‘JFK’: Oliver Stone’s Emotionally Accurate and Masterfully Crafted Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

'JFK' movie poster illustration by Drew Phillips

 
By Koraljka Suton

“I think I was always controversial, provocative. But I can’t help it. I have to go there. It’s my nature. It’s my father’s nature, too, to probe, to want to know the truth of a situation. And that’s not to say I’m right, but I have to ask some questions. I mean, I never made a movie for the money.” There is literally zero doubt about it—director Oliver Stone has always been drawn to making movies about significant men who were creators, conquerors or critics, i.e. free thinkers, whether it be king Alexander the Great, president Richard Nixon, fictional Wall Streeter Gordon Gekko or New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who investigated the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. Stone’s film about the latter, entitled ‘JFK’, was met with critical acclaim and went on to become a huge box office success upon its original release in 1991. Apart from grossing over $200 million worldwide (whilst having been made for $40 million), ‘JFK’ also won two Academy Awards–for Best Film Editing (Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia) and Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson)—in addition to being nominated in six other categories, including Best Picture (A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone), Best Adapted Screenplay (Stone and Zachary Sklar), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregg Landaker, Tod A. Maitland), Best Original Score (John Williams) and Best Director (Oliver Stone). But despite its box office success and artistic acclaim, ‘JFK’ was generally met with outrage even before it hit movie theaters—George Will of The Washington Post wrote a piece in which he stated that the movie was “a three-hour lie” and claimed Stone “may be an intellectual sociopath,” all the while basing his writing solely on a leaked copy of the script’s first draft. Newsweek did a cover story entitled Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted, The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film is “full of distortions and outright falsehoods,” whereas sitting Chief Executive of the Motion Picture Association, Jack Valenti, compared ‘JFK’ to Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), a 1935 Nazi propaganda film directed by Leni Riefenstahl. As Stone himself commented before the film’s 25th anniversary: “It was a hot potato from the get-go, much hotter than I thought (…) I didn’t realize it would hit the central nerve core of the establishment… And it did take its toll. I think it’s changed the perception of me forever. Many now dismiss me as a filmmaker who is political and only into conspiracy theories. It labeled me and I was staggered. I wish, in a way, it had just died off.” But why all the controversy to begin with?

Speculation surrounding the death of the USA’s 35th president had been prominent ever since his assassination on November 2, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. This speculation has grown over the decades and has created a special kind of rift in the USA—one between those who believed the official story of there being a sole gunman (as concluded by the Warren Commission) and those who were convinced that there was more than one shooter, implying a conspiracy. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison belonged to the latter category, which resulted in him and his team being responsible for the first trial that related to Kennedy’s assassination, taking place in 1969. Garrison’s investigation and the ensuing trial form the center of Stone’s ‘JFK’, a gripping amalgamation of formats and styles. Whether it be courtroom drama or family drama, political thriller or criminal investigation, historical recreation or documentary—’JFK’ has elements of them all, making for incredibly powerful cinema. For Stone, Kennedy was “like the Godfather” of his generation, “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.” But the fact that the movie implies that not only had Lee Harvey Oswald not acted alone, but also that the conspiracy to kill the beloved president and then cover it up could be traced all the way back to the CIA and military intelligence, resulted in the previously mentioned heavy backlash.

As Stone himself stated: “I believe the Warren Commission Report is a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a countermyth… I wanted to use Garrison as a vehicle for a larger perspective, a metaphoric protagonist who would stand in for about a dozen researchers. Filmmakers make myths. D.W. Griffith did it in Birth of a Nation (1915). In Reds (1981), Warren Beatty probably made John Reed look better than he was, but remained true to the spiritual truth of Reed’s life. I knew this would make Garrison somewhat better than he was and, in that sense, we’d be making him more of a hero. I knew I would catch a lot of flak for that, but I figured it was worth it to communicate… some truth in an area that had been steeped in lies for nearly thirty years.” And while it is true that Stone left out crucial facts, created composite characters and presented certain speculation as fact, it would do ‘JFK’ terrible injustice to view it through the lens of factual accuracy, as opposed to enjoying and appreciating it for what it is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated for–namely its emotional accuracy. ‘JFK’ does the finest job at reflecting the scope and depth of the nation’s open wound, one that was left gaping in the wake of Kennedy’s death—for the sorrow and disbelief quickly gave rise to and paved the way for paranoia and unease, frustration and dissatisfaction. There was a prevailing feeling that key facts had been omitted from the official version and Jim Garrison was the ideal figure to enabled Stone to explore this distrust of government by means of portraying an obsessive and anger-driven search for truth, no matter how deep down the rabbit hole it took both his characters and us, the viewers.

