Writer and director Oliver Stone, 75, photographed at his home office in Los Angeles, recently recalled preparing for the first day of filming “JFK.”
Writer and director Oliver Stone, 75, photographed at his home office in Los Angeles, recently recalled preparing for the first day of filming “JFK.” (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)

‘JFK’ at 30: Oliver Stone and the lasting impact of America’s most dangerous movie

Oliver Stone defied Washington, Hollywood and history itself to make his controversial JFK drama. Its legacy endures.

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On a warm day in October, Oliver Stone leads a visitor into the sun room of his house in Brentwood, where he has been re-reading the daily journals he kept during the production of “JFK,” his kaleidoscopic drama about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

Thirty years after its release in December of 1991, “JFK’s” influence can still be detected, on everything from Washington policy to Hollywood world-building. For baby boomers, it was a film that tapped into still-raw generational loss. For Gen-Xers, it defined all they knew about Kennedy and his death. Its form pushed visual language to visceral new extremes. Its content helped introduce a new generation to America’s long conspiratorial tradition. “JFK” is still with us, in style and substance.

Stone, 75, is recalling his preparations for the first day of filming on April 15, 1991. Peering avuncularly through a pair of reading glasses, he scans pages covered with looping blue scrawls.

“The Iraq War is coming into being, which is a big thing for me, because [‘JFK’ is] about war, and the preparation for war,” notes Stone, a Vietnam veteran. “It was unbelievable to see that happening in my lifetime again — to get geared up to send 500,000 men to Saudi Arabia. It was like doing the same thing we did in Vietnam, so foolishly.”

He flips through another few pages.

“And my 16-year-old dog was dying, too,” he says with a sigh.

“JFK” was a film conceived in grief, born of anxiety and destined for controversy. Adapted in part from the book “On the Trail of the Assassins,” by former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, the film examined Kennedy’s assassination through the cracked lens of Garrison’s 1969 prosecution of local businessman Clay Shaw, whom he accused of being part of a cabal that conspired to kill the president.

It was a scenario that radically challenged the findings of the Warren Commission, which had been tasked with investigating the murder, and whose members concluded that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. Garrison’s theory of the case was that the CIA — with whom Shaw had once worked — killed Kennedy because he wanted to de-escalate the conflict in Vietnam and dramatically reshape American foreign policy. A jury found Shaw not guilty in less than an hour.

Kennedy’s assassination had been the subject of speculation almost from the moment gunfire rang out in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Two days later, Oswald himself would be shot and killed, an event that created a black hole of suspicion that only seemed to widen.

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that “Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” By the time filming on “JFK” got underway, more than 70 percent of the American public — having witnessed the assassinations of Kennedy’s brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr.; national intelligence malfeasance including domestic surveillance and foreign coups; and the scandals of Watergate and Iran-Contra — believed a larger conspiracy had been at play.

Stone counted himself among that number.

“I did have a very strong feeling at the beginning [of filming], a magnetic attachment to the idea that it had to be powerful people, and they had to have had permission,” he says. With “JFK,” he would give florid, expressionistic voice to the residual trauma and disenchantment of his generation.

Using familiar conceits from classic paranoid thrillers and detective procedurals — punctuated by dizzying montages and the repeated use of the Zapruder film, which captured Kennedy’s death in numbingly graphic detail — Stone created a Grand Un-Unified Theory of Kennedy’s murder, involving the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, U.S. military and intelligence and, as an accessory after the fact, Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Stone’s vision of what would have happened had Kennedy lived — that he would have stopped the war in Vietnam, aggressively pursued civil rights at home and ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union — has been called the mother of all counterfactuals. The same might be said of our ideas about Kennedy and his death, and what they would be without “JFK.” Stone took care to distinguish his most purely speculative sequences in a film populated by unreliable narrators, flawed memories and competing versions of the truth. But “JFK’s” images were so convincing, and infiltrated viewers’ imaginations so thoroughly, that the film morphed from one filmmaker’s alternative interpretation of events into the events themselves. Storytelling was internalized as public memory, which itself became a form of consensus history.

