jfk—the story that won’t go away

They Are Alive

(JFK to Z)

The questions of convincing bullshit and propaganda in a righteous cause.


"Cockamamie. That’s a, that’s a word your generation hasn’t embraced yet. Maybe you ought to use it once in a while, just to kinda keep it alive, ya know."
—Clint Eastwood, In the Line of Fire

It seemed that Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) would be a conspiracy buff’s dream come true. At last a mainstream movie would expose the Warren Report’s inconsistencies and reveal the real culprits, that unholy trinity of CIA renegades, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, and the military-industrial complex.

I have wanted to believe President Kennedy was murdered as a result of a conspiracy of some sort ever since the Warren Report was issued in 1964. At bottom, Stone contends that the assassination of John Kennedy was a coup d’etat. Yet Stone’s movie actually started to erode my belief in a conspiracy, especially by the ways its hero, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), handled the single-bullet theory. Stone’s Garrison mocked, belittled, and misrepresented the theory by claiming the bullet zigzagged, stopped, and so on—and there’s nothing like throwing Arlen Specter’s name in as the theory’s author for a cheap laugh.

This manner of dealing with the facts pervaded Garrison’s investigation of the case against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones). Innuendo passed for evidence. The numbers of those involved in the conspiracy increased geometrically. It’s almost laughable, nearly as much as the hypotheses in Ruby (1992), had they been presented so authoritatively.

In many ways, JFK aptly represents the essence of most of the substantial conspiracy texts. They combine an uncritical analysis of their own findings—that, for example, the CIA would use Oswald as an agent, and a highly important one for that matter—with an absolute skepticism of the Warren Commission’s evidence and conclusions. On finishing these books, so many stand accused of participating, directly and indirectly, in Kennedy’s murder that you find yourself uncertain who the authors think did do it.

In Crossfire (1989), the basis for much of Stone’s movie, author Jim Marrs places Jack Ruby in many places on November 22, 1963—the book depository, the Texas movie theater; at least we know he was at the police station Friday night—but never can definitely document them. Just mentioning incidents is enough, much as Marrs and others speculate over David Ferrie’s itinerary before and after the assassination and accept as fact the activities of an Oswald double in the months before the shooting.

The object in JFK is to allow insinuations to stand for truth: present that many allegations and you almost have to believe a few are probable.


Responding to critical responses from all directions, Stone called JFK a "counter-myth" to the prevailing orthodoxy, generally confirming an analysis by Norman Mailer in Vanity Fair that the movie was more convincing bullshit than the Warren Report’s bullshit. Stone’s admission also confirms the feeling that JFK is more fiction than fact.

Partly, one cannot forget that the other book Stone used was Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins. Further, Costner’s characterization of Garrison doesn’t appear to try to capture the compulsions driving the New Orleans District Attorney to destroy the life of Clay Shaw. One senses that Stone deliberately pushes his fictive interpretation over the facts. Why? The fictional account is better and more convincing propaganda against a government Stone strongly mistrusts and Americans have trusted too much.

Stone sees U.S. involvement in Vietnam as based on a broad government deception starting with Kennedy’s death. It is not a matter of conjecture to him that if Kennedy had lived we would have avoided a full-scale war. It’s as if President Johnson and his military advisors, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, merely caught up with the massive deceptions they were supposed to have done at the time of the assassination.

Propaganda for a righteous cause. An exposé of a long history of government deception. A scream to oblivious citizens that in the Cold War era we lost our democracy to a few men who believed they knew what was best for us. Could I be honest with myself and both reject Stone’s view of the assassination and still believe JFK is a great movie?

I am still carried away by the unraveling of the conspiracy that culminates in the monologue of Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) in one of JFK’s best scenes. Stone’s use of black-and-white film, near-documentary footage, and his quick and ingenious editing all heighten the activities of the conspirators and drive home their guilt. The film’s opening encapsulated history (from Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech to the shots at twelve-thirty p.m.) and the use of flashbacks when witnesses and investigators speak are the best-realized parts of the film. Many of these techniques would later provide the narrative drive for Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Nixon. They also give JFK an authentic look and support its compelling argument.

At a deeper level, Stone captures the post-assassination mood of our country. Beyond the shock and mourning, the United States suffered a breakdown. It may have been long overdue, with Kennedy’s death serving to crystallize a prevailing mood, but the state of America-to-come is symbolized in a brief shot of an epileptic in the opening sequence. Fifteen minutes before the motorcade reaches Dealey Plaza, a man falls into the street, semi-conscious, shivering, helpless. An ambulance comes and whisks him away. Such would America become. Semi-conscious, helpless, as the nation’s leaders took us away to Vietnam, to Watergate, to near oblivion.


