Oliver Stone’s JFK is one of my favorite films. Period. Each time I watch it -- and I’ve done so on countless occasions since its 1991 release -- it not only “holds up,” it improves with age. Repeated viewings never fail to deliver fresh insights and new emotional jolts.
Indeed, I place it in a pantheon with THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II, with the best of Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks and John Ford. It’s a truly great American movie. And when I chatted with Stone about it recently, he betrayed no false modesty on the subject. “JFK was staggeringly complex and beautiful," he said. "It was perhaps my greatest film in terms of ambition and everything coming together at one time. But it was so drenched in controversy there was no way we could come out in the end as the Best Picture.”
Nonetheless, it did receive eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and won the trophy for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. To be sure, the cutting, by Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia and their associates, Hank Corwin and Julie Munro, is awe-inspiring. They mix black and white and color film, shot in 8mm., 16mm. and 35mm. formats, in ways that are both meaningful and visually arresting; they blend documentary, re-enacted and original dramatic footage seamlessly; and they tell the complex story of Oswald, of the labyrinthine plot to kill Kennedy, of the assassination itself and of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s “hero’s journey” -- all in a 200 minute rollercoaster ride that never stalls or lags.
This was accomplished “under the gun,” Oliver Stone told me. “But the editors and I were actually helped by the rush to make a Christmas release date, because there wasn’t enough time in the schedule to preview the film – to have test screenings. One executive at Warner Brothers wanted a preview in Pasadena and I refused to go along with that. I said, ‘this movie’s very complicated and long. Once you get into the preview process - with questionnaires and focus groups - and audience members tell you they didn’t understand this or that, we’ll start pulling the film apart and we’ll miss our release date.’ Terry Semel and Bob Daly (respectively, CEO and President of the studio) supported me, so we were able to keep JFK intact.”
Not having to preview the film must have delighted its editing crew. Test screenings are effective tools for marketing experts and even filmmakers working on more conventional fare. But they can be destructive to a picture as groundbreaking as JFK, especially if its post-production period is truncated.
Yet even with an accelerated schedule, Oliver Stone and his editors were able to do extremely creative work. “For instance,” the director told me, “in the first draft, I had X, Donald Sutherland’s character, come back at the end of the movie in a coda, which didn’t work. But some of the coda’s dialogue was important, and I wanted to incorporate it into an earlier scene with Sutherland and Kevin Costner. This seemed impossible, because the actors’ wore different costumes in the two scenes. But we figured out a way to do it. Playing Sutherland's dialogue from the end bit on his back or over black and white flashbacks and documentary footage, we were able to collapse the two scenes into one. I got to use all the material I wanted but didn’t have to end the movie with Mr. X.”
This anecdote is a great example of what editing aficionados mean when they say films are “made in the cutting room.” But even without the filmmaking virtuosity shown by Oliver Stone and his collaborators, JFK would be a magnet for movie buffs. Its centerpiece, you see, is a strip of 8mm. film – an amateur home movie of the killing -- shot by Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder.
Before continuing I should say that, like the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations (1976-1978) -- which had more time and greater resources than the Warren Commission -- I believe “President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy.” According to a recent Associated Press poll, so do most Americans. I mention these things because, weirdly, as we approach November 22nd, mainstream media are running stories averring that a crazed Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, gunned Kennedy down. This take on the assassination was thoroughly discredited decades ago.
One of the reasons it’s impossible to believe the “lone nut theory” is the above-mentioned Zapruder film. “Until Jim Garrison showed it during Clay Shaw’s trial for conspiracy to murder Kennedy, five years after the Warren Commission issued its report, the film lay unseen in a vault at the Time-Life building in New York,” Oliver Stone recalled. “Only still frames, printed out of order, had been shown before that.”
The director features Zapruder's 26-second home movie during JFK’s riveting third act courtroom sequence. A screen is set up. Blinds are closed. A vintage projector runs, and a shaky but clear, uncut visual record of the killing makes its indelible impression.
“A picture speaks a thousand words, doesn’t it?” Garrison asks a stunned jury. “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 8 mm. home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder while standing near the grassy knoll. And two, the third wounded man, James Taig, who was nicked by a fragment while standing near the triple underpass. The time frame, 5.6 seconds, established by the Zapruder film left no possibility of a fourth shot. So the shot or fragment that left a superficial wound on Taig’s cheek had to come from one of the three bullets fired from the sixth floor of the book depository. Which leaves just two bullets. And we know one of them was the fatal headshot that killed Kennedy. So now a single bullet remains. A single bullet, then, has to account for the remaining seven wounds in Connelly and Kennedy. But rather than admit to a conspiracy or investigate further, the Warren Commission chose to endorse… one of the grossest lies ever perpetrated on the American public. We’ve come to know it as the ‘magic bullet theory.’”
