Director: Oliver Stone, 1991 (R)
2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas during a motorcade. The fourth president of the USA assassinated, he was the first lost on the watch of the Secret Service. His death changed the nation and the nation’s politics. Even a half century later, the interest in Kennedy’s death persists, undaunted. This is evident from the clutch of new books issued in remembrance of this event, including Jesse Ventura’s “They Killed our President” and Jerry Kroth’s “Coup D’Etat” as well as the new movie Parkland. More than ever, the mystery surrounding Kennedy’s death polarizes along the lone gunman/multiple gunmen conspiracy spectrum.
Oliver Stone’s JFK may be his magnum opus. An epic in itself, the director’s cut runs almost 3 ½ hours. But the 200 minutes are captivating, not just due to the Oscar-winning editing and cinematography. Neither is it due to the superb cast of Hollywood A-listers, including Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones (nominated for an Oscar here), Gary Oldman, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. Rather, through the use of flashback and interspersing of historic footage, Stone brings a profound sense of conspiracy and mystery unfolding. It leaves the viewer eager to learn more, to do subsequent research in the literature. I certainly felt that way.
The movie begins with sound-bites from President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the nation in January 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence – whether sought or unsought – by the military-industrial complex. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” This, and the title cards, set the context for the film, and the second half of the movie sheds light on this.
The film focuses on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Like many other Americans, he hears about the assassination from television news accounts. But it is only three years later that he begins to question that government’s account of the death at the hands of lone-gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). Since Oswald used to live in New Orleans and had involvement with various anti-Castro organizations in his city, he begins to investigate Oswald. With his team of assistant Das and investigators, the search begins to uncover facts that dispute the government’s account.
Little by little, other agencies seem to be involved, from the CIA to the FBI as well as Naval Intelligence and the mob.
The screenplay (written in part by Stone) is based on Garrison’s own book, “On the Trail of the Assassins.” And Garrison comes across as a man on a mission, even if it is at the expense of his wife (Sissy Spacek) and family. Once the JFK bug bites him, he cannot let it go. Weaving through the dense web of lies and deceit, it is not until he travels to Washington DC to meet mystery man X (Donald Sutherland, actually playing Fletcher Prouty, a Colonel in Military Intelligence) that Garrison begins to understand the depths of conspiracy he finds himself in. X tells him: “Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. And the truth is on your side, Bubba.” Garrison comments later, “Telling the truth can be a very scary thing sometimes.” He wants to find the truth, and the American people are behind him, even if his government is not.
People want to find truth. Lives cannot be built on lies. Truth is found in Jesus Christ, “who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). When we know the truth we can live in the light of truth (Jn. 3:21). Then and only then do we find ourselves free (Jn. 8:32). Although the enemy seeks to deceive, as the father of lies (Jn. 8:44), God shines his light of truth on us; he wants us to cut away through Satan’s conspiracies.
Stone’s movie hence ties the murder to the military-industrial complex. And we see backroom meetings of key military leaders. Beyond this, Stone posits that Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President, is involved, extending the conspiracy to the highest levels of government. With his ascendancy to the presidency, he reversed policy and moved to continue the Viet Nam War, despite its cost in lives and dollars. Bombs and bullets brought profit to the corporations supporting the military.
It is in the latter stages, when Garrison takes Shaw to trial, the only trial ever brought in relation to the Kennedy assassination, that the movie presents indisputable evidence of conspiracy. In the best scene of the film, Garrison comments on the so-called magic bullet:
The Warren Commission thought they had an open-and-shut case. Three bullets, one assassin. But two unpredictable things happened that day that made it virtually impossible. One, the eight-millimeter home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder while standing by the grassy knoll. Two, the third wounded man, James Tague, who was knicked by a fragment, standing near the triple underpass. The time frame, five point six seconds, determined by the Zapruder film, left no possibility of a fourth shot. So the shot or fragment that left a superficial wound on Tague's cheek had to come from the three shots fired from the sixth floor depository. That leaves just two bullets. And we know one of them was the fatal head shot that killed Kennedy. So now a single bullet remains. A single bullet now has to account for the remaining seven wounds in Kennedy and Connelly. But rather than admit to a conspiracy or investigate further, the Warren Commission chose to endorse the theory put forth by an ambitious junior counselor, Arlen Spector, one of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people. We've come to know it as the "Magic Bullet Theory." This single-bullet explanation is the foundation of the Warren Commission's claim of a lone assassin. Once you conclude the magic bullet could not create all seven of those wounds, you'd have to conclude that there was a fourth shot and a second rifle. And if there was a second rifleman, then by definition, there had to be a conspiracy.
With this conspiracy supported, the question is who was involved. Garrison argues that it had to reach to the highest levels and so concludes that this was in fact a coup d’etat.
Even though the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Warren, concluded that the assassination was the result of Oswald acting alone, and that Jack Ruby (Oswald’s killer days later) acted alone, there is simply too many unlikely coincidences for this to be likely. Witnesses killed in the most suspicious circumstances. Autopsy results that simply don’t match the evidence from the Dallas Parkland doctors who attended Kennedy’s death. The killing bullet that entered from the front, despite Oswald firing from behind Kennedy. The magic bullet that has to explain so many wounds that it has to defy the laws of physics. Former Governer Ventura does a fine job of collecting sufficient evidence to provide more than reasonable doubt of Oswald’s guilt. Indeed, in contrast to the Warren Commision’s report, the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976, concluded that Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy, although it did not determine who exactly was involved.
Late in the film Garrison, frustrated with the thwarting of his mission, declares to the press: “Let justice be done though the heavens fail.” In the JFK murder, justice has not been done. The American people deserve better. But Stone and Ventura and Kroth and many others have at least opened the curtain on the great deception and conspiracy that has plagued the country for 5 decades. Oswald could not have acted alone. He may not even have been the shooter. His guilt, never proven in a court of law, may never be undone. We may never know the real truth. And justice will surely never be done.
Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs