Excerpt From BASED ON A TRUE STORY (BUT WITH MORE CAR CRASHES)
Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar.
Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman.
JFK, it could be said, is the movie that gave birth to this book. There have been a lot of films based on actual events, and more often than not, journalists and academics greet these releases with knives sharpened and fangs bared. Justifiably, in many cases. Nothing unusual about that – but there’s never been a movie as viciously and unrelentingly flayed as Oliver Stone’s JFK. That sorry episode is what got the debate about history and Hollywood rolling for real.
Regardless of how you felt about Oliver Stone or the Kennedy assassination itself, the torrent of media bile directed at this movie had to be a little unsettling. And puzzling. There had been films about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy before. In 1973, the Dalton Trumbo-written Executive Action had a cabal of right-wing industrialists and oilmen, alarmed by Kennedy’s dangerously progressive policies, contracting a hit (“executive action”) on the president, carried out by mercenaries who station three different riflemen in Dealey Plaza and set up Lee Harvey Oswald as an innocent “patsy.”
The Executive Action conspiracy is not far removed from the plotline of Stone’s three-hour epic 17 years later. Yet Executive Action, despite its release only a decade after the actual event, when the memory was still raw, generated no controversy worth mentioning.
The blitzkrieg on JFK commenced long before the Warner Brothers-backed movie ever threaded through a projector. Before, for that matter, the movie finished filming. The media got hold of an early draft of Stone’s script and began exenterating it while Stone was still re-enacting the Kennedy Assassination in Dallas, with Dealey Plaza now dressed up as a movie set. The rancor toward the movie and, as former Kennedy aide Frank Mankiewicz pointed out, the very idea that such a movie could exist, was savage and merciless.
The New York Times in particular dedicated almost 30 articles (including letters and op-ed pieces) to shredding the film. The Washington Post published an article by its longtime intelligence correspondent George Lardner Jr. skewering Stone’s movie for its many “errors and absurdities, large and small,” a full seven months (almost to the day) before the film’s release. Around the same premature period, a writer for Chicago Tribune-owned Dallas Morning News (hometown paper of the home of the Kennedy assassination) decried Stone’s then-unmade film as “morally repugnant.” In fact, the same article also branded as “morally repugnant” Time-Warner corporation and, indeed, “anyone who pays American money to see the film.” (Presumably foreigners spending their own currency are fine.) The week of JFK’s release, Newsweek (owned by the Washington Post) put the controversy on its cover, announcing, unambiguously, that “Oliver Stone's New Movie Can't be Trusted.”
The Times’ longtime Hollywood reporter Bernard Weinraub filed a “story” (more of an opinion piece, actually) denouncing Warner Brothers for releasing the film at all, espousing the viewpoint that movie studios have a “responsibility” to suppress politically controversial subject matter. The paper’s distinguished liberal columnist Tom Wicker produced a particularly vehement hit piece.
Says Mankiewicz, “the New York Times and its allies in the major commercial media set out – and nearly succeeded – not just to discredit Oliver Stone and his film, but to destroy it.”
The media assault was bizarre, and unprecedented – except perhaps (as Stone himself pointed out) by the Hearst newspapers’ attack on Citizen Kane 50 years earlier. In that case, the media’s motive was plain. Kane was an unflattering character study of Hearst himself. With JFK, the question is the same as the question asked by Stone’s hypothetical “Mr. X” character, about the assassination itself.
What was it about this movie that posed a clear and present danger? In the minds of the major media, at least.
The assailants’ motives are many and varied. As Mankiewicz notes, the most adamant attackers, including Wicker and Lardner, were “directly involved in reporting the events of November 22, 1962,” but in the ensuing three decades “hardly gave the event a backward glance.” The movie indicts not only the overly credulous reporting of those journalists at the time, but the course of their entire careers and more than that, their whole view of American politics – a view which holds that the assassination, while certainly a personal tragedy and a “loss of innocence” for the American public, was insignificant in political terms. Absurd as it seems, in their view the murder of the president was a pop culture event, not a political one.
There’s also the jealousy factor. A Hollywood movie reaches far more people than a piece in the New York Times could ever hope to.
