This article was a piece of work originally written for my American cinema class a few years ago, as part of my undergraduate degree. It is written mainly as a film essay with historical and sociological overtones, as I attempt to discuss how contested or unresolved history such as the JFK assassination is represented on screen. I analyse Oliver Stone’s JFK in this respect and argue that the reason the film was attacked was because he simply dared to portray a version of history that was not in keeping with the ‘accepted truth’ put forward by the government and their corporate media sponsors. I argue that since November 22nd, 1963, the establishment media gatekeepers have tried to claim ‘ownership’ and authority over portrayal of the assassination whether in film or the print media.
In his career as a film maker, Oliver Stone, is famous for tackling what could be called the ‘uncomfortable’ history of 20th (and now 21st) century America. History that, even years later, still lacks a definitive or ‘easy’ resolution. Films such as Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Nixon (1996), and most recently World Trade Center (2006), demonstrate Stone’s continuing desire to confront controversial and highly emotive episodes in his country’s history. Indeed, Oliver Stone has earned the tag of being Hollywood’s ‘angriest director.’ [i]
Then of course, there is JFK (1991). Dealing with the traumatic assassination of a young president, brutally shot down in the street, it is perhaps inevitable that for this film, Stone would attract arguably the greatest criticism of his career to date. He was almost immediately attacked in the national news media for daring to portray such a sensitive event on celluloid, often, prior even to the film’s release. [ii]
It would be impossible in an essay of 2500 words to give an exhaustive analysis of JFK, so I will instead concentrate on those scenes which I believe are central to an explanation of the film’s visual style and narrative content. In this paper, I will be examining not only how Oliver Stone portrayed his version of the assassination cinematically, but why JFK generated such controversy. Was there more to the film’s vilification than simply contention over its style or historical accuracy? This leads to the wider issue of how filmmakers are often criticised for in some way ‘distorting’ history by the very process of screening it. I will be discussing the problems associated with screening history, particularly controversial history, and the conflict this appears to generate amongst different groups vying for authority over America’s history.
Oliver Stone has said that his primary motive in making JFK was to present a ‘counter myth’ to the Warren Commission, whose conclusions Stone disagrees with.[iii] He described JFK as, “……….a battle between official mythology and disturbing truth.” [iv] Stone stated that he was hopeful that the film would “……….move people away from the Warren Commission,” [v] and towards an alternative consideration of events: the possibility that President Kennedy was killed as a result of a coup d’etat, that is, a conspiracy. [vi]
In JFK, Oliver Stone chose to present the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as the prism through which he would recount the assassination of President Kennedy on screen. This in itself was a somewhat controversial decision bound to attract some criticism, as Jim Garrison is seen as a contentious figure amongst historians and researchers.[vii] Garrison was the only person in history to bring a prosecution in the assassination, against businessman Clay Shaw, for conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. He was unsuccessful, and some believe Shaw was unfairly prosecuted, in Garrison’s quest for publicity and higher office. However, the opposing argument, as Stone portrays in the film, is that Garrison was hindered by the U.S. government and national media, who tried to sabotage his case.[viii] Many researchers claim that Garrison was unable to prove Shaw’s guilt because much of the evidence was still classified at the time.[ix] An example of this is Clay Shaw’s connection to the C.I.A., which has since been proven by declassified government documents.[x]
JFK opens with stirring music, the sound of staccato drums and the voice of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In voiceover form, actor, Martin Sheen, then introduces us to footage of Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation.[xi] During his January 1961 address, Eisenhower warned against the “…..acquisition of unwanted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” [xii] This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, and gives the audience a clue as to Stone’s idea of the real culprits behind the assassination. What then follows is a ‘quick fire’ montage of news footage, mostly black and white, of notable events of the 1960’s. Snatches of news broadcasts of Kennedy’s 1960 election victory, Martin Luther King, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and images of the Cold War are shown in rapid succession.[xiii] Interspersed with this is colour footage of private home movies of President Kennedy with his wife and children.[xiv]
The effect of this style of editing, which is apparent throughout the film, is to almost ambush the audience with information – (could a parallel perhaps be drawn with the ambush of President Kennedy in Dallas?) William D. Romanowski argues that JFK is similar to MTV in this respect, overwhelming the viewer with information “…….presented in the quick-editing style of MTV music videos.”[xv] Oliver Stone agrees with this assessment, stating that his imagery was like, “……..splinters to the brain……..We were assaulting the senses in a kind of new-wave technique.” [xvi]
Along with JFK’s unnerving editing style, Stone used different kinds of footage which he mixed and cut together to create differing impressions and moods. For example, in one of JFK’s opening scenes, interspersed with real colour footage of Kennedy arriving in Texas for his trip, is the black and white scene of witness Rose Cheramie warning that President Kennedy would be killed in Dallas.[xvii] Here, and throughout JFK, Stone often uses black and white film to denote past events or recollections by eyewitnesses.