 
And deep down the rabbit hole we indeed followed. Basing the movie on Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy and adapting it himself along with Zachary Sklar, a journalist and professor of journalism who helped Garrison re-write his book and who also edited Marr’s book, Stone wanted the end product to resemble “a great detective movie,” which, as it was being written, “evolved into four DNA threads,” meaning that the movie’s structure consisted of four stories: the investigation of the New Orleans connection to the president’s death; the re-creation of that fateful day in Dallas, Texas; Garrison’s research about Oswald and his history; the information given to Garrison by the character ‘X’ (based on L. Fletcher Prouty, Chief of Special Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the J.F.K. presidency), used to connect all the dots and convey that the reasons behind the assassination are part of a much larger picture, one the nation would not dare imagine, let alone believe. Sklar’s initial draft was a 550 triple-spaced page screenplay which Stone then rewrote—those early versions of the script would have called for a four and a half-hour movie, had Stone not interfered and managed to produce a 156-page shooting script. With its four interconnected storylines and ultimate running time of a staggering 188 minutes, ‘JFK’ became an intricate jigsaw puzzle that, in Stone’s own words, represents “a fragmentation of reality.” This was more than successfully achieved through the film’s visual style, which was used as a means of bombarding the viewers with numerous pieces of often contradictory information, much like the nation had been (bombarded) for decades when it came to the subject matter of Kennedy’s assassination, either through films and documentaries or print and photographs.

In other words, Stone wanted the visuals of his film to be just as fractured as the reality he perceived. He managed to achieve this thanks to the work of legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson who shot 11 films for Stone and had also worked numerous times with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. When asked about Stone, Richardson stated: “When I met Oliver, I felt there was a magical air about him—as strong a mind and spirit as I’d yet encountered. I believed he could pull anything out of his magic hat. A magician he was. Or a shaman.” And this shaman indeed made sure that in ‘JFK’, everything came into play—archival footage, news photographs, black and white, color, Super 8, 8mm, 16mm, 35mm. Editing duo Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia were then to utilize this wide range of source material to create Stone’s unique jigsaw puzzle. This resulted in real-life footage being mixed together with re-creations, which, due to quick editing cuts, enabled the blending of fact and fiction. And Stone wanted the viewers to feel a sense of urgency that arises from such a seemingly chaotic, yet intentionally fragmented viewing experience. As Scalia himself put it: “Editing is always about how the psychology of the viewer works. And we can manipulate that. We do it continuously.”

The aforementioned type of visual manipulation happens throughout the entire movie, but is most prominent in three instances: at the very beginning, when a 7-minute long opening sequences is used to set up the movie’s tone, as well as the historical context for what we are about to witness; somewhere in the middle, when Donald Sutherland’s character, the mysterious ‘X’, gives Garrison his version of the events, followed by a series of images and footage that supposedly supports his claims, lasting for about 16 minutes; and at the very end, when Garrison (Kevin Costner) is presenting his case to the jury, where we are yet again taken by storm, as we are being served a thrilling montage of imagery that corroborates his allegations.

 
And it is precisely this mesmerizing courtroom scene that gifts us with Kevin Costner delivering one of the most persuasive and well-written monologues, which may as well be considered the monologue of his career. His captivating speech captures not only the sense of urgency and a thirst for truth present throughout the entire film, but also the paramount details of Garrison’s case. Choosing Costner for the role (after both Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson had turned it down because of its political nature) truly was inspired, partially due to the actor’s “wholesome all-American persona,” which was in perfect alignment with the part Stone had written, even though real-life Garrison was allegedly nowhere near this fabricated wholesomeness. As a counterpart to Garrison’s views and his pursuit of justice, we are presented with his wife (played by Sissy Spacek) who, aside from showcasing what kind of detriment the case was to their marriage, stands for everyone who seemed to be against Garrison and his mission—and at times, it indeed seemed like it was everyone. And what better way to show the toll the case had taken on Garrison, than to plant the seed of doubt, disbelief and contempt inside his own home.

