JFK: behind the furore

February 5, 1992

By Steve Painter

Since long before it was released, Oliver Stone's latest film, JFK, about the 1963 assassination of US President John Kennedy, has been the subject of extraordinary controversy. From the right have come calls for censorship and accusations of treason. Other politicians have seized on the new round of debate about the assassination to call for the release of all documents on it, which otherwise will remain in government archives until at least 2029. Even on the left there are widely differing views.

From the time Oliver Stone began making JFK, it was clear the film would be very unpopular in some powerful circles. With production barely four week under way, a national media storm broke when retired FBI agent Harold Weisberg passed an early version of the script to Washington Post national security reporter George Lardner.

Well before opening day, Newsweek's front cover warned of "The twisted truth of JFK: Why Oliver Stone's new movie can't be trusted", former president Gerald Ford called it "a big lie", and prominent lawyers branded it "pure fiction". Tom Wicker, one of the New York Times' reputedly liberal journalists, bemoaned JFK's potential impact "in an era when mistrust of government and loss of confidence in institutions are widespread and virulent". George Will, another widely read columnist, wrote, "JFK is an act of execrable history and contemptible citizenship".

Clearly, the US establishment is worried, and with good reason. Vilified as a traitor by some, Stone is hailed as a hero by many more. A recent Time-CNN poll found that 73% didn't believe the US government's official finding that President Kennedy was the victim of a lone killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. Most thought there had been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and 50% thought the CIA was the most likely culprit, with the Mafia a close second. A bare 16% believed they had been told the truth.

Writing for the US Guardian, Robert Spiegelman, who worked as a researcher on the film, points out: "The Stone-bashing may yet backfire; when the film finally opened, the first weekend grossed $5 million and reached 670,000 viewers". It has reached many more since. A lot of US citizens disregarded the advice to stay away. It seems they don't believe the establishment and they do believe Stone.

Much of the criticism of Stone is extremely flimsy. For example, he doesn't claim his film is a documentary or a work of history, though it is based heavily on a book, On the Trail of the Assassins, by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, and other research. "It doesn't say at the beginning of the movie that this is a true story", says Stone. "Other movies use dramatic licence to portray a truth ... I use Garrison as a metaphor for all the research that was done in the 1960s to the 1980s."

Garrison and others who have investigated the assassination have, like Stone, also been vilified as eccentrics and conspiracy theorists. Yet s investigation, in 1979, concluded that there probably had been a conspiracy. This seems undeniable in view of the evidence aired by Stone: the fabrication of evidence presented to the official Warren Commission investigation, the fact that Oswald was some sort of government agent with links to right-wing Cubans, the fact that even expert marksmen weren't able to get off the three shots in the available time from the rifle supposed to have been fired by Oswald. (Oswald himself was a poor shot.)

In view of the near certainty that there was a conspiracy, the dismissals of Stone as a conspiracy theorist also ring more than a little odd.

The real heat arises from the fact that JFK theorises a conspiracy going right to the top of the US government, citing a great deal of circumstantial evidence. This is by no means impossible, especially given that Kennedy's opponents were many of the same politicians, cops and military figures who organised the McCarthy witch-hunts. Even General George C. Marshall (he of the Marshall Plan) was suspect in these circles.

There are, however, weaknesses in Stone's case. His preferred theory relies on supposed military-industrial-intelligence-political hostility to Kennedy on the basis of a number of policies: his refusal to authorise an invasion of Cuba in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, his black civil rights policy, and his alleged intentions to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam and explore possibilities for detente with the USSR. "Kennedy was really moving to end the Cold War and sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets; he would not have gone to war in South-East Asia. He was starting a backdoor negotiation with Castro", says Stone in one interview.

While a few historians support such a view, Alexander Cockburn, writing for the Nation, convincingly demolishes any notion that Kennedy might have become any sort of peace president: "Military spending was slowing near the end of Kennedy's term for exactly the same reason it slowed near the end of Ronald Reagan's season in office. The largest and most rapid military buildup in the peacetime history of the United States had been accomplished. JFK had doubled the number of Polaris nuclear submarines; increased Minuteman purchases by 75%, tactical nukes in Europe by 60% and the total number of weapons in the strategic alert force by 100%."

As for Vietnam, "JFK sent in 16,000 advisers, sponsored the strategic hamlet program, launched napalm and defoliation upon the South and covert terror and sabotage upon the North. He never entertained the idea of a settlement."

Cockburn argues further that the whole thing doesn't matter: "Whether JFK was killed by a lone assassin or by a conspiracy has as much to do with the subsequent contours of American politics as if he had tripped over one of Caroline's dolls and broken his neck in the White House nursery".

Writing for the Guardian, prominent left activist Carl Davidson takes a different tack: "What does it mean, after all, if the president of the United States can be gunned down in broad daylight without any of his assassins being brought to justice? What does it mean if those conspirators who remain alive are still able to walk the streets freely? ... the United States may not be a democracy in any real sense. However much we treasure our liberties and strive to ower, it is possible that the killers of the Kennedys, of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, of Fred Hampton and others, all got away with murder."

Cockburn goes on to point out a real weakness in JFK, — one, moreover, that's evident in much of Stone's work: his undeniably anti-establishment, but often politically directionless populism. Of Garrison's culminating courtroom speech (really written by Stone), Cockburn writes: "It's an important passage, for in its truly fascist yearning for the 'father-leader' taken from the children-people by conspiracy, it accurately catches the crippling nuttiness of what passes among some sectors of the left ... as mature analysis and propaganda: that virtue in government died in Dallas, and that a 'secret agenda' has perverted the national destiny".

While Cockburn might be excessively severe, he is correct that Stone's mistake is not the accusation against the establishment for which he is being vilified, but his illusion in Kennedy and the supposedly liberal wing of that same establishment. With that reservation, JFK is still a very good film ... if you can handle more than three hours of relentless cinematic assault and Stone's inability to develop complex female characters, JFK does very powerfully challenge central institutions and assumptions underlying mainstream politics in the USA and the world.

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