The Zapruder film (the amateur film of the assassination taken by Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder), is also used in several different ways in JFK. In the film’s opening scenes, we see parts of the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s advance through Dealey Plaza sliced together with Stone’s re-enactment of the film.[xviii] Frames from other amateur films taken by various bystanders at different points along the parade route in downtown Dallas are also mixed in with the Zapruder film.[xix] However, crucially at this point, the film ends abruptly just before Kennedy is shot. Instead of seeing this occur on the screen, the audience only hears the sound of a single shot, then the camera cuts to a flock of pigeons flying away from the rooftop of a building, as if in response to the gunfire.[xx] We then see only the end portion of the Zapruder film, showing the President’s limousine speeding away out of the plaza.[xxi]
Stone’s withholding of the fatal shots reflects what happened in reality. As Marita Sturken notes, “The well-known opening sequence of JFK marks the importance of the Zapruder film by deferring it.” [xxii] Shortly after the assassination, the Zapruder film was bought by Life magazine and promptly locked away from public view for 12 years.[xxiii] It was first publicly broadcast nationwide in 1975, by television presenter Geraldo Rivera, on his talk show.[xxiv] The full version of the Zapruder film is only seen in JFK towards the film’s end, when it is shown by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), to a packed courtroom.[xxv] Here too, Oliver Stone reflects the reality of events, because the very first public screening of the film occurred in 1969 at the trial of Clay Shaw.[xxvi] Jim Garrison had had to subpoena the Time-Life corporation to obtain a copy.[xxvii]
In regards to the visual and narrative style of JFK, another important aspect of the film is the way in which the camera is employed in the telling of the story. Comparisons have been made between JFK and the Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon.[xxviii] Made in 1950, this Japanese film reconstructs a murder by, “………juxtaposing the different realities of the participants, thereby creating an ambiguity about what really happened, and leaving it up to the audience to draw its own conclusion.” [xxix] Oliver Stone also compared the film to Rashomon, stating that in JFK, “………the camera reflected the search for truth. Its various angles captured the simultaneous points of view from an array of witnesses…” [xxx] Stone said these memories represented, “fractals of consciousness……..shards of an event about which the whole truth is perhaps unknowable.” [xxxi]
JFK’s ‘Rashomon-like’ style is probably best exemplified in the film’s final courtroom scenes. Various witnesses at the trial testify about their connection to the assassination, each from their individual perspective, for example eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza, the medical doctors’ account of the president’s autopsy, and the accused, Clay Shaw.[xxxii] We see a reconstruction through their eyes either of what they individually witnessed, or of what Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), surmises, could have occurred on 22nd November, 1963. This is portrayed on screen through the use of flashbacks and recollections filmed in black and white. We see Garrison recount a theory about Lee Harvey Oswald’s possible movements that day [xxxiii] (impossible to fully know because he was killed before being brought to trial), and how a hit squad of assassins could have fired upon the President’s motorcade in Dealey Plaza.[xxxiv] Oliver Stone, through Garrison, posits that that the real culprits behind the assassination were a shadowy right wing ‘cabal’ with links to the CIA, angry Cuban exiles, and Eisenhower’s aforementioned ‘military-industrial complex’. [xxxv]
Throughout JFK, Olive Stone portrays Jim Garrison as the ‘lone hero’, fighting against corrupt government forces ranging against him. In constructing his own ‘counter-myth’ to the Warren Commission, Stone encompasses his own mythic themes.[xxxvi] Kennedy is portrayed as a mythical figure and the audience is exhorted by Garrison not to “…….forget your dying king.” [xxxvii] Indeed, Garrison describes Americans as being akin to Hamlet, as “….children of a slain father-leader, whose killers still possess the throne”. [xxxviii]
At the end of Garrison’s impassioned courtroom summation, near the film’s end, he breaks the fourth wall by appealing directly to the audience not to give up in the search for truth in the assassination. The camera zooms in to focus on Garrison, at an elevated upward angle.[xxxix] His first, and only words directly to the audience, are, “It’s up to you.” [xl] This is significant because he does not say ‘us’, but ‘you’, implying a certain responsibility, as individuals, to work out our own truth about these events.
