This is one of the best films of 2015.
LOS ANGELES -- Oliver Stone talks rapidly and yet with a certain weariness, as if he knows the answers, but fears he will not be listened to. He defends his new film, "JFK," with a rush of dates and references and facts, and then when he is asked about the film's detractors, he reveals an underlying bitterness:
"This has been a distressing experience," he said. "It was disturbing to have this film attacked so early. Never before in the history of movies has a film been attacked in first draft screenplay form. All the established media seem to be terrified of my movie; as if it's somehow going destroy their lives. I'm amazed at their fear. What stake do they have in it?"
This was a week before "JFK" opened, on Friday. Dan Rather had attacked the film on CBS, the Washington Post had printed and criticized some of the screenplay, political pundit Tom Wicker had written a negative cover story in the New York Times arts section, and Newsweek had splashed across its cover: "Why Oliver Stone's new movie can't be trusted."
Their criticisms all boiled down to a couple of key points: They felt Stone's movie was based on unsupportable speculation, and they believed his film's hero, former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, was an unscrupulous publicity seeker who drummed up his celebrated case against Clay Shaw out of thin air.
These points are no doubt well-taken. I believe they are irrelevant to the film, which is not a documentary, not a historical study and not a courtroom presentation, but a movie that weaves a myth around the Kennedy assassination - a myth in which the slain leader was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. The pollsters tell us that most Americans believe this anyway. Even Tom Wicker, down deep in his piece, says he does not believe the Warren Commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Well, who does? And yet the image of Oswald as the lone killer has been the official establishment myth for 28 years. Is it such a terrible thing Stone has done, to weave a countermyth?
Here on the movie beat, I always sort of quail when anybody makes a film that ventures out of pure Hollywood fantasy and into the real lives of the experts in the front section of the newspaper. I'm sure to be treated to many analytical studies of the factual accuracy of the film, in which the writers may be sound in their knowledge of history, but seem to have little idea why they or anyone else in the audience really goes to see a movie. People will not buy tickets to "JFK" because they think Oliver Stone knows who killed Kennedy. And when "Babe" comes out this summer, and inspires all sorts of disillusioned analysis on the sports page, that movie's factual accuracy will have nothing to do with the tickets it sells, either.
People go to the movies to be told a story. If it is a good story, they will believe it for as long as the movie lasts. If it is a very good story, it may linger in their memory somewhat longer. In the case of "JFK," which I think is a terrific example of storytelling, what they will remember is not the countless facts and conjectures that the movie's hero spins in his lonely campaign to solve the assassination. What they will remember (or, if they are young enough, what they will learn) is how we all felt on Nov. 22, 1963, and why for all the years afterward a lie has seemed to lodge in the national throat - the lie that we know the truth about who murdered Kennedy.
There are many facts, factoids, fictions and distortions in "JFK," all used in the service of the story. To dissect the movie like a documentary is pointless. Tom Wicker in the Times, for example, complains that when Stone shows the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the movie makes it look as if Bobby were shot at the end of his California victory speech, rather than shortly after. Does Wicker think Stone was trying to deceive us on this point? Hasn't everyone seen the footage of Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel kitchen? All through "JFK," Stone uses the technique of the jump cut, the flash forward, the impatient edit to the next event. He is using it here. Literate filmgoers know that.
Newsweek, in its warning against the pitfalls of the docudrama form, notes with concern, "Only the alert viewer will be able to distinguish real documentary footage from reconstructed scenes," which is true enough, but then the magazine cites with alarm such scenes as when "A police officer brings the murder rifle to Oswald's corpse and presses his palm print into the barrel." Give us a break. Is there anyone dumb enough to believe a cop would allow himself to be photographed while faking evidence?
Oliver Stone is bitter about Wicker and Rather and his other detractors, but he doesn't use his best argument: That this is a movie. He counterattacks on a personal level, essentially saying that "JFK" is disliked by old-guard journalists who have a personal stake in the Lone Assassin Theory because, by their inaction, they have allowed it to stand for all of these years.
"A lot of people who are attacking my credibility," Stone said, "are older journalists who were there then, and obviously endorsed the Warren Commission. Tom Wicker was there and says Garrison has no case and points to a NBC documentary that is so one-sided that when it was aired, Garrison went to the FCC and successfully got rebuttal time on NBC. If it was shown now, it would be an embarrassment to NBC.
"And Dan Rather made his career out of being at Dealey Plaza. He was one of the few journalists allowed to see the Zapruder film at the time, and he came out of it saying the force of the shot drove the president forward in his seat. That is an outright lie; either that, or he's blind. He certainly has a stake in the assassination because of his reporting of it. He bought the Oswald theory, and here I am this punk from Hollywood who apparently knows nothing about history or politics, and who am I to come in with my artistic interpretation of those events?"
