Kennedy’s killing? The CIA? Maybe Lyndon Johnson? At some point, just about everyone has been suspected of JFK’s murder—even Joe DiMaggio, whose supposed motive was his belief that the Kennedys had killed his beloved Marilyn Monroe.
Almost all of those conspiracy theories are contained within Oliver Stone’s film JFK. When the director set his sights on the Kennedy assassination, he was riding high from the success of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, both of which won him Oscars for Best Director. Yet JFK, which hit theaters in December 1991, was his most ambitious work. The three-hour movie—about district attorney Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) pursuit of the men he believed conspired to kill Kennedy—was part detective story, part courtroom thriller. Stone’s mission was to dismantle the Warren Commission’s assertion that Oswald acted alone and prove that Kennedy’s assassination was hatched by a group of shadowy U.S. military and CIA figures that didn’t want Kennedy scaling back the country’s provocations with its rivals. “He was starting to end the Cold War,” Stone told Roger Ebert in 1991. “He made a deal with Khrushchev and Russia in 1962 to end the missile crisis, and he furthered the deal when he signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. … [U.S. military leaders] wanted him to invade Cuba; he didn’t. They wanted him to send combat troops to Vietnam and Laos; he didn’t.”
Before its release, JFK attracted plenty of negative publicity. Those attacks were epitomized by Newsweek, which published a cover with the headline “The Twisted Truth of ‘JFK’: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted.” The magazine’s criticisms centered on Stone’s faith in the unreliable Garrison, whose book On the Trail of the Assassins the filmis partly based. “I don’t think a normal guy could be around Garrison without realizing what he was doing, that he’s crazy, a strange man, a megalomaniac,” reporter Hugh Aynesworth said before JFK’s release. Another reporter, Rosemary James, recalled to Newsweek that Garrison “went from a highly intelligent eccentric to a lunatic in the period of a year” while pursuing his case.
Despite the controversy—or, more likely, thanks in part to the controversy—JFK scored at the box office and with the Academy, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. But its electric pacing and stirring sentiment didn’t deflect criticism that the movie’s conspiracy case was slippery. That’s even truer today. Back in 1991, JFK was hardly airtight in its logic. (For example, Garrison’s crucial encounter with Donald Sutherland’s mysterious Mr. X, who reveals government secrets that confirm the military’s involvement in Kennedy’s killing, never happened.) But in the years since JFK’s release, its main arguments against Oswald acting alone have been debunked—for instance, by showing how the unusual alignment of the seats in Kennedy’s car perfectly explains how only one so-called “magic bullet” could have wounded Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally. In theory, JFK should now be a dated relic, the work of some crazy old hippie shaking his fists and yelling incoherently. Yet the opposite is true. JFK might be filled with one-note characters; it might lack insight into the emotional consequences of pursuing an obsession; and it might get just about every fact wrong. But it remains astoundingly vital.
That vitality stems from Stone. Few current filmmakers take their movies so personally in the way he did during his heyday. A Vietnam vet, Stone seemed to be desperately re-fighting that war (and the period that spawned it) throughout most of the 1980s: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors. JFK wasn’t just a love letter to Kennedy but also an angry rebuke to the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his 1961 exit speech, which tellingly opens the film. Garrison is portrayed by Costner with such unsullied heroism because Stone clearly identifies with him. It’s not Garrison going after businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) and the other conspirators—it’s Stone. And so, it’s no surprise that JFK buzzes with the caffeinated energy of a filmmaker who can’t wait to nail the men he perceives to be the bad guys—the men he blames for escalating a war that stole his formative years.
Today, we don’t often get movies that feel like a one-man crusade. And when we do, they’re on the far margins: paranoid partisan documentaries such as the Obama takedown 2016: Obama’s America or Stone’s own Untold History of the United States, which purported to be an exposé of the country’s secret history since World War II. By comparison, Warner Bros. released JFK in the midst of holiday blockbuster season, and while Stone had plenty of pull back in 1991, these days no major studio would ever allow a filmmaker (no matter how popular) to produce a movie this willfully speculative. Political, “controversial” movies like Zero Dark Thirty and United 93 still get made, but they’re largely reflecting our agreed-upon version of history—they’re not forwarding arguments that the U.S. government has been lying about its involvement in the murder of a beloved president. It would be akin to Steven Spielberg making Lincoln and arguing that the 16th president was gay.
JFK also existed in an era before Oscar season became choked with rampant attacks against each contender’s factual accuracy. (Not that those grumblings stop movies based on true stories from winning Best Picture: Argo got hammered for the historical liberties it took.) It could be argued that most films’ overall entertainment value trumps the fudging of a few facts, but with JFK, the facts are the movie. Stone brilliantly weaves together archival footage with re-created scenes and imagined scenarios. Even when he’s dealing in wild conjecture, though, Stone is absolutely convinced there was a conspiracy. As such, everything we see gets funneled into his hurricane of fact and hunches, only to be presented as a form of truth.
No modern studio movie has so boldly pushed against history—and yet, JFK has also proved to be disturbingly prescient. The film’s final segment, which focuses on the court case, consists mostly of Garrison making his case for a conspiracy and lecturing the jury (and us) about the importance of average Americans standing up to power. JFK is suffused with anger and sadness about the country’s shared trauma over Kennedy’s assassination. That pain translates surprisingly well to post-9/11 life, where once again Americans experienced shock in the wake of tragedy but also wondered if their leaders had failed them—in this case, by getting involved in the pointless Iraq War. The circumstances and people are different, but Garrison’s emotional final soliloquy about the power of ordinary citizens to restore America’s best values feels forever timely: “This is not the country in which I was born and this is certainly not the country I want to die in.”
It was a moving speech that served as the perfect finale for JFK. And maybe for its maker as well: Stone has never made a film as thrilling as JFK since. National Born Killers is hallucinatory but also obnoxious and repetitive. Films like U-Turn, Any Given Sunday and Savages find him all too happy to slum it as the over-the-top sensationalist, trying to inflate substandard material with the hyperkinetic flash that was revelatory in JFK but is now numbingly routine. Even in his good subsequent efforts like Nixon and W., he wasn’t the same Stone hell-bent on exorcising the ghosts of the 1960s. And most strikingly, when he addressed 9/11—tangentially in W., inspirationally in World Trade Center—there wasn’t the same inner fire. That trademark crusading anger—that frenetic belief that he needed to make this particular movie—just wasn’t there anymore.
Strangely, though, Stone’s cold streak also seems to work to JFK’s advantage. At the end of the movie, Garrison walks away defeated, a martyr who tried to make a difference. No doubt Stone thinks of himself in the same way. JFK is a searing movie that tried to expose the government’s lies. Twenty-two years later, our government still covers things up, as the Edward Snowden leaks made clear, and ordinary Americans still need to speak up. That’s why the movie’s factual inaccuracies don’t much matter.There probably wasn’t a conspiracy to Kennedy. Oswald probably acted alone. But JFK still tells a kind of truth.