Oliver Stone’s film JFK is riddled with factual inaccuracies and bizarre theories. The film was still good for history. (More)
The protagonist of David Baldacci’s The Camel Club and the follow on series uses the name Oliver Stone. When we meet him, Stone lives in a tent in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, where he holds a sign reading “I Want The Truth.” Yet he hides more than he reveals. Not even his closest friends know his real name, or the truth about his past. Still, he is a hero.
It is a fitting tribute to director Oliver Stone and his film JFK. It epitomizes the Hollywood tradition of “based on a true story.” The central events in the film actually happened. President John Kennedy was assassinated 48 years ago today. Jack Ruby shot and killed suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald two days later. The Warren Commission concluded that both Oswald and Ruby acted alone. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison did investigate the case, and prosecuted Clay Shaw for conspiracy in the assassination. Shaw was acquitted. Those facts are the “true story” that the rest of the movie is “based on.”
And most of the rest of the movie is fiction.
Oliver Stone was already both lauded and loathed. His semi-autobiographical Platoon won the Best Picture Oscar in 1986, and was hailed by Vietnam veterans as a searingly evocative portrait of the terror and confusion they experienced. But conservative critics panned the film, saying it portrayed American soldiers in a negative light.
Most of those same critics leaped on JFK as not simply fiction “based on a true story,” but as a deliberate attempt to misinform the American people. They said Stone’s weaving of archival footage with his own black-and-white images was “dishonest.” Most cited as proof a brief scene of an unidentified man placing a bullet on the stretcher that carried Texas Governor John Connally to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Critics said Stone wanted viewers to believe that was actual footage, to bolster “his case” for the assassination as a conspiracy. Critics also noted that the real Jim Garrison never delivered the moving summation given by Kevin Costner in the film, and point to other scenes where the movie doesn’t match the historical record.
In short, they treated JFK as a dishonest documentary – propaganda – rather than as historical fiction.
Still, I think Oliver Stone and JFK have earned a valuable and important place in the historical record. Spurred by public response to the film, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the JFK Records Act in 1992. Millions of pages of documents were to remain sealed until 2038, 75 years after the assassination. In 1963 that was standard procedure for most records of federal criminal investigations. The rationale was that innocent witnesses and suspects who had been cleared should not be dragged into the public spotlight. The 1966 Freedom of Information Act changed that procedure, but did not cover the JFK assassination. That left many Americans sure the government was hiding the evidence of what really happened. The Warren Commission report, despite its 888-page report and 26 volumes of supporting documents, left gaps in the evidence.
From those gaps poured rivers of conspiracy theories, fueled by the mistakes, inconsistencies, and odd coincidences that are inevitable in any large criminal investigation. The Dallas Police originally misidentified the rifle found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as a Mauser 7.65mm, then later correctly identified it as a Mannlicher-Carcano 6.5mm. For conspiracy theorists, this could not be merely a mistaken identification in the hectic aftermath of a shocking crime. No, an ubiquitous They had switched the weapon to frame Lee Harvey Oswald. And on it went.
Conspiracy theorists cite two key pieces of evidence, the first of which is the so-called “magic bullet.” The Warren Commission claimed this was the second shot that entered President Kennedy’s upper back and exited his throat before striking Governor Connally. JFK makes much of this, with Costner’s Garrison repeatedly demonstrating how the bullet would have to have “turned right, then left” in midair. But the scene is based on the common but mistaken assumption that Gov. Connally was sitting directly in front of and on the same level as President Kennedy. In fact, the governor was in a jump seat, several inches to the left of and lower than the president. Recent recreations, using the same kind of limousine and with actors in the correct positions based on multiple film images, show there was nothing “magic” about the bullet. It flew in a straight line, with only trivial deflection consistent with firing through ballistics gel. The reverse trajectory traces to the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository where at least two witnesses said they saw a shooter, as the Warren Commission concluded.
The other key evidence for conspiracy theorists is the 8mm film shot by Abraham Zapruder. His was not the only movie footage shot that day, but it offers the clearest view of the assassination, including the gut-wrenching frames of the third shot striking President Kennedy in the head. In the Zapruder film, as Costner’s Garrison emphasizes in JFK, the bullet’s impact seems to hurl the president “back and to the left.” That suggests the fatal shot came from the front right, the infamous “grassy knoll.” But a more detailed analysis of the Zapruder and other footage shows the horrific spray of blood forward at the moment of impact. The limousine then drives under the mist, giving the visual impression of the spray flying backward. Again, recent recreations with the same kind of limousine and actors in the correct positions reveal no possible firing point on the “grassy knoll” – or anywhere to the front or right – whose results would fit the ballistic data. The only firing point that fits the ballistic data is, again, the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.
Those recent recreations refute the premise of Stone’s film. But they and other new analyses rely on key details revealed in documents released under the JFK Records Act, spurred by public response to Stone’s film. We will never know everything about the tragic death of President Kennedy. But we know more now than we did a decade ago.
Like David Baldacci’s fictional character, the real Oliver Stone demanded “the truth.” And we as a nation are better for that.