In an essay entitled ‘From the Streets of Dallas: The Absent Centre of Oliver Stone’s JFK,’ Sandra Renner makes an interesting point about the meaning of the film’s title. She argues that in naming the film JFK, Stone was borrowing French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of identity. This concept maintains that, “words are never the things they name,” in this case ‘JFK’, but rather they are, “only arbitrarily associated with those things. Stone takes up this concept and from the very beginning challenges us with only three letters:
J F K.” [xli] Renner notes that the title has no punctuation marks, normally associated with abbreviations, and argues that, “ ‘JFK’ does not mean anything – nothing is itself by virtue of its being, unless it is set in opposition to something,” [xlii] as Derrida suggests. Therefore, by using these three, unpunctuated letters as his title (also a play on Kennedy’s nickname), Renner argues that Oliver Stone is challenging us to question the very nature of reality, particularly in regards to the Kennedy assassination. As Stone himself said in this regard, “What is reality? Question it. Think for yourself…….What is real?” [xliii] Whose version of history, is real – Oliver Stone’s account, or the officially endorsed Warren Report?
This question is of great significance when coming to examine the reaction that the film received upon its U.S. release in December 1991. JFK was widely attacked for promoting paranoid and implausible conspiracy theories as ‘truth’. [xliv] The majority of the mainstream news media were scathing of the film. Newsweek called it “twisted history,” [xlv] and George Lardner of the Washington Post, labelled JFK, “Dallas in Wonderland,” and accused Oliver Stone of “chasing fiction.” [xlvi] The Chicago Tribune accused Stone of attempting to “rewrite history.” [xlvii]
In Oliver Stone’s defence, he never claimed the film set out to tell ‘the whole truth’ merely to hint at theories that could be true, in an attempt to promote discussion and further investigation.[xlviii] Stone described his work as somewhere between, “entertainment and fact.” [xlix] In any event, the history of the Kennedy assassination has never been fully resolved or agreed upon and as such, Zachary Sklar (co-scriptwriter of JFK), argued that, “Since nobody agrees on anything, nobody is distorting history. The only official history is the Warren Commission report, and that, nobody believes.” [l]
Many of the negative reviews took issue with the film’s shooting technique, claiming that Stone was somehow misleading the audience with his use of real and reconstructed film. JFK’s rapid editing style was considered to be ‘aggressive’, and as Richard Grenier of the Times Literary Supplement wrote, Stone was guilty of “…….obfuscating and bludgeoning the viewer,” until he won.[li] As Hayden White notes however, Grenier objected to a style which, “…..apparently distorts even those events whose occurrence can be established on the basis of historical evidence.” [lii]
The assassination of President Kennedy was not only a major event in terms of world history, but was also a major news event, one in which the news reporters, especially those present at the scene of the crime in Dallas, found themselves centre stage. This may be one of the reasons why the mainstream news media has, on the whole, reacted to ‘pro-conspiracy’ views of the assassination in a hostile manner. Barbie Zelizer, a former reporter for Reuters and The Financial Times in London, argues that, “……the lack of closure surrounding the assassination…..gave rise to an ongoing contest for authorisation…….particularly the legitimation of American journalists as authoritative spokespersons……a status made possible by their routinized media access and institutional support.” [liii]
An example of this can be seen in the case of reporter Dan Rather. Rather (who had been present in Dallas at the time of the assassination), claimed that artists, “…have a different value system than journalists. Journalists try to stick to the facts and bear witness.” [liv] Rather seems to be implying that Stone, as a filmmaker, had no right to challenge his authority as a journalist, and that filmmakers are unqualified to give a truthful account of history.
