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The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.

óRigger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.

óRita Kempley, Washington Post

There Are Four Lights

The climax of Chain of Command, arguably one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, features a starving and dehydrated Captain Jean-Luc Picard ranting at his Cardassian tormentor, played to disquieting perfection by the wonderful David Warner. ďThere... are... FOUR... LIGHTS!!Ē Picard shrieks, the otherwise polished legendary Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart losing all dignity and composure as his Captain Picard shrugs off assistance from Cardassian guards and stumbles out of the torture chamber. The point of the exercise had been for Gul Madred to break Picardís will through various renditions techniques until Picard would begin to deny what his eyes plainly see--the four lights above Madredís desk. Madred repeatedly insisted there were five lights. Torture victims, desperate to end their suffering, would agree to say whatever _ wanted to hear, but that was not enough. Madred insisted his victims not only say there were five lights, but believe it to be true.

Convincing people to ignore what their lying eyes tell them is a time-honored tradition likely as old as mankind itself. Frame 312 of Abraham Zapruderís crude 8 mm film shows the head of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy move slightly forward, which has been used to argue that the fatal head shot was fired from above and behind the president. But frame 312 is also where Secret Service Agent William Greer hit the brakes, bringing the presidentís car to nearly a complete stop, likely reacting to the sound of gunfire and, per many conspiracists, a bullet hitting the windshield above the rear-view mirror. When Robert Groden, author of The Killing of a President, asked for an explanation, the FBI responded that what Groden thought was a bullet hole ďoccurred prior to Dallas.Ē A researcher later found a Ford Motor employee who had helped build a new windshield for the car, who said he and his co-workers had been told to destroy the old windshield, which had a bullet hole from the front. [Wikipedia]

Frame 313 unquestionably portrays the president being struck in the face by a shot fired from a high-velocity rifle (as opposed to the medium-velocity Oswald weapon) unquestionably fired from the front and right of the presidentís motorcade. Eyes are undoubtedly rolling even as my words are being read, but itís true. If that image, frozen in time, were of any other person, during any other incident or attack, a first glance at the image of a man being struck on the right side of his face, his body jerking backward, his head snapping to his left, the interpretation of that image would, 10 out of 10 times, be that this person was shot from the front.

As much fun as we like to have with Oliver Stone, in the history of gunshot wounds, it is only and singly this image of U.S. President John F. Kennedy that we insist depicts a man being shot from behind and from a high angle, even when the back of the presidentís head explodes and skull pieces fly out toward the rear at a straight, flat trajectory. It is the people who stubbornly refuse to agree this image depicts a rear, high shot who are branded nuts. There are five lights.

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded there were four shots, one coming from the direction of the grassy knoll.

Not Guilty: New Orleans Distrct Attorney Jim Garrison (Costner)'s riveting
(and largely fictionalized) closing argument.

An Alarming Lack Of Objectivity

During this 50th commemoration of the presidentís assassination it deeply disturbed me to have seen, repeatedly, in mainstream and cable news, a dismissive hand-wave to conspiracy theories. Oswald Did It, was the refrain across competing news sources and networks. Conspiracy Buffs Wear Tin Foil Hats. And, you know, maybe they do. What disturbed me, however, is it is certainly not a journalistís duty to tell me what to believe. A journalistís duty is to report facts and treat me like an adult capable of reaching my own conclusions. But headline after headline, over the course of this anniversary, reinforced the Oswald legend, telling gullible Americans what to think--a job best lefty to the tabloids.e critical X-Rays and other evidence and documents related to the assassination is the governmentís refusal to say, in even oblique terms, why. JFK conspiracy theories are, in fact, fueled by our own government, by the lack of why. ďNational Security,Ē isnít a reason. If there were even the slimmest hint of why these documents are still, 50 years later, not being made public, Iíd happily pack up my cynicism and be on my way.

Instead, we get more stonewalling, which only keeps the conspiracy bandwagon rolling. The chief argument against conspiracy is the oft-repeated question, ďHow do you manage to keep so big a secret among so many individuals for so long?Ē The consistent answer to that question, thanks to the governmentís stonewalling, is obvious: ďNational Security.Ē You convince people the nation would be harmed if the truth came out, which may well have been true in 1963 but is hardly true now. If the government revealed, for instance, that Castro was behind it all, does anybody seriously believe the U.S. would now invade Cuba? And, if the U.S. invaded Cuba now, does anyone seriously still believe Russia would start World War III over it?