The impact the film’s detractors feared most — its power to sway hearts and minds — might be the least quantifiable. According to a 2017 poll by FiveThirtyEight, public opinion about Kennedy’s assassination stayed relatively constant before and after “JFK’s” release; if anything, the numbers of people who believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone has risen. Still, among those who believe Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy, the CIA usually occupies a central role.

Stone’s film has been absorbed into the national bloodstream in other ways. When “JFK” was released, postmodernism — with its notions of subjective truths and multiple realities — had not taken much hold outside academia. Thirty years later, when conspiracy culture has migrated from an arcane parlor game to the steps of the U.S. Capitol — when healthy skepticism has curdled into darker extremes of institutional mistrust — whole swaths of American society seem to have taken up permanent residence in the rabbit holes that Stone plumbed so persuasively.

It is significant that both “JFK” and the World Wide Web were launched in 1991, setting them on a mutual trajectory that now feels eerily inevitable (the movie’s digressive structure uncannily mirrored a then-novel phenomenon called “hypertext”). “JFK” did not invent alternative facts, deepfakes or Deep State paranoia. But its form and content surely anticipated them, and helped usher in an era when audiences would increasingly accept them as reality.

If “JFK’s” cultural influence remains open to interpretation, its off-screen impact is beyond dispute. In 1992, largely in response to the film, the U.S. Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which led to the release of millions of documents pertaining to subjects far beyond the assassination itself — an unalloyed good for scholarship and democratic transparency.

“Oliver Stone ... posed the question, ‘Why was this material still closed?’ ” observes presidential historian Timothy Naftali. “He had a poisonous answer, which was this vast conspiracy. But the question was a good one. And because it was such a good question, it actually moved Congress to act.” (The 1992 law stipulated that all files be declassified by Oct. 26, 2017; although President Donald Trump delayed that date by three years, President Biden has proceeded with the release. More than 1,400 documents were made public on Dec. 15; the next batch is expected in December 2022.)

Then there is “JFK” as pure cinema. The film operates as a whirling, paradoxical gyre: sprawling and tightly coiled; hallucinatory and clearly legible; shockingly subversive and reassuringly old-school. One of the film’s most vivid characters, a shadowy government figure named Mr. X., played by Donald Sutherland, evoked the jittery political thrillers of the 1970s, while the presence of such beloved actors as Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Kevin Costner, who played Garrison, gave the film a wholesome, all-American patina (the mainstream appeal was reinforced by John Williams’s score). Working with more than a dozen film stocks, Stone knit together documentary footage, fervid speculations, high-gloss Hollywood dramatizations and note-perfect reenactments, with results that were both technically groundbreaking and disquietingly seamless.

“The concept was that we were going to shake it up with this film,” Stone explains of his flashback-within-a-flashback approach. “Who’s telling the truth? The style would be fractured from the beginning.”

With a running time of more than three hours, "JFK” challenged conventional notions of how long audiences would sit for a complicated, talky story. Improbably, the film’s most effective moments are both monologues: Mr. X’s 17-minute tutorial on secret government machinations and Garrison’s climactic 20-minute courtroom stemwinder.

“The script was so confusing, there was so much intercutting, that I changed it before I gave it to Warner Bros.,” Stone recalls with a mischievous smile. “I made it simpler for them, and they greenlighted it.”

Of course, Stone wound up filming the confusing version. And his bravura paid off. “JFK” would become a $200 million hit and earn eight Oscar nominations, losing best picture to “The Silence of the Lambs.” It was fitting that the two awards it did win were for the very fundamentals of cinematic grammar: cinematography and editing.

Billy Ray, who wrote “Shattered Glass” and “Captain Phillips,” and recently directed “The Comey Rule,” watches “JFK” at least once a year. “When you think about the arrows in a director’s quiver — light, sound, editing, performance, script, hair, makeup, effects, music, photography — every single one of them is being employed in every single shot of that movie to create a tone and a pace that are so relentless and so breathless,” Ray says. “It’s a master class in directing.”

