Don’t Forget Your Dying King: The Ecstatic Truth Of Oliver Stone’s JFK

It doesn’t matter whether or not Oliver Stone’s JFK is 100% factually accurate.

“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”

     – Werner Herzog, The Minnesota Declaration, April 30, 1999

“Remember: fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. And the truth is on your side, Bubba.”

     – Mr. X (Donald Sutherland), Oliver Stone’s JFK

Oliver Stone was seventeen and attending the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania on November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. A political conservative in upbringing, he was an anti-Kennedy disbeliever in America’s Camelot. But like many others on that seemingly normal fall day, his entire viewpoint regarding the country in which he was raised changed completely. To Stone, it was the moment America went “sour”, and set the nation on a negative course ever since. In the wake of Kennedy’s death came the United States’ escalated involvement in Vietnam, sold on the premise that Lyndon B. Johnson was posthumously fulfilling Kennedy’s mandate. Though he cops to being somewhat oblivious at the time, Stone would go on to question everything about his country due to JFK’s heinous murder and the exacerbated US intervention overseas (during which he enlisted and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart), famously bringing his “loss of innocence”  narrative to the cinema.

The culmination of the director’s ever-growing distrust in the powers that govern the United States came in the form of JFK, his three-hour-plus magnum opus detective story revolving around Louisiana District Attorney Jim Garrison (portrayed by Kevin Costner, at the height of his movie star powers) and his search for the truth behind Kennedy’s assassination. Warner Bros. was high on the director thanks to his string of controversial hits (Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July). Still, the very idea of taking on an alleged unspoken conspiracy at the highest levels of the American régime still made the studio nervous. Even after they signed Costner to star in the picture (with the help of then-CAA rep Paula Wagner), they partnered with independent Israeli producer Arnon Milchan to help shoulder the $40-million price tag. Their fears were well founded, it turned out, as critics of the movie would set their sights on the accuracy of Stone’s cinematic sleuthing months before it was even finished editing.

Some questioned his choice of subject. Garrison was, after all, perceived by many to be a crackpot; a self-perceived crusader whose attempts to bring Clay Shaw (played with arrogant flamboyance by Tommy Lee Jones) to justice for conspiracy to kill President Kennedy in 1969 were thwarted in a mere hour by a jury of Shaw’s peers. The Washington Post printed a rather scathing pre-release critique of the material, penned by national security correspondent George Lardner Jr., titled “Dallas in Wonderland: How Oliver Stone’s Version of the Kennedy Assassination Exploits Paranoia”. Having obviously not seen the picture, Lardner’s criticisms stemmed from an early draft of Stone and Zachary Sklar’s script (itself an adaptation of Jim Garrison’s own tome “On the Trail of the Assassins” and Jim Marrs’ compendium “Crossfire – The Plot That Killed Kennedy”), all of which, he sniped, were full of “absurdities” and “palpable untruths”. He also accused Garrison of embellishing his own case in an attempt to smear a homosexual man, thinking Shaw’s private life would render him guilty by association in a jury’s mind.

Despite the unethical practice of reviewing a movie without actually having seen it, Lardner’s rebuttal of Stone’s early draft also seems to ignore the fact that Garrison is met with the same criticisms by people he loves (including his wife, Liz, lovingly brought to life by Sissy Spacek), and who wonder whether or not the DA’s personal crusade is the act of a delusional madman, willing to neglect his own duties as a father and husband as he doggedly pursues “justice”. Unless this entire section of the early draft didn’t exist (which even a cursory Internet search reveals to not be the case – Stone & Sklar’s initial passes would’ve translated to 4+ hours), then this is a moment of willful ignorance on Lardner’s part. In a retort given to Los Angeles Times writer Robert Scheer, Stone simply replies with “even paranoids have enemies”; a gleefully glib entendre that both acts as a self-acknowledgement of the public’s already cemented perception of the filmic hysteric while also distancing himself slightly from his central character.

But Lardner wasn’t the only critic lobbing grenades at the “guerilla historian”, as former Garrison researcher Tom Bethell (who concedes that he turned over his team’s witness list to Shaw’s defense), wrote an Op-Ed in the LA Times as well, pondering if “glamorizing someone as reckless as Garrison might undermine legitimate skepticism about the official findings." Meanwhile, Time Magazine chimed in, opining that "Garrison is considered somewhere near the far-out fringe of conspiracy theorists, but Stone appears to have bought his vision virtually wholesale." Yet for all of the knives that were unsheathed in hopes of stabbing this cinematic Caesar before it even made its way to screens, one thing seemed to be missed by all of the movie’s premature critics:

It doesn’t matter whether or not Oliver Stone’s JFK is 100% factually accurate.

