Soldier of Controversy
To varying degrees, the films of Oliver Stone all express a distrust of power, a distate for war, and a gleeful disregard for the mainstream interpretation of history and current events. His fearlessness of thought and action is in the best American artistic tradition, despite what more straight-laced defenders of the status quo might want you to believe. Because unlike most politically-minded artists, Stone has every right to be distrustful of the powerful political and economic forces constantly keeping the country at war. As a young soldier in Vietnam, Stone learned of the horrors of war first hand. His early body of work includes a trilogy of Vietnam films that portray the brutality of military combat with visceral accuracy. His second slew of films is considered a trilogy of political dramas which portray the senselessness of war in a broader historical sense.
The Vietnam Trilogy
In the decades immediately following the Second World War, scores of dramas and action films set during the war honored the heroism of American Warfare. Americans went to the movies to remind themselves of their own glory and sacrifice. In the decades after the Vietnam War, Oliver Stone used the same medium of cinema to portray American soldiering in the opposite light, filled with more atrocity than glory, and more senselessness than sacrifice. Stone’s Platoon shocked audiences in 1986 with its sheer brutality and realism. He defined how films would be made about Vietnam, and changed how films would be made about war in general. With 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July Stone showed audiences that perhaps the greatest wound of war is survival. The film portrays real-life figure Ron Kovic, who sustained crippling injuries as a Marine in Vietnam. Because of his wounds, Kovic never walked again and also never stayed silent about the futility of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Stone’s third film portraying the horrors of Vietnam shifted perspective from American soldiers to the Vietnamese people themselves. 1993’s Heaven and Earth told the story of another Vietnam War survivor, Le Ly Hayslip, a young girl who experienced brutality at the hands of both sides in the conflict but eventually escaped to freedom in the United States.
During the 80s and 90s, Oliver Stone took on many other controversial subjects. 1987’s Wall Street indicted the greedy business culture of the 1980s, and the film’s antagonist Gordon Gecko became an icon of modern cinema. In 1994, Stone set his sights on the mainstream media’s love of violence and the prison industrial complex’s love of corruption with his ludicrously gory modern Bonnie and Clyde myth Natural Born Killers, penned by the legendary Gen X filmmaker Quentin Tarintino. The production of the Presidential films, Vietnam films, and films on other subjects overlapped throughout the years. Along the way he won and was nominated for many prestigious Oscars and other honors. Despite critical and commercial triumphs, Stone’s three Presidential films that have earned him his reputation as America’s most outspoken and brazen mainstream filmmakers.
The Presidential Trilogy
With JFK, Nixon, and Dubya, director Oliver Stone has completed a presidential trilogy of sorts—three films which amount to a wicked, incendiary, and exciting mediation on the most powerful position in the world. All have provoked controversy: JFK for blurring the line between history and conjecture, Nixon for its daring dramatic licenses, and Dubya for taking a shot at a sitting President. What some forget is that Stone is not portraying history, he is dramatizing it by injecting historical stories into familiar storytelling genres.
Oliver Stone’s first Presidential film 1991’s JFK is a murder mystery, set against the background of political intrigue. In this film Stone is not illuminating corners of history as much as he is using them as a playground. Over the years, so many bizarre conspiracy theories and misleading red herrings have popped up concerning the Kennedy assassination. With JFK, Stone serves them all up in one meaty dish, garnished and seasoned with the kind of gusto and grace only Hollywood can provide. Stone himself keenly refers to the film as a “counter-myth” to the Lone Gunman story, and regards his own restaging of the assassination as “speculation.” Critics claim that Nixon‘s dramatics are akin to that of a Shakespearean tragedy, but in actuality Stone’s second presidential film is more similar to one of Shakespeare’s history plays. In these works real-life leaders such as Richard III and Henry V were either vilified or venerated for the sake of popular entertainment. Shakespeare, like Stone, took incredible dramatic license in his portrayal of historical figures. Indeed Stone uses many real-life Nixon speeches in his film, while Shakespeare’s “Now is the winter of our discontent,” and “Once more unto the breach dear friends,” were all fanciful concoctions of the writer’s imagination. The third and final film in the trilogy is Dubya, a black comedy with so little bite that it seems Stone is getting a bit more tame as the years bear on. Maybe he believes the failures of the Bush Administration speak for themselves. The film plays hardball with Cheney and the Cabinet, but is almost reverent to Dubya himself. Yet for some, merely making a major Hollywood film about a sitting President is slander enough. Still, Stone’s first Presidential film will always be his most controversial, and probably his best.