Apart from the aforementioned Costner, Spacek and Sutherland, Stone cast a vast array of famous faces such as Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemon, Walter Matthau, Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones and others, all of whom added their own singular piece to Stone’s elaborate mosaic, enabling Costner’s Garrison to reach the final moments of his closing statement in the mind-blowing courtroom scene: “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.” Upon delivering this last line, Costner breaks the fourth wall and looks directly into the camera, thereby addressing the viewers and channeling Stone himself, as he pleads with the US citizens to boldly ask questions, do research, challenge the status quo and, in doing so, show the world that they still live in a democracy.

Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art.

 
In one of that film’s greatest scenes, Donald Sutherland, playing a kind of military-industrial complex Deep Throat, delivers a titanic monologue, recapping 50 years of American imperialism in about ten pages of script, coming to rest on the assassination on November 22, 1963, and why it took place. “Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?” he says. “Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public. Oswald, Ruby, Cuba, the Mafia, keeps them guessing like some kind of parlor game. Prevents them from asking the most important question: Why? Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up?”

Screenwriter must-read: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar’s screenplay for ‘JFK’ [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
This article by Danielle Bacher, Oliver Stone looks back at ‘JFK’, originally appeared in Rolling Stone.

What does the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death mean to you?
It means that this country has gone sour for 50 years. It’s gone in the wrong direction. Yes, that’s what it means. It’s gotten more right-wing and definitely more warped.

Where were you and what were you doing when it happened?
I was 17 and at boarding school. It was a normal day, and I took it like everyone else—quite shocked and horrified, although I was definitely anti-Kennedy in the sense that my political upbringing was conservative and Republican.

Did you understand the full implications of his death at that time?
No, are you crazy? I was just trying to get through school. The concept of going to Vietnam so shortly afterward was bizarre. It was sort of sold to us at the time that Johnson was fulfilling Kennedy’s mandates and that Kennedy was in line between Eisenhower and Johnson, and there was no discontinuum. That’s absolutely not true considering what I’ve learned since then.

Were there any revelations that were so shocking that you left them out?
No. The most shocking part is in the film and very clearly outlined. It’s the sequence of the shooting, the timing, the case the Zapruder film makes for our film, the wounds and the autopsy. It’s all quite shocking when you think about it—think seriously about it. It doesn’t make any sense the way they described it. That’s the most shocking part of the case. When you start to investigate Oswald, of course there are a thousand interesting things that come up. The files on Oswald were much more closely supervised by the CIA then we knew at the time and were omitted by the Warren Commission. They treated it like a routine investigation, but it was hardly so.

Do you think that President Johnson was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate JFK?
No, I didn’t say that. That’s not in the film. There is a very clear line. We draw a line between the cover-up and the assassination. The cover-up is filled with another cast of characters. That is to say, the Warren Commission itself, who is in charge of the investigation; and the main man, Alan Dulles, the ex-chief of the CIA and one of the most powerful figures in government. He was fired by Kennedy, as were all his top officials, two years earlier. He was put in charge of the investigation and buried certain information. That’s part of the cover-up.

Have your views on the assassination changed in the ensuing 20-plus years?
Frankly, the film is pretty solid. I looked at it yesterday, actually, and I was quite moved by it. There are a couple of sloppy scenes I don’t like, but I’m not going to tell you what they were. As far as shot by shot, and the itinerary of what happened that day, it’s still interesting.

Do you think the controversial nature of the picture hurt it at the Oscars?
Yes, definitely. But I’m very proud of the film, and I’m very happy that the Oscars for editing and cinematography were given to the film.

How difficult was it to find backing for the movie?
I was perceived to be very successful at the time because of Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, The Doors and Platoon. Warner Bros. wanted to make a film with me and I with them. This was a good thriller. To them, it was a great detective story as it was to me, but they were still cautious and very much wanted Kevin Costner, their leading star at the time, to be in the film. When we secured Costner, even then, they split the cost with Arnon Milchan, an independent producer, whom we brought into the film.

What was it like filming in Dealey Plaza?
By the time we came to the shooting, we were really prepared. We had a lot of experts with us: Rifle people, forensics people and photography people. It was quite a crew. And we actually had permission, which was a miracle. I don’t think we would have gotten it today, because there has been a backlash to all kinds of freethinking in this country. So, we were really able to muster all the forces that we could. I probably interviewed as many witnesses that were there that day as some members of the FBI. Actually, even more, because I had a bigger cross-section between New Orleans, Dallas and Washington.

