Twenty years ago, Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ was released and was less a film than a Molotov cocktail thrown at the “establishment.” Stone called his film about the 20th century’s most infamous Presidential assassination “a history lesson” (a characterization he quickly withdrew) and hoped to be vindicated by the passage of time.
Stone’s thesis in a film designed to appeal to middle America is as follows: the military-industrial complex, allowed free reign under Eisenhower, killed Kennedy because he was trying to end the Cold War, especially in Cuba and Vietnam (the latter extremely important to the obsessed Stone). Their point men were apolitical snipers, vengeful anti-Castroites, and a manipulated Oswald. Far from being an angry leftist loner, Oswald was in fact a perpetrator for the more dovish elements of the American government’s schemes. The low-level plotters included Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, and David Ferrie, a member of the Operation Mongoose team, a CIA operation in constant efforts to kill Castro.
Like all history lessons, the yardstick is whether further evidence has proved him correct. On Shaw being a CIA agent, Stone was on sure footing: CIA Director Richard Helms admitted that the New Orleans defendant was an agent. On Shaw and Ferrie knowing each other (a charge Shaw denied under oath at his trial in New Orleans), evidence in the form of a car loan for Ferrie co-signed by Shaw has vindicated Stone.
But other revelations have not been so kind. Far from being a patsy four floors down from his supposed sniper perch, Oswald was shown in documents released after the film by the Dallas Police that his fingerprints were on the trigger of his Manlicher Carcano. Re-created shooting by world-class snipers has shown that the head-shots did in fact come from the Sixth Floor Depository. Computer analysis applied to the grassy knoll reveals that in order for a shot to have come from there the sniper would have to have been on a forty-foot ladder (a stance that would have attracted notice).
Stone made much of the hobos rounded up by the DPD as being part of the assassination team (he even has the leader of the plot walking by and signaling them). His evidence for this was in how they were never booked and were quickly released, but documents released by the DPD after the film revealed that the men in question were, in fact, hobos.
On Kennedy the dove, Stone has been invalidated. He makes much of the American University speech in which JFK called for a reexamination of American attitudes toward the Soviet Union, but he says nothing about the bellicose anti-communist speech months later in the “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” address. Regarding Cuba, Kennedy was following a two track policy in the last days of his life. On one hand, he was using intermediaries to seek normalization with Castro. On the other, he had intensified efforts to kill the dictator (one congressman in the loop was shocked at how matter-of-fact Kennedy was when he told him). And Kennedy had authorized the military to begin preparations for an invasion of the island in December 1963.
Stone, in his effort to hammer home his thesis, omits certain key elements known at the time. Nowhere in the film is there any mention of Oswald’s efforts to kill the far right military man, General Edwin Walker–odd, because Oswald missing him from a grassy knoll-type perch would have bolstered Stone’s portrait of him as poor shot. To do so would have shown Oswald’s ability to plan an assassination. He never shows Kennedy’s complicity in allowing a coup to remove South Vietnam leader N’Go Diem–proof that the president was seeking a more receptive leadership in order to secure the conflict’s key goal–to win popular support.
In a key moment in the film, Stone has a Deep Throat-esque journalist character pose the real questions that should be asked about Kennedy’s death: (1) Why was Kennedy killed? (2)Who benefited? (3)Who has the power to cover it up?
In light of recent evidence, the answers are as follows : (1) Not only the frustrated anti-Castro Cubans, but also target Castro, his sympathizers, including Lee Harvey Oswald; (2) Beneficiaries were Castro (especially since the new president, Lyndon Johnson, horrified at Kennedy’s “goddam murder inc. in the Carribean,” turned Mongoose off; (3) The American government, but they could have done so less from their participation in the assassination and more from their participation in using the mob to kill Castro or fears of nuclear war should the truth come out.
Similar questions could have been applied to Stone. Why did he make this film? Answer: to continue his cinematic efforts to exorcise his Vietnam demons. Who benefited? Answer: The Hollywood Left, with their love affair with Castro and the aged Camelot mythifiers. Who had the power to cover up alternative theories of the assassination and ones at political odds with the film? Answer: scriptwriter Oliver Stone.
Like most Camelot propaganda merchants, Stone laments what might have been had the assassination failed. His “American Gorbachev” might have stymied the right-wing madness of the sixties. But Kennedy’s pattern was to assure the worst of all possible worlds. Regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, he assured Castro’s position by promising Kruschev that he would never invade and horse-traded away the US missile defense for Turkey. He then continued assassination efforts, and his plans for a December 1963 invasion would have violated his promise to Kruschev and triggered an even more dire reprise of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With Vietnam, he allowed a coup to remove Diem in order to continue the doomed US support of the South. Because of Kennedy’s risk taking, “what might have been” might have been worse than under Johnson.
The trouble with propaganda masquerading as film is that facts keep up with and invalidate it. The documents keep on coming, says George Orwell. In the case of JFK they did, but without an equally skilled director, they may never filter into the consciousness of moviegoers.