The Credit Sequence “Documentary”
JFK starts out as in the style of pure documentary. As the credits roll, historical footage is edited together to provide the audience with the cultural and political context of the film, as well as introduce us to the vitality and humanity that made John Fitzgerald Kennedy such a popular public figure. The sequence is ably narrated by legendary actor Martin Sheen, who himself received a Golden Globe a Golden Globe nod for his portrayal of JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy. Sheen gives the sequence great majesty and gravitas.
The real President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower is the first figure to appear on camera. Ike starts out the show with highlights from his farewell White House speech, an important oration where the World War II Allied Commander turned United States Presidential peacemaker informed everyday citizens about the “Military Industrial Complex” that was necessarily established during the Second World War but unnecessarily remained after our victory in that conflict. It is a startling moment for modern viewers to see a legendary Republican Warrior such as Eisenhower espouse a theory that has been so embraced by what is left of the American left. The rise and reign of this complex Eisenhower so eloquently admonished us to thwart is the fundamental subject of Oliver Stone’s Presidential trilogy. The screen goes black, and the story of a new era in American history is told.
Composer John Williams dreamily patriotic score crescendoes heroically as the camera reveals the striking figure of Jack Kennedy. We learn that Kennedy was narrowly elected over Vice President Nixon in the election of 1960. We learn of the political problems Kennedy inherited in the battle against communism in Southeast Asia and South America. Most importantly, we are informed that President Kennedy was dedicated to keeping combat troops out of Vietnam, a counter-narrative to mainstream history that becomes increasingly convincing as the years go on. “In the final analysis, it’s their war,” Kennedy tells newsman Walter Cronkite of the conflict in Vietnam.
The JFK credit sequence effectively blends black and white newsreel footage of President Kennedy with heartwarming color home movies of his home life. We see JFK laugh and joke with his wife and children, and in the process the audience falls in love with John Fitzgerald Kennedy the same way the world did during his short but historic life. And then we lose him all over again.
Sewings the Seams Between Film and Reality
Sheen’s narration fades and the footage starts to show JFK’s fatal motorcade through Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Almost imperceptibly, the documentary footage begins to be intercut with footage shot by Stone. Although much of the film’s narrative is shot in modern 35mm widescreen color film stock, Stone often recreates events in the same black and white film stocks commonly used by the news and home movie cameras of the time. The new footage is skillfully edited with the old to great dramatic effect. This technique had been used in historical films before and since, but rarely is it been performed by a filmmaker as skilled as Oliver Stone. Consequently, when the film was first released, ordinary audience members were often unable to sort out which shots was historical and which were conceived by Stone. From the first moment that the film cuts between a real shot of Kennedy feeding his horse to a staged shot of assassination prophet Rose Charamie being thrown out of a car, Stone has skillfully stitched the seams of reality to the world of his film. By the time Kennedy’s motorcade makes it to Dealey Plaza, Stone’s film seems as real as reality, only more so. Amazingly, he manages to maintain the effect for over three hours of screen time.
John William’s score descends into a low growl as shots ring out from somewhere in the Plaza. Birds flutter as a few flames of the Zapruder film flicker in the darkness of the movie theater. But Stone doesn’t show the fatal head shot. Unlike many other films on the subject, Stone saves that brutal centerpiece of the story—and Zapruder’s infamous film—for maximum emotional impact.