What’s clear in the Zapruder film is that two seconds elapse between the moment Kennedy is shot in the throat and the moment Connelly, sitting directly in front of him, is hit. Yet the Warren Commission says the same bullet struck both men. Common sense and my experience as a film editor make this assertion ridiculous.
Thirty-five millimeter film runs at 24 frames per second, so I’m used to adjusting cuts by twenty-fourths of a second. Assembling a close-range shooting scene, I might leave a frame or two –- that is, up to a twelfth of a second -- between a muzzle flash and a bullet’s impact. I’ve even left an eighth of a second to enhance and stylize the drama of particularly violent gunplay. But more than an eighth of a second (three frames) between discharge and impact at close-range begins to look silly.
Again, Zapruder’s home movie shows Connelly hit almost two seconds --forty-eight frames! -- after Kennedy reacts to a throat wound. A projectile moving that slowly wouldn’t even have pierced Connelly’s skin. But somehow when Oliver Stone made JFK in 1991, many in the mainstream media still considered the Warren Commission a sacred cow.
Fortunately, Warner Brothers supported the picture. “They wanted it badly, because they were hungry to do business with me,” Stone recalled. “I had won Best Director Oscars for PLATOON and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. And they loved WALL STREET. So I took JFK to them. I bought Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, and I told the studio, ‘I own the rights to these books and I’d like to make this movie.’ They were eager to do it.”
But because of the film’s controversial nature, Stone needed a big star to play Jim Garrison. “To make the whole thing work,” he recalled, “I had to get Kevin Costner. It was a very expensive movie, and I needed a star of his magnitude. So I flew to London, where he was making ROBIN HOOD. And it proved to be a bit of a struggle. I mean, why should he take the risk at that point? You have to buy into it. Jack Lemon believed in the story. All of the other actors did, to some degree. But Kevin is conservative. Eventually, his wife, Cindy, and his agent, Mike Ovitz, convinced him to do it. Before I got Kevin, who was not only a big star but also a big Warner’s star, I couldn’t get the money to make JFK. After he signed on, I could cast anyone.”
And one of the most remarkable things about JFK – a movie with many remarkable aspects – is its stellar cast: Costner, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Cissy Spacek, and Gary Oldman, along with an elite group of character actors, including Laurie Metcalf, Brian Doyle-Murray, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Bob Gunton, John Laroquette, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sally Kirkland, J.J. Johnston, Ron Rifkin, Lolita Dovidavitch, Tony Plana and Frank Whaley.
If you hired any three of these giants, you’d have a solid ensemble. But Oliver Stone felt he needed more than that. “I wanted big stars,” he said, “because there was a lot of stuff in the script that was necessary but dull and dry. I remember thinking at the time that I needed “road maps.” When you go through all the literature on the assassination, which I did with Jane Rusconi – we did a lot of research – it can be very arid: Who’s who, who’s a doctor and who was in this apartment, when did that happen… So I wanted some road maps. I thought you needed a Jack Martin who would stand out. You needed a David Ferrie, a Fletcher Prouty, a Lee Oswald, certainly… But they also had to be believable and memorable faces. So I went to actors like Jack Lemon (who played Martin) and Ed Asner (who played Guy Bannister). What a great combo! They fit together perfectly.
“I went to Brando for Sutherland’s role – the Fletcher Prouty character - but I think that was a mistake because he would have made that dialogue fifteen times longer. The reason, again, was financing. Glen Ford also turned me down for that role. But I was lucky to get Sutherland because he’s a fast actor. And he was great.
“Everyone else was a first choice, pretty much. Kevin Bacon… I knew Perry Russo, the male prostitute he plays, and guys like him, and Kevin just felt to me like a New Orleans street hustler. Joe Pesci… I loved him in RAGING BULL, and he was great as David Ferrie. Funny, too!
“I also wanted Cissy Spacek very much. Liz Garrison was the mother of six children and was raised in the Southern tradition. So you don’t cast some urbane Hollywood-type who’s going to give backtalk to Jim. Cissy brought something perfectly Southern and old fashioned to the part.