Here, Stone does have the visible evidence on his side. Few people, Rather included, are going to be able to come out of "JFK" arguing that the final bullet drove Kennedy forward. In the movie, the Zapruder film of the assassination is played over and over, blown up to 35 mm, as the Garrison character (Kevin Costner) chants, like a mantra: "Back . . . and to the left. Back . . . and to the left." And, yes, it does seem that the final bullet must have come from in front of Kennedy, even though that fact, all by itself, destroys the theory that Oswald did all of the shooting from behind the motorcade.
Has Rather seen your film?
Are you going to show it to him?
"No. Let him go to the theater to pay for it; he's gotten enough free rides, and he's abused his power as far as I can see. He hasn't even seen the movie, but he says that my theories are half-baked?" Hollywood's angriest director
Stone is angry now, but then, Stone is Hollywood's angriest director, a man who in the screenplay for "Midnight Express" and in his own films "Salvador," "Platoon," "Wall Street," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "The Doors," and now more than ever in "JFK," seems to be saying that he was lied to, back in the 1960s, and now he wants to set the record straight.
"I hate conventional thought," he said. "I always did. I think I went through a period of being institutionalized myself, in boarding schools, the Army, Merchant Marine and college, in the 1960s. I've seen conventional thinking and I'm always rebelling against it. I see conventional thinking in most of the histories of the period. I think historians are finally starting to address issue of what Kennedy was really doing from '61 to '63."
What he was doing, according to "JFK," was proposing to emasculate the military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower warned against in his farewell speech in 1960. Stated bluntly, Stone believes Kennedy was killed because his policies were bad for the arms business.
"There was a civil war in this country," Stone said. "Kennedy provoked such hostility and hatred. His death was cheered in the South because of his support for Martin Luther King. He was moving to change things on all fronts. He was starting to end the Cold War. He made a deal with Khruschev and Russia in 1962 to end the missile crisis, and he furthered the deal when he signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. He installed the Hot Line. He made the American University speech, where he described the Soviets for the first time in American history as mortals, like us, who care about their children. He seemed to have an expanding vision of the world, much like Gorbachev did in Russia in the '80s.
"Kennedy himself said, in 1962, after he read Seven Days in May, which is about a military coup in the United States, that if he had another Bay of Pigs, that could happen to him. Well, he did have another Bay of Pigs; he had several. He had the missile crisis; they wanted him to invade Cuba; he didn't. They wanted him to send combat troops to Vietnam and Laos; he didn't. I think Kennedy prophesied his own death with those words."
Stone is famous for the pressure he puts himself under while making his films, which almost always involve daunting logistical problems, like staging infantry combat or re-creating rock concerts with thousands of fans. After "JFK," he said, he feels utterly drained: "I think it was the most distressing film I've had to make. I knew I'd have eyes on the back of my head while I was directing this film. It was very difficult not to be rattled by the attacks saying this film was a monstrosity. Any piece of work like this is an act of love and trust and a leap of faith. You need to nurture something like that. To be attacked and stabbed in the back was not easy."
What he has achieved is, among other things, one of the most complicated films I have ever seen. By that, I do not mean it is hard to follow; the main central thrust is always there, and the audience always knows what it needs to know. But Stone's screenplay uses countless sound and image bites, it jumps around freely in time, it shows the same events in different ways from different points of view, and even in Garrison's long summation to the jury, the movie jumps back and forth from testimony to flashbacks to conjecture to possibility. At the end, Stone deliberately makes it impossible for us to know exactly what he thinks happened on Nov. 22, 1963. The movie is more urgently about what he believes did not happen.
Do you, I asked him, have a personal theory about the assassination? Do you think you know the names of the guilty?
"I do. My own conclusions go harder and further than the film. I think I pulled back to some degree, because I didn't have the proof necessary to name names and I can only make a hypothesis, and that's a very heavy thing to lay on somebody, to accuse them of killing the president. After the film is out there, and the public has had a chance to see it and react to it, I think the discussion could be furthered."
One way that could happen, he says, is if the locked CIA, FBI and Senate files on the assassination were to be made public.
"I think we should follow the example of today's Russia, Rumania and East Germany. I think we should invade the CIA and the FBI, and get these files out. Get the military intelligence files out on Lee Harvey Oswald; get the military intelligence files on Jack Kennedy that day in Dallas - why the security precautions were what they were. There's so much that they never gave to the Warren Commission. We should get the House Select Committee to release its files that are embargoed till 2029. They could just take a vote now, and release all those files. It only takes one congressman."
From his tone of voice, Stone made it obvious that he did not think the Congress contained such a man.
"People in power are afraid to ask the obvious questions. From Day 1, they accepted the cover story that Oswald did it alone. Oswald said he was the patsy. A lot of people believed him, but not the establishment. Since that day, the media has chanted the mantra that Oswald did it alone. But the American public, which has been brainwashed with that for 28 years, has never accepted it. They smell a rat."
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