Another brand of jealousy: Some of the film’s opponents had written conspiracy books of their own. Journalist Anthony Summers and early Warren Report critic Harold Weisberg were among that number. It was Weisberg who obtained the purloined first-draft script that served as the basis for the way-early articles tearing into Stone’s project.
Whatever the psychology or hidden agendas of the pilers-on, on a superficial level they all attacked JFK for the same alleged crime: Stone “twisted history.” This is the only legitimate criticism of the film (other than aesthetic criticisms, of course). The motion picture in question, sayeth the sages, distorts historical facts to make a political point.
Does it? It would take a book of its own to address the facts in the film. There’s no way to confirm this, but JFK must be the most fact-heavy film in Hollywood history. The screenplay is a triumph of expository dialog. There’s hardly any dialog in there that doesn’t explicate one point of fact or another. Heck. We’d write that book if it hadn’t already been written. One year after JFK came out, Stone and his collaborator Zachary Sklar published JFK: The Documented Screenplay. They included 340 notes, citing the source of every major or controversial assertion of fact in the script. In the months before and after his movie came out, Stone spent plenty of time rebutting his critics, but the book was the ultimate comeback. For every time he’s accused of inventing, warping and spinning facts to suit his own ends, he can always point to research in the book. The sources can then be judged on their own merits.
The real problem was that people still bicker over the sources. For every fact cited as gospel by a conspiracy “buff,” there’s a Lone Assassin Loyalist who’ll bust a blood vessel screaming that it’s not true. And it works the other way, too. Which does not mean that the entire history of the assassination is a Rorschach blot. It means only that establishing veracity in this case has already been the subject of hundreds of books on both sides of the issue, with hundreds more to come, undoubtedly. When they say that Stone warps the historical record, they’re really saying that his facts that don’t fit their theory.
The most glaring example was Stone’s choice of a hero. He needed some central character to tie together the multifarious threads of assassination conspiracy research into something resembling a narrative – and he sure wasn’t going to use Earl Warren. That left only one choice, the only law enforcement official to ever prosecute a trial in the assassination case, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.
From 1966 until 1969, Garrison chased a New Orleans connection to the Kennedy assassination. Garrison’s investigation culminated in the arrest and trial of a prominent New Orleans businessman, Clay Shaw, whom Garrison believed was somehow involved in planning the assassination.
Of all the JFK assassination “conspiracy theorists,” the only one who’s received worse public pillorying than Stone is Earling Carothers “Jim” Garrison. He’s been vilified as a charlatan, a political opportunist, a mafia stooge and a lunatic. The Most Trusted Man in America himself, Walter Cronkite, denounced Garrison as “evil” for his persecution of the “innocent man,” Shaw.
By the time Stone’s movie reached screens, Garrison was terminally ill. In one of his final interviews, for a documentary entitled Beyond JFK, he is shown flat on his back in a hospital bed. He died in 1992. But his frailty and impending death did not temper the renewed verbal assault directed at him then by, well, many of the same commentators who assaulted him the first time around.
They found it especially galling that Stone cast the role of Garrison with Kevin Costner. Costner was still polishing his Oscars from Dances With Wolves just a year earlier. In 1991 he was the biggest movie star in the business. Not only did Costner bear no physical or temperamental resemblance to the jocular-yet-bellicose, six-foot-six Garrison, worst of all as far as the anti-JFKers were concerned, Costner came with an onscreen persona besst described as “heroic everyman.” Kind of an updated Jimmy Stewart. The Costner likeability was at direct odds with their picture of Garrison as a reckless, ruthless, grandiloquent self-aggrandizer.
Stone’s perception of Garrison couldn’t have been more different. To him Garrison was a Capraesque figure, which was exactly the reason he cast Costner.
“I’ve never found Garrison to be the ‘kook’ pictured by a hostile press,” Stone wrote in Premiere magazine. Instead, says Stone, Garrison is a literate, eloquent and patriotic military veteran, former FBI agent and appellate judge. As to Garrison’s much publicized personality flaws (“arrogance and paranoia among them,” wrote Stone), the director chose to omit them from his portrayal because, “either you had to make Garrison the issue or make Kennedy the issue. I chose Kennedy.”
What was quite clear from the voluminous op-ed critiques of his film (though not from reviewers, who generally admired JFK), the film’s detractors would have preferred him to choose Garrison.
