Oliver Stone‘s JFK, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago this week, is an important movie in Hollywood history. The 1991 film about New Orleans district attorney and his prosecution of businessman Clay Shaw in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, might be the best-edited movie in history. It drove the conversation about its subject like few films ever made. It featured a large, fantastic, top-to-bottom cast, most of them doing fine work.
Also, almost nothing in the movie is true. And it isn’t just fudging of dates, or the use of composite characters, or the other sort of stuff that’s usually the case when movies aren’t entirely factually accurate. The entire overarching argument made in JFK is fictitious.
On the other hand, it’s a hugely entertaining movie! It spins a web of intrigue and tells a fascinating story. It’s all presented beautifully, cutting together a wealth of news and archival footage from throughout the 20th Century. And, it boasts one of John Williams‘ best scores:
Everywhere you look, an all-time great actor pops up. There’s Donald Sutherland as a shadowy operative, Jack Lemmon and Ed Anser as drunk right-wing conspirators, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Walter Matthau as Russell Long, and on and on. John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Michael Rooker, and so many more. Kevin Costner, then at the height of his movie-star powers, played the lead.
The film spends more than a three-hour running time making the case that John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was not the work of a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Jim Garrison (Costner), the district attorney of New Orleans in the ’60s, became convinced that there was more to the story, launching a lengthy investigation and coming up with an elaborate theory of the case.
In the telling of Garrison and the movie, Oswald was a mere patsy, with the actual assassination planned by the CIA, the Pentagon, a cabal of other top officials throughout the federal government, along with the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, and a group of gay men in New Orleans. This led Garrison to prosecute Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a prominent New Orleans businessman. Shaw was acquitted in under an hour, but it remains the only criminal prosecution brought to date in the relation to the JFK assassination.
The film spends more than a three-hour running time making the case that John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was not the work of a lone gunman
I’m of the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald is more likely to have acted alone than not. If there was a conspiracy, it was probably a small conspiracy, because after all, a massive international plot to kill the president isn’t the sort of thing that can stay quiet, much less for 60 years. My old college professor, Jacob “Jerry” Cohen, made the case around the time of the movie’s release; I wish I could distribute Blu-rays of his old lectures on the subject.
In Stone’s film, the story is told, with intense conviction and mountains of supporting evidence. It’s the type of confidence, in fact, that only a pure bullshitter can manage.
This scene is the movie in a microcosm. Over about 50 years of footage, Donald Sutherland’s “X” character lays out the entire history of black ops, and how it ties in with the military-industrial complex and ultimately the killing of the president. It may very well be the best scene Stone has directed:
It’s riveting, and it’s completely untrue.
The film implies that the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans both had a role in the killing of the president, mostly because, as Donald Sutherland’s “X” argues, President Kennedy “wanted to end the Cold War in his second term.” There’s little evidence that this is true, and while the CIA has been strongly implicated in a long list of 20th-century misdeeds — read Tom O’Neill’s great book about the Manson murders, CHAOS — but little that connects them to the killing of JFK.
Even worse than that is the film’s implication that a coterie of gay men in New Orleans, led by businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), was behind the assassination. The film implies that this cabal murdered one of their own, David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), after he confessed the plot; this didn’t really happen. What actually happened was that Garrison prosecuted an innocent man, Shaw.
Even for 1991, the film is shockingly, insultingly anti-gay. And the stuff with Sissy Spacek as Costner’s nagging wife is just the deepest form of cliché, a forerunner of the “I’m taking the kids to my sister’s” lady from Saturday Night Live.
JFK, even before it was released, became part of the culture wars, with Stone facing off with journalists, historians, and other experts on op-ed pages and TV shows. He even made a 30th-anniversary documentary that’s now streaming on Hulu.
Last week, the political pundit and Stone friend Glenn Greenwald, a man who is known for his out-there movie takes, tweeted that “In 1991, Oliver Stone was the most celebrated director in Hollywood, having won 2 Oscars in 4 years. Instead of cashing in, he used his platform to make “JFK,” the first mainstream cultural product to question the official JFK narrative. He was pilloried and destroyed for it.”
JFK, even before it was released, became part of the culture wars, with Stone facing off with journalists, historians, and other experts
This was, of course, not true; Stone continued as an A-list director, one in the good graces of the studios, for many years after JFK. It’s in line with much of what passes for “anti-woke” commentary these days — that to be criticized, without any damage to one’s career, is to be “destroyed.”
Stone’s star only started to dim once his movies started flopping. He made an unnecessary Wall Street sequel and movies about George W. Bush and Edward Snowden that didn’t really drive or add anything to the conversation about either of them. He also made embarrassing, bootlicking documentaries about tyrants like Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin.
Critic Scott Tobias said it best on Twitter:
It’s hard to believe that it’s now been more time since JFK than there was between the assassination itself and the movie. We’ll likely be arguing about what really happened for another 30 years or more, as none of the periodic releases of documents ever seem to change anyone’s mind. But JFK‘s legacy after three decades is clear: It’s a great movie, and also a pack of lies.