The whole notion is entirely foolish. But, in the 1960ís, getting people to shut up on the grounds of national security was a fairly simple thing to orchestrate. ďWe canít let the truth come out because, if it does, thereíll be a nuclear war.Ē So they label the e tracheotomy site on the presidentís neck as an exit wound, pull a swapitty-doo with the body on its way to Bethesda so the missing scalp and hair have largely been replaced and the massive exit wound on the back of the presidentís head now appears to be a rather intact wound of entry. And so on. And everybody destroys their notes and keeps their mouths shut. Why? Because they are not cops or reporters, they are military men and women under orders and the fate of the nation, if not the world, is at stake.

Or not. But, so long as the government refuses to release those documents, such refusal suggesting there is contained therein information harmful to the national interest even at this advanced age, even this far removed from the old Cold War. Mock and scoff all you want, but none of the detractors, including, bizarrely, so many news outlets standing shoulder-to-shoulder not reporting facts but literally telling us how to think, can answer a simple question: not whatís in those secret papers by why, at this late date, are they still being withheld.

You could shut these people up with a stroke of a pen: simply release the documents, and weíll see just how crazy Oliver Stone actually is.

 

An American Masterpiece

Iíve no interest in debating JFK conspiracy theories. If you want to believe in Oswald and the book depository, be my guest. But donít try and sell me on frame 313 being anything other than what it clearly and obviously is: a shot from the front on a low, flat trajectory consistent with ďBadge Man,Ē the unidentified and unaccounted-for uniformed cop photographed near the fence on the so-called ďGrassy Knoll.Ē Iím not saying Badge Man is real or who or what Badge Man worked for or represented. Iím saying There Are Four Lights.

Itís easy to brand film director Oliver Stone as a nut. He, in fact, makes it easy and, so far as I can tell, has made a kind of franchise business of being one of Americaís most famous nuts. We cannot, however, dismiss the manís genius. It is precisely that genius that makes his film work and political propaganda so wickedly effective and, thus, Stone so much larger than life that he seems to infuriate, well, everyone.e.

Whether you love it or loathe it, Stoneís 1991 classic, JFK, is a masterpiece, a tour de force of filmmaking. Critics have labeled it a propaganda film, and I agree, but that hardly makes it any less brilliant. JFK is, hands down, my favorite film. I actually tend to think of it as a horror film, one more devastatingly nightmare-inducing than even the best Freddie Kruger or Jason film. It was the scariest movie Iíd ever seen because I walked into the theatre as one person and left as another. I walked in thinking and believing one way and walked out terribly shaken and disturbed. Which is not to say Oswald was not the lone gunman, sure, okay, frame 313 notwithstanding, Iím willing to be persuaded. The truth or false of Stoneís film is rather beside the point. I believe the point of the film was to raise the question, a question of what really happened fifty years ago, and to elevate it beyond the cult of conspiracy buffs and into the public mainstream.

This JFK most certainly did, angering and enraging just enough people to actually prompt Congress to release more information about the assassination, though not enough to put any of it into any better context. Stone himself does not claim his version of events (actually his versions; JFK doesnít promote a single conspiracy theory but shines a light on them all) is any truer than the Warren Commission.

What JFK is, however, is one hell of a movie with superb performances from the first frame to the last. A procedural drama that deftly and entertainingly winds its way through the maze of conspiracy theories and colorfully bizarre characters the vast majority of the American people, so comfortable with the Oswald story, arenít even aware of. This movie frightened me to pieces, not because it was true but because I, like hundreds of millions of others, really hadnít thought a lot about the assassination or asked any questions at all about it. Both were impossible to do after Iíd seen that film, a film that left me sitting in the theater, left side near the front, shaken and deeply disturbed while its credits rolled over John Williamsí deeply moving, somber and disturbing score.