As the motorcade rattles onto the Stemmons freeway in haunting silence, the audience is yanked out of the world of documentary into a more traditional movie experience. We are introduced to Kevin Costner as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in beautiful 35mm. The scenic designer, costumer, and property master took great pains to recreate a stunningly accurate recreation of 1963. The first film to tackle the assassination, 1973’s Executive Desicion and the various television programs about the subject were noble efforts, but they reek of the periods they were in—the 70s and 80s. By contrast, Stone’s film is a veritable time machine to the 1960s, which has not dated itself in the past 20 years the way other the other films did over that same amount of time.
Television Through Big Jim’s Eyes
We will see the rest of the story through the eager and inquisitive eyes of “Big” Jim Garrison, a man whose dedication to unraveling the mystery of the Kennedy assassination would become as legendary as the mistakes and sabotages he experienced pursuing what he thought was the truth. We move from television to television with Garrison as the shocking events following Kennedy’s death unfold over four days in November. We are glued to the TV screen with Garrison, his friends, family and co-workers just as America was glued to the TV screen during that actual weekend. Over that long, torturous weekend America saw the man accused of murdering the President paraded to the press around the Dallas Police Department and then led to his own mysterious death. The footage of Lee Harvey Oswald talking to the press, and then being murdered by Jack Ruby in the station is faithfully recreated in black and white with the brilliant Gary Oldman taking on the role of the alleged assassin, and Bill Murray’s brother Bryan Doyle Murray taking on that of Ruby. Unless one is familiar with the actual footage of these events, it is almost impossible to see the seams in Stone’s masterful mixture of documentary and reenacted footage.
Stone even uses Oldman to recreate the photos of Oswald that were presented to the American people, including the infamous “Backyard Photos” of Oswald holding the alleged murder weapons. When presented those photos, Oswald himself said that someone matted his head onto someone else’s body. Stone gleefully does just that, matting Gary Oldman’s face over Lee Oswald’s. In doing so, Stone gives us the simple thrill of visual historical accuracy, while also demonstrating how one could modify the photos as Oswald accused somebody of doing.
We watch Walter Cronkite’s emotional proclamation of the President’s murder with Garrison at the local bar Napoleons. Reality blurs with the film as the man who inspired Kevin Bacon’s character in the film rises from the bar and applauds JFK’s death. Layers upon layers of fact and illusion begin piling up in the audience’s subconscious. The film has become a dream, a nightmare, a flashback, an inspired hallucination.
We are introduced to Oswald while watching television with Jim Garrison and his family. Oldman is yanked down the police hallway insisting he’s “just a patsy.” Garrison’s wife Liz calls Oswald a “creep” who gives her “the willies,” portraying how easily people bought into the idea that a disgusting little urchin could be capable of an assassination. Throughout the rest of the film, Liz’s character will come to represent the status quo of American thought.
We learn more about the case against Lee Oswald at Garrison’s office the next day, as Big Jim”and his staff watch the evidence pile up against the accused on TV. They learn about the rifle, ordered to Oswald’s alias and see the Backyard photos. When Jim learns that Oswald had been causing trouble in his town the summer before the assassination, he orders his staff to bring in the spooky suspect David Ferrie.
Before they can talk to Ferrie, Jim and the office staff watch as Oldman as Oswald is murdered by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas jail on live TV. The emotional effect of the scene is staggering—the audience feels like they are watching that tragedy unfold once again—the first televised murder in American history. This sequence will doubtlessly be shown in film classes for generations to come alongside the masterworks of Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Coppolla, and Burton
Pesci as Ferrie
Big Jim decides to bring in Ferrie, even though Oswald died shortly after the Ruby shooting. No other character has captured the mystery and madness of the Kennedy assassination better than Pesci as Ferrie, as Hollywood legend Joe Pesci brings the quirky figure to life in all his glory in a way other historical films should be jealous of. The real Ferrie was a mildly perverted, admittedly brilliant, and severely tortured figure whose aspirations as a pilot, adventurer, and brother of the cloth were severely subverted by his sexual and intellectual idiosyncrasies. Ferrie was one of the many authority figures who floated in and out of the troubled life of Lee Harvey Oswald. He had been young Oswald’s commander in the Civil Air Patrol, Oswald’s first taste of service. Did Oswald spurn Ferrie’s authority as he’s been reported to have done with his superiors in the Marines, or did Lee remain loyal to the legendary Ferrie the rest of his short life? If so, what Ferrie tell him in New Orleans the summer before the assassination? And why was Dave so anxious about the trip to Texas he had taken the day of the assassination? Jim was determined to find out. His determination will become the narrative thrust of the film. Garrison arrests Ferrie for further questioning, but the FBI lets him loose and scolds Big Jim. Garrison shrugs his shoulders and decides to go on with his life. The narrative drowsily drifts three years down the road as the television tells the viewer and Jim Garrison one more report. “President Johnson has announced the creation of a blue ribbon commission to probe the events in Dallas.”
