Twenty years ago, an unreleased film was embroiled in a controversy that still resonates. The film in question – Oliver Stone’s JKF – was not even finished, let alone screened, before a tirade of attacks began. The Washington Post condemned JFK based entirely on the first draft of the screenplay. The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times did much the same, as though Stone’s movie would be nothing but a three-hour mendacity feast destined to rock the status quo. Veteran critic Pat Dowell was one of the few who imagined the forthcoming film in a favourable light, only her article was rejected by The Washingtonian because the editor refused to print a positive review for a film he felt was “preposterous”. Remember this was a film that had yet to be seen by anyone other than Stone’s cast and crew. So what was it about JKF – a film that would be nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture – that so unnerved the mainstream media?
Before I go any further, I feel obliged to point out that I am not a ‘conspiracy theorist’. So, for the record, I do not believe the Apollo moon landings were staged in Hollywood, nor do I believe that Princess Diana was killed on the orders of the Duke of Edinburgh, or that Elvis works in my local supermarket. I’m pretty sure Osama bin Laden is dead and if people talk in hushed tones about reptiles secretly controlling the planet I assume they mean politicians or Simon Cowell rather than lizards dressed as the Queen or various heads of state. This, however, is a necessary preamble for anyone who believes that John F. Kennedy was assassinated as part of a conspiracy rather than the official theory that one man, Lee Harvey Oswald, conducted the whole operation himself. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is now a derogatory phrase, whereas twenty years ago it was often a byword for being logical and inquisitive. This change is a corollary of Stone’s film, as despite its popularity with the public, and eventually the media, a backlash was inevitable, and it is a counterattack that has tried, desperately at times, to prove that Oswald did, after all, manage the most incredible shooting feat in history.
Stone’s hypothesis on the Kennedy assassination was not the first challenge to the findings of the 1964 Warren Commission Report, the deeply flawed government investigation conducted after the accused man, Oswald, was conveniently slain (or let’s face it, silenced) just twenty-four hours after Kennedy’s death in November 1963. JFK is even based on two books that castigate the Warren Report, and with documentaries aired in the years preceding the release of JFK, the film entered a cultural field that would soon become a maelstrom. But it was a combination of cinema, subsequent Oscar nominations, and a cast that included Kevin Costner, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, and Hollywood royalty such as Jack Lemmon and Donald Sutherland, that made the key difference, as suddenly the belief that Kennedy had been killed as part of a conspiracy was being endorsed by the famous, and to some extent, the establishment too. The concept was potentially embarrassing to America, hence a tentative or prejudiced media that shied away from the idea that JFK had been murdered by the CIA, and the plot covered up by forces that included Kennedy’s replacement, Lyndon Johnson.
Despite its faults, many of which Stone acknowledges, JFK remains a far more credible theory of events than the much derided and frankly comical Warren Report, which includes the absurd ‘magic bullet theory’ that tries to sell the notion of Oswald being able to fire three shots in six seconds using a bolt action rifle with a defective scope, with one shot missing the motorcade, another shot causing Kennedy’s devastating head wound, and the other bullet – the magic one – causing seven wounds, breaking five bones, and then being found in almost pristine condition on a hospital stretcher a few hours later. If you believe that, you’re probably the kind of person who thinks Elvis really does work at my local supermarket or that flying saucers make frequent pit-stops in the desert. As Woody Allen once quipped: ‘Sorry I’m late on stage but I’ve been working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Report’. After him, Bill Hicks would joke about the accuracy of the ‘sniper’s perch’ in the Assassination Museum, Dallas, where Oswald is alleged to have fired the shots. As Hicks said of the ‘sniper’s perch’, it is arranged with painstaking accuracy, including the fact that Oswald’s not there.
But please don’t take my Bill or Woody’s word for it. On the fortieth anniversary of the assassination an ABC News poll concluded that a staggering 83% of Americans did not believe that Oswald acted alone, if at all. He was, just as he claimed to be, the perfect “patsy”; an ex-Marine who defected to Russia, proclaimed himself to be a Marxist-Leninist, and when allowed back to the US (with notable ease) supported left wing causes in aid of Cuba. If you cherry-pick the facts, Oswald looks guilty of anything. If you look at the picture in its entirety, he was clearly framed. Either way, twenty years later, Stone’s “counter-myth” continues to be the nearest truth we may ever know.