Granted, one would only know this after having seen the finished cut. And while this may seem like a strange assertion when approaching a movie perceived to be concerned with solving the greatest mystery in American history, at the heart of JFK lay the very idea of questioning authority itself. Stone’s film opens with a quote by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” Stone isn’t so much solving the case as he is opening the eyes of the viewing public to the very idea that we should be scrutinizing every piece of information ever presented to us:

  • Why was Lee Harvey Oswald (inhabited with sinewy sleaze by Gary Oldman), a former US Marine who defected to Russia, receiving private language lessons at the New Orleans Office of Naval Intelligence?
  • Why did private detective and former ONI/FBI agent Guy Banister (Edward Asner) pistol whip one of his closest associates, Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon), after Martin made a seemingly innocent crack about writing a book chronicling the “strange things” he’d seen during he and Guy’s partnership in the Summer of ‘63?
  • Why did witnesses spot Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray), the man who shot Oswald before he could be brought to trial, running away from the Dallas book depository on the day of the shooting?
  • Why did police intimidate those same witnesses? Furthermore, why was their Warren Commission testimony altered without their consent?

Garrison becomes a surrogate for the audience; awakened to the invisible power structures that strive to keep the President’s murder a secret. In the eyes of Stone’s film, protest does not merely take the form of picket lines and peaceful gatherings. It’s also the act of processing all information available to you, and seeing beyond what your government (as well as the media) intends. There are moments where we’re presented with data impossible for Garrison to have collected (Stone rewrites a bit of history to suit his story), but what matters most is the beacon in the eye of this gen hurricane.

The way Stone presents all of the information is cacophonous; a swirling, intoxicating amalgamation of stock footage (including the infamous Zapruder Film, depicting Kennedy’s tragic death), stark B&W recreation, and luscious, soft focus lensing by Robert Richardson. When John Williams’ patriotic, brass-led non-traditional score isn’t swelling, Stone (along with a legion of sound editors) are fusing snippets of dialogue and archival sound bytes into a discordant symphony, emulating the way we’re bombarded with sensory overload during times of crisis, discovery and epiphany. JFK is a stunning marvel of editing (aided in no small part by commercial cutter Hank Corwin), never once letting up during Garrison and his researchers’ daunting investigation.

From the get go, both of the attorney’s right hand men – Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders) and Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) – are skeptical of their boss’ beliefs, as he tests everything they seem to know about how their country’s power structure operates. To allege that the movie ever once lets Garrison off the hook is ludicrous, as Stone allows his aides to become protesters in their own right, questioning whether or not they’re backing the right horse. They work for the District Attorney of Orleans Parish, after all. They should only be sticking to what they can prove, not wild conjecture based on coincidence and ranting lunatics like David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). It’s only once Clay Shaw is brought to trial that the film slows down and the only voice heard loud and clear is Garrison’s. But the aforementioned acquittal leaves us, the audience, walking out of the theater wondering if it was all for naught. Was this man a fool? Was it actually a witch-hunt? What about all of that carnival funhouse homophobia? Was it in this peculiar lawyer’s head? Or is there some validity to the ideas he’s brought forth?

Perhaps the most breathtaking element of JFK is how Stone takes all of these characters and their inquiries into their leader’s murder and then creates something of an overblown mythology out of it all. This exhilarating legend climaxes in the movie’s most iconic fictitious moment, the meeting of Jim Garrison with the nameless Company Man, Mr. X (Donald Sutherland), in Washington, DC. What follows is a whirlwind of information, where Stone literally stops the movie dead in its tracks to make the biggest inquiry of all. Why?  “That's the real question isn't it?” says X. “The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, The Mafia, keeps 'em guessing like some kind of parlor game, prevents 'em from asking the most important question: why? Why was Kennedy Killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up?”

What follows is a paranoid remolding of an entire period in America’s history. Gone are the free lovers of the hippie movement or the power hungry businessmen and freewheeling ad wizards explored in The Sweet Smell of Success and Mad Men. Replacing them is a web of deceit, manufactured by shadowy figures in rooms, controlling the destinies of kids they’ll never meet. Their main motivator is war, and the profits it’ll generate. All they need is that Boy King out of the way. A coup d'état is staged. An assassination is carried out. A tragedy as old as the Greeks or even Crucifixion. Stone recognizes the inherent drama in this Shakespearian power play, but also finds a way for it to hit the heart of any curious American sitting in the theater. This is your country. They’re taking it away. And you’re not even asking why that is. Sutherland becomes a judge on high, proud of Garrison (and, by proxy, us), but also knowing that we have so far to go. It’s a doozy of a performance – in and out in mere minutes – becoming the adrenaline that wills you through the final hour to find out if we’ll ever see retribution for the fall of Camelot.