For film editor Jay Cassidy, the genius of “JFK’s” pace is that it is “not always about moving fast. It’s about moving fast in a dreadful direction.” Cassidy continues: “The film’s grammar adopts a level of abstraction where archival footage tells the story, then hands off to a dramatic scene that is in turn ‘annotated’ by archival footage. It was so remarkable [at the time] that a verbal or written description didn’t do it justice. You had to see it. And hear it.”

In 1991, “JFK’s” critics called it the most dangerous movie in America. Those warnings notwithstanding, it would certainly become one of the most consequential.

Stacks of bankers boxes full of “JFK” documents occupy a corner of Stone’s first-floor library, where he writes his books (his memoir “Chasing the Light” was released in paperback earlier this year) and where an entire bookcase is devoted to the Kennedy assassination. Stone’s admiration of the 35th president remains undiminished. “No president has spoken about peace with such love,” he says wistfully. “He was just too good to be true in this system.”

He idly opens a box stuffed with files with labels like “JFK Positive Press, Part 1” and “JFK Mixed, Negative Part 2,” reflecting on the furor his movie unleashed. “I’d never been in the national spotlight like that,” Stone says, recalling his previous films. “I’d gotten controversy for ‘Midnight Express,’ ‘Platoon’ too, and also ‘Born on the Fourth of July.’ So I was not unfamiliar with it.” He pauses to consider the firestorm that “JFK” ignited. “I realized that this was a much harder statement, and indictment of the system, than I had perhaps intended. We were saying there was a coup d’etat in this country, and it was like, ‘We can’t believe that, it’s too much.’ ”

A conversation with Oliver Stone

Films have sparked public arguments as far back as “The Birth of a Nation.” But the animus directed at “JFK” was on a different order of magnitude. Official Washington was outraged because “JFK” might lead viewers to believe their government was run by a murderous class of nameless elites and rogue military brass. The mainstream media was outraged by the suggestion that, faced with the crime of the century, they had been supine, credulous or complicit. Historians were outraged that what they deemed an irresponsible exercise in brazen revisionism — and outright distortion — was so much more compelling than their more sober-minded tomes. Independent assassination researchers — sometimes known as “buffs” — were outraged that Stone popularized Garrison’s theories, which they had long since discredited. The gay community was outraged by Stone’s idealization of Garrison, deemed by many to be ruthless, unscrupulous and homophobic, at the expense of Shaw, a closeted gay man who was a respected and beloved member of New Orleans society.

The outcry turned “JFK” into a cultural touchstone. In the early 1990s, everyone had to have an opinion about “JFK,” which meant that everyone had to see it. Warner Bros., “JFK’s” parent studio, launched a “Free the Files” campaign, urging the early release of assassination materials that had been sealed until 2029 — a strategy that had principle on its side but also happened to be a brilliant misdirect from negative press. In so shrewdly turning official Washington’s opprobrium into an argument for legislative change — and in transforming the entire debate into big box office — “JFK” achieved a level of real-world impact most filmmakers could only dream of, and are still chasing.

“We have a whole fact-versus-fiction practice now because of it,” says Washington communications consultant Michael Feldman, who was a co-founder of the Glover Park Group (now Finsbury, Glover, Hering) and has advised on such films as “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” The pushback and political hay-making that “JFK” confronted, he adds, “was the first time that many stakeholders engaged in trying to undermine a film that I can remember. And it happens all the time now.”

