Once Again- Who Killed John F. Kennedy?-Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991)-A Film Review…and more
JFK, starring Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Sissy Spacek as Garrision's greatly put upon wife, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, directed by Oliver Stone, 1991
By Political Commentator Frank Jackman
[Usually Sam Lowell writes the movie reviews for this site but Frank Jackman who is a little older than Sam and had not only been alive to witness the horrible events of November, 1963 but moreover as a teenager had scoured his North Adamsville neighborhood on behalf of one of his own, one of the Irish, felt a need to put his two cents worth in after viewing the film under review. Sam will probably once he actually looks at the film under the prodding of Frank, write his own take on the question. Peter Paul Markin]
At one time the question of who killed President John F. Kennedy on that bad November day in 1963 was something of a cottage industry among those who did not buy into the admittedly rushed conclusions of the Warren Commission that was ordered to come to some conclusions in the wake of many unanswered questions by his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in order to assuage the shell-shocked American people. In some circles, circles like that around New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison whose investigation of the matter is the subject of Oliver Stone’s take on the subject in his award-winning JFK, that report only added fuel to the fire of those nagging unanswered questions. Especially by those who could not believe on the public facts of the case that a lone gunman, something of a loser and misbegotten, Lee Harvey Oswald could have done the deed alone. And while that cottage industry has faded somewhat as those who were avidly pursuing their theories have passed on or nothing has come up since then to finally allow them to find their “smoking gun” there will always been a place for such speculation as long as some people like to cling to conspiracy theories of history-or politics.
Of course everybody in America in those days, like in earlier times Pearl Harbor and later times 9/11, knew exactly where they were when they heard the news of the assassination of JFK. I had been in a classroom at North Adamsville High when the headmaster came on the P.A. system to tell us the shocking news that one of our own, our poster boy Irishman even if he was chandelier, had been killed down in heathen redneck Dallas. I took it personally pretty hard for a while but I moved on between unattached girls, college, military service, more girls, women, who I wound marrying and having children with and trying to keep body and soul together for a while. Then one day some years after 1991 the year Stone’s film came out I was at a library and noticed a DVD on display with the title The Men Who Killed Kennedy from 1988. The title implying, as is usual in this case, more than one killer alone perked my latent interest since although I was aware of the various theories afloat, most notably Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement which was the “godfather” of the genre I still figured that the nefarious Oswald did the deed on his own hook. I grabbed that DVD with both hands and subsequently read or viewed most of the material in English on the subject. That was the time when I initially looked at Stone’s film to see where he was going with his theory honing in especially on Garrison’s work which did actually bring somebody, Clay Shaw, if unsuccessfully, before a court.
I had written a short review of that original film The Men Who Killed Kennedy some of which I have reread after recently re-watching JFK, no mean task at three and a half hours, and can stand for my take on Stone’s take on the Garrison investigation. Below are some points the two films have in common notwithstanding that Stone, as on other occasions, has used a great deal of cinematic license to produce a commercial film.
“Those of us who are interested in history often come across situations where we have to defend the notion that there are conspiracies in history but not all history is a conspiracy. In modern times, with the earlier example of Pearl Harbor and the possible future exception of 9/11, the ‘mystery’ of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 has played into the hands of those who see history merely as a conspiracy. I have read more than my fair share of books on the subject, most recently the late Norman Mailer’s book on Oswald, and here I review a documentary, The Men Who Killed Kennedy from 1988 that, in essence, merely adds fuel to the fire of that controversy. At this remove however I think it is clear that the conspiracy- mongers have had their day on the subject and have come up short. Not through lack of trying, though. (Of course their rejoinder courtesy of the late newsman Daniel Schorr is that the conspiracy was so well planned that even fifty plus years later it still holds water-everybody kept quiet.)
“Given my leftward political trajectory since the time of the assassination one would think that I would be amenable to some theory of high-level governmental, corporate or criminal conspiracy. As a teenager I campaigned for Kennedy in 1960. I was shocked and dismayed by his murder, throwing away a political notebook that I kept and swearing off politics forever. That resolve obviously did not last long. I am, moreover, more than willing to believe that governmental officials, corporate officers and criminal masterminds are willing to do anything to keep their positions of power. I could especially believe the theory that then Vice-President Johnson and his minions had a hand in the plot. Hell given Johnson’s nasty political sense in his rise to national prominence he could have done the whole deal. However, it just does not wash here. Part of the problem is there are just too many theories to fit the facts.
“The real problem with the various conspiracy theories is that they ask us to suspend disbelieve for their theories even greater than the botched up job that the Warren Commission provided. These theories inevitably work between the lines of that report. I think the classic example in this documentary, that can stand for my opinion in general, is when one of the conspiracy theorists very calmly states his propositions about how the Warren Report botched things and then, as calmly cites four possible groups of conspirators who could have done the deed, anti-Castro Cubans, disgruntled CIA rogue elements, disgruntled militarists and Mafia-types. Well that narrows the field considerably, doesn’t it? Stone’s film falls into that same crack since in the course of three and one half hours every theory that I am aware of even to the various characters the theories relied on got a airing.
“But here is the kicker- I am convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald was capable of doing the murder by himself, that he did it and that he stands before history as having done it. Grand conspiracy theories that deny the role of the individual in history do so in this case for no apparent reason. That ‘theory’ may not be sexy enough for some but Oswald should have his fifteen minutes of infamy. Unless someone produces the ‘smoking gun’ missing in all other theories-in short, a real named person (or persons) who did the deed let us leave it at that. Garrison tried and failed with the possible CIA connection through the trial of Clay Shaw who actually was, as the end notes point out was working for the CIA in 1963-although that does not mean he was a conspirator-post facto. A very interesting and well-produced film though.