If the movie makes a major misstep, it’s when it sides with Garrison, treating his paranoia (if even for the briefest of moments) like some sort of psychic phenomena. On the eve of his trial, as his team each inform him he has no case against the man (a fact he’s already well aware of), the attorney makes an offhand comment about how Robert Kennedy will end up getting murdered, too. Later that night, while making himself a sandwich before bed, Garrison hears gunshots ring out on the television in the other room. It’s just like he thought it would be: a beautiful Prince, dying from another lone gunman’s bullet, while a crowd frantically searches to discover who the perpetrator is. Liz, who just previously told Jim that she wouldn’t be attending the trial, embraces her husband, realizing he was right all along. Up until this point, the movie kept a solid amount of ambiguity at play, always second guessing the man’s strident quest. Those doubts still remain by the time the end credits roll, but this single instance of blind hero worship certainly weakens our incredulity. Before he was simply a hysterical man – driven by grief for his country to the point of becoming irrational. Now he’s proven to be a noble warrior, facing down a demonized Goliath. Oliver Stone has never been subtle, but this kind of trumpeting feels somewhat irresponsible.

The trial of Clay Shaw is when we finally get to see Jim Garrison play his bluff at the world’s biggest card table. Knowing he has next to zero chance of a conviction, he simply uses the courtroom to lay out the inconsistences in the facts presented to the American public via a mix of testimony (including John Candy’s incredible skee-dap hipster perjurer, Dean Andrews) and, in the movie’s most gut-wrenchingly detailed moment, a frame by frame dissection of the Zapruder film, complete with a human diagram depicting former Pennsylvania State Senator Arlen Specter’s now wildly contested “Magic Bullet Theory”. The miasma Stone and his editors were working so hard to create before is now lifted, as Garrison delineates his belief on how the assassination was not the work of a “lone nut”, but a military operation that involved a triangulated “turkey shoot”. Ostensibly a majestically shot courtroom drama, Stone employs the trappings and tropes of classic film and television to deliver a clear, concise take on the conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.

Kevin Costner is an absolute wonder in this scene – the cap to what is arguably the greatest performance in his strange and spotty career. A political conservative in real life, Costner helps Stone mold the ultimate avatar for the White Southern Gentleman; all linen/seersucker suits and a half-believable N’awlins drawl. Costner has always been incredible at playing the soul of middle-aged white male angst, but here that spirit is somewhat subverted by Stone’s devilish liberal playfulness. Garrison was essentially a steadfastly moral champion; the French Quarter’s post-Prohibition Elliot Ness. The District Attorney led raids to put an end to prostitution in Mardi Gras’ home and often masterminded nightly crack downs on corruption in the local bars. He was a pillar – a rock of moderate Democratic politics who was really a minor player until 1969.

Many are quick to point out the movie’s homophobia when it comes to Stone’s depiction of Shaw and his conspirators (and it’s certainly there), but we’re seeing these men through the eyes of a lawyer who fought vice crimes in the 50s and 60s. To him, they are deviants, but that doesn’t mean Stone (or anyone around Garrison) is condoning his viewpoint. If anything, the director is using this stereotyped envisioning of gay men as a means to further crowd the steadfast lawman’s tumultuous headspace; a visual depiction of the boiling hatred that lived (and still lives) in the hearts of many “Good Southern Gentlemen”. A naïve reading? Perhaps*. But once his President is shot, nothing else is important to Garrison beyond discovering which evildoers murdered the soul of his great nation, and he knows that no court is going to accept anything beyond what he can prove. By the end, Costner combines and channels rage, frustration and fear with an exceptional skill to circumvent emotion and see only the evidence he can present. What results is a compelling argument, capped with one of the great cinematic monologues of all time. And in the movie’s brazenly corny Capra-esque conclusion, he looks directly into the camera and challenges you, the viewer, to become just like him: a defender of all that is good and right in the world against the tyranny of evil men. Mixed moral messages, certainly; but powerful nonetheless.

It could be easily construed that this is Garrison’s “hero moment”, the ultimate validation of his strident diligence as a public servant to a crime beyond his (or any single prosecutor’s) scope; and it in a way it is. Only Stone isn’t essentially celebrating the man, but the act. This is where the “ecstatic truth” Herzog speaks of becomes readily apparent in JFK. To blindly submit and accept what is spoon-fed to you day in and out by the government and massive media machines is what keeps sociological power structures intact, and enables governments to manipulate these elements at will. The final title card before the credits reads, “What is past is prologue. Dedicated to the young, in whose spirit the search for truth marches on”. While Stone is inherently pessimistic about the times he’s most fascinated with exploring, and the subsequent consequences of previous generations’ actions, that doesn’t mean their status quo should remain. It’s a heart-swelling, optimistic message tacked onto the tail end of what is otherwise a devastating Shakespearian tragedy. For progress to continue, the current crop of developing minds need to question every single fact that they’re presented with while in similar pursuits of justice. And, in the end, Oliver Stone seemingly has faith that any prejudices bred by culture or upbringing will be overcome in the name of toppling the nation’s sometimes tyrannical overlords. He can only present the information he’s gathered. Conclusions are for those who will eventually gain access to even more concrete data, hopefully released by the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations in 2029.  

It’s up to you.

*Though I have a hard time labeling any work Stone – a known progressive and co-writer/producer of the proposed Mayor of Castro Street project (which would eventually essentially morph into Gus Van Sant’s Milk sans Stone) – would put his name on as “homophobic”.