Were you ever threatened?
No, I met some strange people, but it’s hard to believe they would kill a moviemaker. I haven’t felt personally threatened, although I’ve gotten ugly letters. As a filmmaker, they consider me a dramatist, and that’s okay—that’s what I am. I don’t have real power in their terms. I got a lot of flak from Richard Helms, Nixon and George H.W. Bush. There’s been a lot of innuendo and horrible things spoken. Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, hounded the film, which was quite strange.

Why did Valenti “hound” the project?
He had worked for Lyndon B. Johnson and was very loyal to him and could not see beyond that, in my opinion.

Did Jim Garrison see the completed film before he passed away in 1992?
Yeah, he did. And he was a very happy man. As a little counterpoint, we had him play Judge Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States, who is in charge of the Warren Commission. But not really.

What do you say to people who feel your movie is only partially factual? The Chicago Tribune said it’s “full of distortions and outright falsehoods” in September.
Did you see our counter? They printed it up two weeks later. We offered facts and that person didn’t have one single fact in there. He was the one who was slandering. He was not an expert in any way. He had no experience in this case. It’s easy to take a shot at us. I ask people who criticize: Did you ever read a book? Did you ever read Robert Groden’s Absolute Proof, Cyril Wecht’s Cause of Death, Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas or James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable? Did you ever look at the evidence or counter-evidence? And they rarely know any of it.

Will the government ever release all of the assassination records?
That’s a tough question. We don’t even know how many there are. But we know from former Washington Post writer Jefferson Morley that, on October 25 in the Dallas Morning News, the CIA has acknowledged that, in a sworn affidavit, the agency retains 1,100 records related to the assassination that have never been made public. These files are not believed relevant to the death, but they concern the operation with six CIA employees involved in the JFK story who reported directly to James Angleton, the head of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, and Deputy Director Richard Helms, who attacked the film. These people were not investigated and they all hated Kennedy.

What do you feel are the most important issues facing the country today?
Global warming and joining the world community as a true equal and not as a bully. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats have moved increasingly toward the right, much more so than in the time that I grew up. We need a parliamentary system with three or four or five parties that really and truly represents the variety of our thoughts.

Do you agree with Russell Brand’s recent comment that voting isn’t important?
I don’t know his idea so I can’t comment. I think our account of voting is bad. We don’t know if our vote is being counted correctly. There’s enough margin here, I would say five percent or more, that can swing an election or a state. We need a receipt from our vote that says whom we voted for, we need it on paper and it needs to be counted. We can go on about this and talk about the democratic process, the Electoral College, gerrymandering and how it’s all destructive to any true democracy. How can we elect Obama by one-and-a-half-million votes and still have a Republican House of Representatives?

The federal government is still performing covert activities overseas. Do you think they’re doing similar things domestically?
Oh yes, I always have. Our government has been snooping in our lives ever since we became an empire after World War I. Now, with the NSA revelations and Edward Snowden, that’s factual. There’s no end. It has nothing to do with abroad vs. here now, it’s just worldwide. It’s a global architecture. So, I want you people to wake up!

 
Narrated by CBS journalist Ike Pappas, Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy is an investigative historical documentary based on the tragic events of November 22, 1963. The 90-minute film, a companion to Oliver Stone’s fictional production ‘JFK’, explores the controversy between eye-witness accounts of Kennedy’s assassination and the findings of the Warren Commission. Highlights of the program include archival news footage, discussions of the investigation, conspiracy theories, and interviews with Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman.

 

ROBERT RICHARDSON, ASC

When I met Oliver, I felt there was a magical air about him—as strong a mind and spirit as I’d yet encountered. I believed he could pull anything out of his magic hat. A magician he was. Or a shaman. —Without Limits: Robert Richardson, ASC

 
Legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson discusses the extraordinary films that populate his resume, including Born on the Fourth of July, ‘JFK,’ The Aviator, Inglourious Basterds, Casino and Hugo.

 

JOE HUTSHING AND PIETRO SCALIA, EDITORS

Q&A with Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, editors of Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’.



 
Film Editor Pietro Scalia talks to producer and journalist Mark Salisbury about his experience of working with different directors in the cutting room—from Oliver Stone and Ridley Scott to Gus Van Sant and Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’. Photographed by Sidney Ray Baldwin © Warner Bros., Canal+, Regency Enterprises, Alcor Films, Ixtlan, Camelot. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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