“That Dog Don’t Hunt!”
Stone brings in screen legend Walter Matthau to recreate an important part of assassination lore, the famed Long/Garrison conversation while cruising through the Washington skies. In this famed conversation, Senator Russell Long introduced District Attorney Jim Garrison to a theory fundamental to many conspiracy theories: Lee Oswald couldn’t have done the shooting The Warren Report said he did. This 1966 meeting apparently inspired Garrison to re-open his investigation, but some researchers know Garrison already had files open on the case, and postulate this story was a cover for an investigation he may have already started in private. Still, the conversation works as a perfect narrative device to move the story forward, and get our hero back into the case.
The Garrison Investigation
Jim Garrison dives head first into the Warren Commission’s 26 Volumes of Testimony and Exhibits related to the Kennedy assassination. In this sequence, Stone masterfully re-enacts the various witness testimony as Jim pours over the volumes of statements, documents and photographs. Finding enough inconsistencies in the report to warrant reasonable doubt, Garrison decides to use his staff of investigators, lawyers, and assistant D.A.s to figure out what happened that summer in New Orleans, and that Fall in Dallas.
The Garrison investigation is used as a clever device to introduce the audience to the various problems with the government’s official version of the story that various researchers have come up with over the years, and creating what he considered a a “Countermyth” to the myth of the Warren Commission. Prominent Warren Commission Critics like HSCA Photographic Expert Robert Groden, Dallas Reporter Jim Marrs, and even the ailing Big Jim himself were brought in for consultation or cameos.
The film points out how Garrison’s investigation was sabotaged by Washington insiders, the mainstream media, as well as the various law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but also brings light to some of the greater mistakes he has made. The most prominent blunders were his trusting of people who proved to be traitors to his cause, and his failure to protect the only man he might have been able to convict, Dave Ferrie. Instead of giving up, Big Jim decided to scapegoat a prominent businessman, playwright and philanthropist he believes cavorted with Ferrie under a homosexual alias. The re-enactments of Clay Shaw’s alleged conspiratorial actions in the film might convince viewers that the real Shaw was complicit in the assassination, but the film’s ambiguous ending might make more critical viewers question Stone’s portrayal of Shaw.
The Autopsy Recreation
Some of the most important information about the Kennedy assassination that came out of the Clay Shaw trials were the testimonies of the various doctors who attended and investigated President Kennedy’s wounds. For years the autopsy photographs were suppressed, and some say altered, before finally making their way to the public. Using an agonizingly realistic recreation of Kennedy’s corpse, Stone uses the photographs and testimony to meticulously recreate the President’s autopsy with almost nauseating accuracy. Stone briefly edits in the real autopsy photos with his footage. Only if you have already see the photos, or with repeat viewings of the film, can the typical audience member notice the brief substitution. Stone’s seam between reality and cinema is holding tight.
Stocked, pilloried, and stoned, a brilliant filmmaker has become the “patsy” of the conspiracy theory community. Was his prowess behind the camera hindered by the follies of his reason, or did they fuel the passion that makes his works so compelling? Whatever your opinions of his personal beliefs, Stone is certainly an unsung hero in the enduring conspiracy debate. The momentum of his controversial counter-myth was the driving force behind the declassification of many important documents previously unavailable to the public by the Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. The study of these documents has moved the conspiracy debate into a new, broader, and more enlightened era, beyond the red herrings and hearsay and into a legitimate historical discussion.
Stone has therefore done what any great political artist should do: keep the dialogue open.