It was, I believe, a film a little before its time. Iím unsure in this cynical age if JFK would have been nearly as controversial in 2013 as it was in 1991. Stone is accused of undermining American trust in our national institutions, which is laughable considering an American president took us into a desert war under knowingly false pretenses. Haters tend to miss the forest for the trees, accusing Stone of manipulating if not outright brainwashing Americans, when brainwashing Americans is what Google, Facebook, and virtually all news media and advertising do twenty-four hours per day. The government lies to us all the time, donít blame Oliver Stone for that. All of his critics miss the point of the true power of his brilliant masterpiece: it changed a nation. It forced an act of Congress. It got the planet talking about the assassination again. Name me five other American films in the history of cinema that did that.

Nuts: Costner and Stone.

JFK II

Stoneís subsequent biopic, Nixon, was flawed only in that it was, of course, compared to JFK. Nixon was an entirely different picture, but we ponied up our six bucks expecting JFK II and walked away disappointed, missing the point that Nixon was an amazing film. It was so amazing that, after the first fifteen minutes or so, I actually starting buying Sir Anthony Hopkins as the 37th president, a man he looked and sounded nothing like, but one he channeled to sublime perfection. Nixon echoed JFK only at points that, yes, enraged critics, where Stone speculated Nixon may have been warned of the assassination in advance (Nixon was meeting with mysterious Texas oil men and, apparently, shadows Cuban-types in Dallas the day before. Stone has him reporting these men to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whom conspiracists also speculate was aware of some plot against the president but chose to do nothing). Stoneís Nixon also battles JFK assassination demons concerning Track II (which may or may not have evolved into or contained Operation Mongoose, a planned second invasion of Cuba by displaced Cuban nationals), an initiative set up under President Dwight D. Eisenhower but run out of Nixonís office. It is this covert paramilitary squad (and its mob connections) that haunt Stoneís Nixon throughout the film, leading to the presidentís idle speculation that it was this asset, designed to assassinate Castro, which was somehow turned back on Kennedy--a prevailing conspiracy theory fueled by the governmentís refusal to release the assassination documents. Critics scream for Stoneís head over Stoneís allegation, in Nixon, that the legendary 18-minute gap in the Nixon Tapes contain those musings over the Kennedy assassination. Nixon, after all, left far more personally damaging recordings intact.

I leave open the absolute possibility that Iím just having a little conspiracy fun, here, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed a troubled ex-marine whose fifteen minutes of fame as a local rabble-rouser had been up for some time and who simply wanted attention and got it by a million-to-one shot from a bolt-action piece of crap rifle with a misaligned site. For the record: Iíve fired rifles like that and recycling that thing is a real pain requiring more time than existed between the second and third shots at Kennedyís motorcade; and Iím talking just cycling the weapon, not even aiming. I was not in a speed contest nor was I as nervous as any gunman taking aim at a U.S. president undoubtedly would have been. Were I in a contest of speed rather than a contest of accuracy (ha! With that rifle), Iíd have chosen another weapon. If youíve never handled a weapon like this, I understand the average citizenís scoffing, considering how conditioned we now are with rapid-firing weapons in movies and on TV. The bolt on these rifles is heavy and has to be manually lifted, yanked back, and shoved back into its position, which requires at least a couple of seconds of even the best marksmen, who would then have to re-set his sighting because the idiotic bolt-cycling on the rifle completely ruins his aim.

Itís also possible Rose Mary Woods, President Nixonís secretary, did exactly what she said she did, and accidentally erased the Dictaphone belt while transcribing boring chatter about how the Mets were doing that year. Withholding critical records for no reason I can think of only gives credence to the Bogeyman stories.

By the way, Roger Donaldsonís brilliant 13 Days, a low-budget yakfest about the Cuban Missile Crisis, lends quiet credence to Stoneís JFK in that it depicts, to whatever level of accuracy, the prickly relationship Kennedy had with his military chiefs, including going around them to personal order a young pilot to lie to them. The bullying from the joint chiefs, most especially from a tad over-the-top mustache-twirling Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, lays grave credibility to Stoneís film. I have no way of knowing if 13 Days is any more or less true than Stoneís JFK, but the quiet, sad, subtext of 13 Days is the audience knowing, for a fact, what awaits the young president beyond the filmís end credits.

Christopher J. Priest
2 December 2013