Oliver Stone was a successful, filmmaker who was beginning to generate much interest amongst the American public about the assassination and to reopen old issues, some might even say ‘old wounds’. When he came along with a big budget film, and star studded cast of actors, he was in effect, undermining the authority of those journalists, by presenting an ‘alternative’ view to the ‘official’ government and mass media endorsed theory of the assassination. This was a significant challenge to those journalists, who had, since 1963, been portraying themselves as the sole purveyors of historical accuracy. As Zelizer states in this regard, the assassination became, “……..one stage on which journalists played out their legitimisation as professionals.” By presenting an alternative version of history, he was effectively undermining the authority of those journalists, historians and official government bodies that had, since November 22nd, 1963, been portraying themselves as the sole purveyors of historical accuracy.[lv] As Barbie Zelizer sums up, “Because the film was suggested as a way to open rather than close dialogue, offered a non-mainstream account of what had happened, and derived from a filmmaker, its very positioning as a potentially authoritative account challenged the authority of other re-tellers, regardless of the film’s message.” [lvi]
It could be argued that, ultimately, the main issue at the root of the controversy surrounding JFK was its capacity to, “…give narrative truth to potentially ‘false’ stories of history.” [lvii] Or in the case of JFK, perhaps not ‘false’ stories as much as alternative ones, interpretations that disagree with the ‘official’ history. While it seems true that Oliver Stone was attacked mainly because of his ‘pro-conspiracy views’, and the fact that he was seen to be undermining the authority of journalists, I believe that there is a deeper issue at play here. Perhaps the real reason JFK was uncomfortable viewing for many critics, is because the film raises disturbing questions about the American psyche, questions that some might think are best left alone. Marita Sturken argues that, “We cannot have, perhaps ultimately do not want to have, a definitive answer to why the assassination happened; the truth might be overwhelming.” [lviii]
The issues discussed in this essay demonstrate the problems filmmakers have in dealing with highly contentious episodes in history, because often they are not seen as qualified sources to interpret and understand history. Films such as JFK, are often perceived as a “…debased form of history,” [lix] but, whose history? Once again, we are left to decide whose version of history is real? History (read another way, ‘his-story’), can never be wholly objective, and therein the problem lies. Or to quote Napoleon Bonaparte, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” [lx]
[i] Roger Ebert, “Oliver Stone defends JFK against conspiracy of dunces,” Sun Times, December 22nd, 1991, Roger Ebert.com, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=1/19911222/PEOPLE/212010306.
[ii] Barbie Zelizer, Covering The Body: the Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 202.
[iii] Lance Morrow and Martha Smilgis, “Plunging into The Labyrinth,” TIME, December 23rd, 1991, TIME magazine.com, http://www. time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,974508,00.html.
[iv] William D. Romanowski, “Oliver Stone’s JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:2 (summer, 1993): 69.
[v] Lance Morrow and Martha Smilgis, “Plunging into The Labyrinth,” TIME, December 23rd, 1991, TIME magazine.com, http://www. time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,974508,00.html.
[vii] Albert Auster, “The Bacchae, the Missing Prince, and Oliver Stone’s Presidential Films,”
Journal of Popular Film and Television, 28:1 (spring, 2000): 32.
[viii] William Davy, Let Justice Be Done: New Light on the Jim Garrison Investigation (Virginia: Jordan Publishing, 1999), 119-167.
[ix] Ibid, 189.
[x] Ibid, 191-204.
[xi] JFK, scene 1: “Opening; Eisenhower’s farewell address, ” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991
Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xiii] JFK, scene 2: “Kennedy’s global challenge,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991 Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xv] William D. Romanowski, “Oliver Stone’s JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:2 (summer, 1993): 64.
[xvi] Ibid, 64.
[xvii] JFK, scene 3: “Rose Cheramie’s warning; November 22, 1963,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxii] Marita Sturken, “Re-enactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas,” History and Theory, 36:4 (December, 1997): 73.
[xxiii] Jim Marrs, Crossfire: the plot that killed Kennedy (London: Pocket Books, 1993), 68.
[xxiv] Ibid, 68.
[xxv] JFK, scene 33: “The Zapruder Film,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxvi] Jim Garrison, On the Trail of The Assassins (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1992), 239-240.
[xxvii] Ibid, 239.
[xxviii] Rashomon, DVD, directed by Akira Kurosawa (1950; Daiei: Optimum Home Entertainment, 2008).
[xxix] William D. Romanowski, “Oliver Stone’s JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:2 (summer, 1993): 65.
[xxx] Ibid, 65.
[xxxi] Ibid, 65.