A young, handsome, virile political leader is struck in the head and mortally wounded amidst a large crowd after a political rally. He’s later pronounced dead at the hospital. The politician had been warned to stay away from the city. A cursory investigation gives no indication of a conspiracy. Witnesses to the assassination and alleged plot are afraid to come forward. A right-wing militaristic group had recruited assassins for some generals in the government who feared this politician would oust them. In the end, the generals avoid prison and many of those who pointed to a conspiracy are themselves thrown in jail or are killed mysteriously.

These are the elements of the 1969 film Z, directed by Costa-Gavras and based on a novel and events in Greece in the mid-1960s. Z makes no apology for its anti-government stance. It makes us indignant at a military junta that cuts down its main political opponent, only called The Deputy (Yves Montand). JFK’s superficial resemblance to the Costa-Gavras film might be coincidental, but both share a mission and technique that make them superlative thrillers capable of rousing audiences to identify with their designs, and JFK has undoubtedly absorbed Z’s lessons in the ways to effectively combine truth, fiction, and propaganda.

All of Costa-Gavras’s films specialize in these three elements, including his best known English-language films, Missing (1982) and Betrayed (1988). Like Z, Missing takes on a military junta with CIA backing, in this case Chile’s. Betrayed follows an ultra-right wing group in America’s heartland. Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1989) brushes against events the events in Betrayed, both dealing in their fashion with the murder of a controversial talk-show host. Stone might be America’s Costa-Gavras—he at least carried Costa-Gavras’s banner through the 1990s when The Music Box (1990) and Mad City (1997) lacked punch—although Stone seems less conscious of his liberal message or even the political impact of his movies.

In addition to these similarities of setting between JFK and Z, there are many links among the conspirators and assassins. The man who strikes the fatal blow to the political leader in Z is seen at one point trying to pick up a pinball-playing teenage boy. JFK’s plotters are pervasively gay, from Clay Shaw to David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) to Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon). Even Lee Oswald (Gary Oldman) attends one of Shaw’s extravagant all-male bashes. Each director’s use of homosexuality highlights how riffraff, outcasts, and the socially repugnant have carried out the assassination. One way or another, their participation sullies even more the (militaristic and macho) men who have ordered the murder.

The casting of their heroes and villains is also played fully for propagandistic effects. Stone’s characterization of Garrison is so transparent that his Garrison nearly resembles the Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in Z, a man driven solely by the ideals of justice. A more authentic Jim Garrison would have gotten in the way of Stone’s message and stymied the force of his propaganda or—as he prefers to call it—myth.


In the pre-release marketing of JFK, a line was used that never appeared later: "The story that won’t go away." In other words, the story of the death of John F. Kennedy will be told to generations to come until Justice is attained and society has given conspiracy theory its imprimatur. This may never lead to indictments against the killer crossfire team on Dealey Plaza or the group who made Oswald a patsy, but it will lead to public acknowledgment, with the help of newly unclassified documents, that specific generals and chiefs-of-staff ordered the president’s murder.

Curiously, the letter "Z" was used as graffiti by the followers of the slain Greek politician to imply, "He is alive." He will not be forgotten. The people will not let his story die. He will inspire the nation to overthrow the junta.

Both films ask us to believe their stories—in Stone’s words, to believe their version instead of the government’s version. In the post-Strangelove era, it would seem out of the question to accept the government’s version of anything. Nor would anyone sympathetic to the artist be inclined to accept any authority but the artist’s. In a sense, Oliver Stone turned John Ford’s "print the myth" on its head in JFK using the model of Costa-Gavras’s Z.

Yet Stone goes further than mere propaganda. He’s upped Z’s anti-government ante by forcing us to chose between his stated view of JFK’s intentions—namely, his theory of the assassination—and the final product. In fifty or a hundred years, when the intensity and seeming importance of the apparent conspiracy to wrest power from John Kennedy’s administration has subsided, people will only see in JFK an event of America’s past and its emotional impact on our country. They will also witness a taut thriller and innovative techniques to create and further the suspense and meaning of events.

If forced to choose, I must reject what Stone wanted to do and accept what he accomplished. As Z also proved, the aesthetic will not die.

posted by editor ::: November 21, 2001 ::: pheatures :::