Stone acknowledged (in the same Premiere article) that he used Garrison as a vessel through which he channeled four decades of assassination research. Other researchers, before Garrison and after, formulated many of the ideas that issue from Costner/Garrison’s lips.
“It is typically Capraeqsue that private citizens have done the work while government bodies stagnated,” remarked Stone. Stone also invented the aforementioned “Mr. X,” supposedly an ex-military “black ops” man who meets secretly with Garrison in Washington and spells out the reasons why Kennedy was killed – on a purely anonymous basis. No such person existed, much less acted as a “Deep Throat” for Garrison. The character is based largely on Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, who was indeed an ex-military man once involved in covert operations. Many of the assertions in Mr. X’s lengthy soliloquy are Prouty’s. Far from anonymous, Prouty expresses his views in two published books and countless on-the-record interviews.
Nonetheless, in its broad outline anyway, JFK followed the course of Garrison’s investigation. It begins in 1963, shortly after the assassination, when Garrison learns that Oswald (Gary Oldman, in the movie) lived in New Orleans through the spring and summer of that year. He arrests David Ferrie, a strange-looking man and possible acquaintance of Oswald who for reasons unknown had driven to Texas through a torrential rainstorm the night of the assassination. But the FBI sets Ferrie free without charges.
Garrison picks up the investigation again in 1966, after a conversation with Louisiana Senator Russell Long. Long surprises Garrison with his cynical view of the Warren Commission Report: “That dog don’t hunt!” Garrison zeroes in on Ferrie once again, only to have Ferrie die suddenly as soon as his name surfaced in the press as a suspect. (Oddly enough – and this Stone does not include – the last known person to see Ferrie alive was journalist George Lardner Jr., the same Lardner who wrote the above-mentioned Washington Post attack piece in 1991.) At that point, Garrison decides to arrest Clay Shaw. After a month-long trial in which Garrison and his assistants went to great lengths to show that there was a conspiracy, Shaw was acquitted. Jurors late said that Garrison had persuaded them that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, but not that Clay Shaw was part of that conspiracy.
That is the basic outline of JFK’s plot, and of the real-life Garrison investigation. Stone took many of the boilerplate dramatic liberties common to historical films. He used composite characters. The convict “Willie O’Keefe” (Kevin Bacon) was an amalgam of Garrison’s star witness Perry Russo and several other lesser figures. He melodramatizes the mundane roles of real characters. For example, Garrison’s assistant D.A. Lou Ivon did not quit his job, as does the “Lou Ivon” character in the film. Stone even invents a female member of Garrison’s investigative team, presumably to make the cast more palatable to a 90s audience. In reality, Garrison had no distaff staffers.
Naturally, he invents most of the dialog. But not all of it. Warrren Commission testimony is quoted verbatim as is testimony from Garrison’s trial of Clay Shaw. One speech that was only partially invented was Garrison’s lengthy closing argument in which he exhorts jurors to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” and calls for the opening of sealed assassination files that were mandated closed until 2039.
Curiously, some of the film’s attackers scoffed that Garrison never made a closing argument, leaving the chore to his assistants. To the contrary, he manifestly did make the statement, and his wording was very similar to the speech delivered by Costner in the film -- including the Kennedy quote and the call to open secret files.
The merits of taking such dramatic license are debatable, but there are films discussed in other chapters of this book that take far greater liberties than Stone took. So why is JFK the most vilified historical film of all time? There are probably as many reasons as there are vilifiers, but they all can be boiled down to one thing: they hated what Stone had to say. This wasn’t a matter of prettying up some celebrity’s messy life for a bio-pic, or adding a few car crashes to ratchet up the action quotient. To its critics, JFK was a film that offended their deeply held view of the world. Stone questioned their religion.
Most Hollywood movies aim for quite the opposite, to comfort and reassure their audience. JFK doesn’t ask its viewers to leave feeling good. It asks them to think. To question. Apparently, judging by the assault on the film, that is the last thing some in the media want you to do.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. New York: Sheridan Square Press, 1988.
James, Rosemary and Jack Wardlaw. Plot or Politics? New Orleans, Pelican Publishing House, 1967.
Stone, Oliver and Zachary Sklar. JFK: The Documented Screenplay. New York: Applause Books, 1992.