“And getting Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw was a great coup. He strikes you as a strong macho guy. But he played Shaw, who was part of an early sixties gay New Orleans underground, as elegant and effete. Tommy was pitch perfect, and he got an Academy Award nomination.”
Also nominated was composer John Williams, for Best Original Score. Maestro Williams’ approach to JFK’s music was unusual. “He wrote his initial theme after reading the script, which he loved, before principal photography,” Stone told me. “He created something in his head – without picture – that I think was very appropriate. Later, he did write incidental music to picture. But we had this great piece to edit with right away. And it’s beautiful. He doesn’t play it much, but he let us use a piece of it in UNTOLD HISTORY. The music is so evocative and memorable, with marshal drums and Tim Morrison’s trumpet solo; it’s almost a love theme. John loved Kennedy.”
Indeed, the composition does convey love for the young president, along with a sense of loss and mourning. It is thus a perfect companion to JFK’s look, created by Bob Richardson. (Richardson won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.) His palette, early in the film, consists of both black and white and soft, muted colors. It reflects the innocence of “Camelot” and Jim Garrison’s love of Kennedy, as well as his naive acceptance of the Warren Commission report.
“Then,” Oliver Stone recalled, “the movie jumps ahead three years to an eye-opening… actually life-changing conversation between Garrison and Senator Long (Walter Matthau), and it bursts into warm, deeply saturated color. The D.A.’s monochromatic view of the world is left behind with the simplicity and mass credulity of the early sixties.
“The scene with Matthau is brief but pointed,” the director continued. “Afterwards, Garrison goes home, as in his book, and begins to read the Warren Report. The whole question of who Lee Oswald is starts to engage him. And he gets into it. He remembers David Ferrie’s bizarre behavior, years earlier, two days after the assassination. One thing leads to another and he re-opens the investigation. And before you know it, he’s involved up to his eyeballs in the hottest case in American history.” The vibrancy of JFK’s color scheme at this point reflects Garrison’s fervor.
The film’s look is entwined with the emotion of each story point, each thematic element. “A lot of it came from me arguing things back and forth with Bob,” Stone recalled. But it was also influenced by what the director was watching when during production. “At that point in my life I was shooting long, moving masters as much as possible,” he said. “I was very influenced by Bertolucci. Every time I made a movie in those days I looked at 1900 over and over because I think it’s one of the most beautifully shot films. And I’d talk about it with Bob Richardson. Bertolucci was my hero. Not just 1900, but THE CONFORMIST, too. There are some incredibly complex shots in both pictures, really well thought out. And the shooting on JFK became very complex, too.”
The editing was also quite intricate, and sometimes required cutting into these elaborate masters at unexpected points. “When you’re ‘through the looking glass’ on this kind of movie,” Stone reflected, “you kind of make up your own rules for condensing time or making connections. I could just cut anywhere I wanted.
“But a lot of interweaving – a lot of unusual cutting—was written into early drafts of the script. I deleted some of it because I wasn’t sure Warner Brothers would get it. Then, during post-production, we restored it… restored that kind of editorial boldness.’”
What was always in the screenplay, from first draft to shooting script to final cut, was the story of Jim Garrison’s journey -- of his transformation from a Capra-esque World War II veteran who believed in the integrity of his government to a tragic hero who is convinced there may be a “secret government” and a figurehead president. This journey toward shocking revelation, like JFK's look, was inspired by what Oliver Stone was watching. “The movie was structured like Constantin Costa-Gavras’ Z,” he said. “In Z, the crime is presented at the very beginning. Then you peel the onion and you see it again and again until you understand what really happened. There’s a murder in the square, then you start to figure out who did it and why, and how that’s covered up.
“My film also opens with the crime. There’s a warning from a strange woman on a highway, then shots are fired, pigeons fly off the book depository roof, Cronkite reads a bulletin. A ‘normal man’ hears about it. He’s the District Attorney of New Orleans, and he’s shocked; he liked Kennedy. All he knows is what was known at the time. Dallas. Three shots. A sinister, even cretinous lone assassin.” So at the outset, Garrison is like us. We know what CBS, NBC and ABC told us.