Many of those stakeholders are still outraged, or at least deeply frustrated. “It is not true that the Central Intelligence Agency murdered the president of the United States as part of a right-wing conspiracy of generals and industrialists to preserve the military-industrial complex and its control of the American government,” says Tim Weiner, author of “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” and “The Folly and the Glory: American, Russia and Political Warfare, 1945-2020.” “It’s not true, and yet it is believed. That is a triumph of disinformation.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, compelling evidence has emerged suggesting that Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw was abetted and manipulated by intelligence agents in Moscow. In this telling, Garrison is less a crusading truth-seeker than a Cold War pawn, and “JFK” goes from being the misguided romanticization of a reckless prosecution to one of the most stunning successes of Soviet disinformation of the late 20th century. (For his part, Stone rejects the KGB story as “absolute nonsense.”)

In her book “Cruising for Conspirators,” Louisiana State University history professor Alecia P. Long examines the Shaw case through the lens of anti-gay bias that permeated American and New Orleans culture in the early 1960s. “There was a homophobic cultural belief about the dastardly nature of homosexual men — that they were sneaky and conspiring — that made [Garrison’s] case easier to make,” she says. In “JFK,” Tommy Lee Jones portrays Shaw as a haughty eccentric with lurid sexual proclivities; in one of the film’s most outlandish scenes Shaw, covered in gold body paint, joins assassination conspirators at a sybaritic all-male orgy.

Although there is a plaque in New Orleans’s French Quarter honoring Shaw for his work as a preservationist and arts patron, for those who came of age with “JFK” he will always be a man snorting amyl nitrate and plotting to kill a president. “Prejudicial beliefs about sexuality greased the wheels of Garrison’s investigation,” Long says, “and they also drive the narrative in ‘JFK.’ ”

Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation, is similarly critical of Stone’s depiction of Johnson, who in “JFK” is portrayed as the dark counterpoint to Kennedy’s beau ideal. In a brief scene illustrating Mr. X.’s speech, Johnson can be seen in silhouette, ostensibly agreeing to escalate the Vietnam conflict and cover up the truth of Kennedy’s death.

“I don’t know how much relevance ‘JFK’ has today,” Updegrove says. “I’ve never seen evidence that it’s a significant work of cinema for younger audiences. But I do think it was seminal insofar as it legitimized wide-eyed conspiracy theory, and set a great precedent in how far we could push film to depict history, or purport to depict history. And that was a dangerous and irresponsible precedent.”

For Naftali, “JFK’s” record is more mixed. Despite harboring reservations about “JFK,” Naftali, who teaches history at New York University, found the film to be a valuable teaching tool until five or 10 years ago. “Even though students had been left with this implausible conspiracy involving half the government, they at least were interested in learning more about the political history of the 1960s,” he says of the young people who had seen the movie. “It was a gateway for them into historical analysis, discussion and reflection. So a brilliant movie with bad history led to better history.” Today, he says, “we’ve gone past the point where it’s useful. Students don’t know the movie and have fortunately forgotten the ludicrous mega-conspiracy personified by the great actor Donald Sutherland.”

Questioned about the harm “JFK” might have inflicted on public opinion and Shaw’s reputation, Stone is unapologetic. “Whatever happened, the trial did reveal certain things,” he says. “It brought out the Zapruder film, it brought out the autopsy [photographs]. There were certain key things that came out of that trial that we’re very grateful for.”

Thirty years after the release of “JFK,” it seems, Oliver Stone has not backed down. In November, he released “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,” a two-hour Showtime documentary in which he repeats the hypotheses he popularized in “JFK,” this time with fresh interviews and, he insists, new evidence. “Conspiracy theories are now conspiracy facts,” he declares early in the film.

He is more convinced than ever that Allen Dulles, who headed the CIA until Kennedy fired him in 1961, is at the center of it all. “He was on the Warren Commission, and he was the guy who attended the most meetings,” Stone says. “He supervised everything and made sure the CIA never really cooperated with the Warren Commission or gave them what they wanted.”

While it is true that the CIA either stonewalled or actively thwarted the Warren Commission and House Select Committee on Assassinations, that is not proof that Dulles conspired to kill Kennedy.

“Well, there’s no proof because we won’t allow the proof to come out!” Stone says with frustration. “Who knows what’s on paper? But we can’t even see those files.”