[xxxii] JFK, scene 32: “The trial begins,” and scenes 35 to 38, DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxxiii] JFK, scene 37: “Amid the pandemonium; Oswald’s actions,” and scene 38: “The Shooting of Officer Tippit; Oswald arrested and slain,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxxiv] JFK, scene 36: “Speculating about the killers,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxxv] JFK, scene 39: “The ghost of John F. Kennedy,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxxvi] Albert Auster, “The Bacchae, the Missing Prince, and Oliver Stone’s Presidential Films,”
Journal of Popular Film and Television, 28:1 (spring, 2000): 34.
[xxxvii] Ibid, 34.
[xxxviii] JFK, scene 39: “The ghost of John F. Kennedy,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xxxix] Sandra Renner, “From the Streets of Dallas: The Absent Centre of Oliver Stone’s JFK,” http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/ang_new/webprojects_erg/Roadcult/jfk/dallasstreets.htm.
[xl] JFK, scene 39: “The ghost of John F. Kennedy,” DVD, directed by Oliver Stone (1991; Warner Bros: Warner Home Video, 1999).
[xli] Sandra Renner, “From the Streets of Dallas: The Absent Centre of Oliver Stone’s JFK,” http://www.univie.ac.at/Anglistik/ang_new/webprojects_erg/Roadcult/jfk/dallasstreets.htm.
[xliv] Marita Sturken, “Re-enactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas.” History and Theory, 36:4 (December, 1997): 76.
[xlv] Barbie Zelizer, Covering The Body: the Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 203.
[xlvi] Ibid, 202.
[xlvii] Ibid, 202.
[xlviii] Richard Corliss, and Patrick E. Cole, “Oliver Stone: Who Killed J.F.K.?” TIME, December 23rd, 1991, TIME magazine.com, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,974523,00.html.
[xlix] Marita Sturken, “Re-enactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas,” History and Theory, 36:4 (December, 1997): 71.
[l] William D. Romanowski, “Oliver Stone’s JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:2 (summer, 1993): 64.
[li] Hayden White, “The Modernist Event,” in The Persistence of History: cinema, television and the modern event, ed. Vivian Sobchack (London: Routledge, 1996), 19.
[lii] Ibid, 19.
[liii] Barbie Zelizer, Covering The Body: the Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 201-202.
[liv] Ibid, 207.
[lv] Ibid, 206.
[lvi] Ibid, 205-206.
[lvii] Marita Sturken, “Re-enactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas,” History and Theory, 36:4 (December, 1997): 71.
[lviii] Ibid, 72.
[lix] Ibid, 71.
[lx] World of Quotes
Auster, Albert. “The Bacchae, the Missing Prince, and Oliver Stone’s Presidential Films.”
Journal of Popular Film and Television, 28:1 (spring, 2000): 30-35.
Corliss, Richard and Patrick E. Cole. “Oliver Stone: Who Killed J.F.K.?” TIME. December 23rd, 1991. TIME magazine.com.
(Accessed March 5th, 2010).
Davy, William. Let Justice Be Done: New Light on the Jim Garrison Investigation. Virginia: Jordan Publishing, 1999.
Ebert, Roger. “Oliver Stone defends JFK against conspiracy of dunces.” Sun Times. December 22nd, 1991. Roger Ebert.com.
(Accessed April 11th, 2010).
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1992.
Marrs, Jim. Crossfire: the plot that killed Kennedy. London: Pocket Books, 1993.
Morrow, Lance and Martha Smilgis. “Plunging into The Labyrinth.” TIME. December 23rd, 1991. TIME magazine.com.
(Accessed March 5th, 2010).
Renner, Sandra. “From the Streets of Dallas: The Absent Centre of Oliver Stone’s JFK.”
(Accessed April 19th, 2010).
Romanowski, William D. “Oliver Stone’s JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21:2 (summer, 1993): 63-71.
Sturken, Marita. “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas.” History and Theory, 36:4 (December, 1997): 64-79.
White, Hayden. “The Modernist Event.” In The Persistence of History: cinema, television and the modern event, edited by Vivian Sobchack, 17-38. London: Routledge, 1996.
World of Quotes website. http://www.worldofquotes.com/topic/History/4/index.htm.
Zelizer, Barbie. Covering The Body: the Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of Collective Memory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
JFK. DVD. Directed by Oliver Stone. 1991; Warner Bros.: Warner Home Video, 1999.
Rashomon. DVD. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. 1950; Daiei: Optimum Home Entertainment, 2008).