And the role of television in JFK is remarkable. Immediately after the shooting, CBS interrupts “As the World Turns” with the announcement that “In Dallas, 3 shots were fired…” The D.A. and his assistant leave their office because “Napoleon’s has a TV set,” from which they learn that the president has died. Mourners are shown on another "idiot box" in another bar, and are derided by Guy Bannister. Back to Napoleon’s, where Oswald’s arrest is shown. Then to the television in Garrison’s living room, from which he and his wife learn more about Oswald and hear him say he was “just a patsy.” Then Garrison and his staff watch Jack Ruby murder Oswald on the TV set in his office. And when FBI spokesmen announce they’ve found no evidence that David Ferrie was involved in the killing, we see some of their press conference on a security guard’s "boob tube." But as Garrison finally begins to study the evidence, his connection to the facts ceases to be mediated by television. Only the D.A.’s young daughter continues to watch, riveted to a cartoon in what Oliver Stone calls his, “POLTERGEIST shot.” TV becomes kids’ stuff, banal and foolish.
Such rich and subtle directorial touches bring this profound and complex script to life! And all the while, Oliver Stone makes us identify with his hero. Even JFK's opening montage -- starting with Eisenhower's address about a new, little-known and frighteningly powerful “military industrial complex,” continuing with a barrage of images that highlight covert operations during the cold war and ending in Dealy Plaza -- comes at us so rapidly and with such force that we feel unable to process it all, just as Garrison must have felt in the early sixties.
The New Orleans D.A. remains somnolent and overwhelmed until he sets out on a “hero’s journey.” Like many men of his generation, he’s a World War II vet, a fighter against fascism. It’s hard for him to adjust to the tedium of 1950’s family life. He keeps a Nazi helmet, a souvenir of the liberation of Dachau, on his office desk, and he continues to serve in a U.S. Army Air Force Reserve unit. Then he’s called.
The facts call him. Nothing in Oswald’s history suggests “lone nut.” Medical and photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony indicate multiple shooters, some of them in front of the president. Allen Dulles, who Kennedy fired and humiliated after the Bay of Pigs, serves as a Warren Commissioner. The Commission’s 26 volumes, which Garrison reads, have no index!
He must get to the bottom of this. Even as his good name is besmirched and his family is torn asunder, he must. The quest takes him to strange places: Angola Penitentiary, New Orleans’ homosexual underground, the world of covert operations. “And that’s Garrison’s problem,” Oliver Stone observed. "How do you explain the world of covert op’s to Americans in 1969? Today, even after the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran/Contra and so on, that's still hard to pull off.”
So, ultimately, Jim Garrison becomes a tragic hero. His flaw is his compulsion to reveal the truth even at the expense of effective prosecution. In Stone’s brilliant summation scene – a highpoint of Kevin Costner’s career – Garrison begins to win the jury and the entire courtroom over. The Zapruder film has proven there had to be, “a fourth shot, and a second shooter. And if there was a second rifleman,” Garrison says, “then, by definition, there had to be a conspiracy.” A nervous Clay Shaw fidgets with his cigarette holder. Liz Garrison smiles. Her husband elaborates. The prickly judge overrules a defense objection. A former assistant D.A. nods at his boss, encouraged. Shaw sinks in his chair, rubbing his temple. John Williams’ score and Wylie Stateman’s powerful sound design hint at victory.
And Garrison goes on, debunking the lone nut scenario. He asks if the American people really believe that John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all slain by crazed, isolated individuals who had no motive? Music fades. We hear ceiling fans. And murmurs. The word “fascism” is uttered. And finally Garrison gets to his point: “President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned in advance at the highest levels of our government and it was carried out by fanatical and disciplined Cold Warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s Covert Operation apparatus.”
The judge rolls his eyes. Liz frets. “It was a public execution,” Garrison concludes. “And it was covered up by like like-minded individuals in the Dallas Police Department, the Secret Service, the FBI and the White House, all the way up to and including J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, who I consider accomplices after the fact.” Onlookers are incredulous. Slowly, smugly, Shaw smiles. He knows that Garrison’s gone too far and that he’s off the hook. The jury delivers its verdict: not guilty.
Outside the courtroom a juror speaks to the press. “We believe there was a conspiracy,” he says, “but whether Clay Shaw was a part of it is another kettle of fish.” Asked if the not-guilty verdict vindicates the Warren Commission Report, Garrison responds, “All I think it proves is that you cannot run an investigation in the light of day even questioning the intelligence operations of the United States government.”
As whistleblowers remain under attack, with Chelsea Manning behind bars and Edward Snowden in exile, Garrison's comment continues to resonate.
At the outset of my interview with Oliver Stone, I asked why his film, JFK, retains a powerful immediacy 22 years after its release. He said, “Well, there’s John Kennedy himself, and his reputation. And there’s the film.” Yes. There’s the film. The prescient, poetic, profound and deeply moving film.