Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.
When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.
Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.
Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.
In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.
Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.
This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.
**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald
**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)
**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know”