Appearances to the contrary, Stone has not been obsessing over the Kennedy assassination all this time. In fact, he resisted making “JFK Revisited” when producer Rob Wilson approached him with the idea. “I said, I’m not sure I want to get back into that mess,” Stone admits.

Wilson saw “JFK” when he was 17. “It was a formative film for me,” he recalls. “The movie inspired me to do my own research and my own reading, and through that I saw how accurate in many ways the movie was, and how the critics of the film were wrong.”

For Wilson, who has worked for Stone since joining his staff as an intern in 1997, the new film is not a vindication of “JFK.” “When you know that somebody’s correct, they don’t need to be vindicated,” he says. “You just need to create a record.”

Like its title character, “JFK” has gradually receded in the public mind. Stone’s new documentary notwithstanding, at this point it is generally accepted among historians and law enforcement officials that Oswald alone killed Kennedy. Others may have known of or supported his plans, which would implicate him in a conspiracy. But the unholy military-intelligence alliance of Garrison and Stone’s imaginations has largely been debunked within all but a few corners of the research community. If a 17-year-old develops an interest in conspiracy theories today, it is less likely to be in a multiplex than through the algorithmic vortices of YouTube, Twitter and TikTok.

In other words, “JFK” is no longer seen as a history lesson, bone of contention or political cudgel. Which might finally give it a chance to be what it was all along: a movie.

Like all movies, “JFK’s” meaning has changed over time. In the 1990s, when I was working as a film critic at the Austin American-Statesman, I wrote a defense of the film as a masterpiece of the American paranoid style, naively unaware of how my words would land deep in the heart of LBJ country.

Decades later, I still admire “JFK,” even if I am more dubious about Stone’s choice of Garrison as a protagonist, and his pejorative portrayal of Shaw. I am also far less cavalier about portrayals of individuals like Johnson, who makes such a convenient scapegoat in Stone’s Manichean world of good and evil. In a movie so devoted to detail — right down to period-correct box labels in the Texas School Book Depository — more nuance and ambiguity would have only strengthened Stone’s narrative. An appreciation of “JFK’s” artistry demands acknowledgment of the uncomfortable truth that one of cinema’s most eloquent meditations on the abuse of power itself celebrates the abuse of power, albeit in another form.

But has a movie ever manifested the conspiratorial mindset with such febrile self-certainty? One does not have to “believe” Jim Garrison, or even find him sympathetic, to appreciate “JFK,” if only as a superbly crafted piece of cinema, and as an artifact of its time. As the historian Robert Rosenstone says, “History itself is a series of propositions about the past. And film is the same thing, only [the way] it deals with it isn’t literal. It’s a symbolic past, a metaphoric past.”

People who judge “JFK” for its accuracy — even for its fairness — are not wrong. But they too often ignore the vacuum that created it in the first place: the covert actions and cover-ups that have done far more to sow public mistrust than Hollywood. What’s more, they overlook what might be the most enduring value of Stone’s film. “JFK” is less about John F. Kennedy in 1963 or Jim Garrison in 1969 than Oliver Stone in 1991: a man whose primal wound — being lied to about why he went to war — had never healed, a man whose prodigious gifts as a storyteller naturally fused with the unresolved loss and deep-seated doubts of his contemporaries, a man whose dog just died. By the time Costner’s Garrison delivers his summation in “JFK,” he barely refers to Shaw or Kennedy: He is making a plea on behalf of a generation that had never gotten accountability after the official lies and betrayals that had conditioned most of their lives.

On a crammed shelf in Stone’s second-floor office, not far from where three Oscars share space with the Whole Earth Catalog, sit books about Costa-Gavras, whose taut 1969 political thriller “Z” was an inspiration for “JFK,” and Frank Capra, traces of whose “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” can be heard in Costner’s final speech. “Costa-Gavras meets Frank Capra” might be the best way to describe a director as fluent with polemic as he is with throat-catching emotion. “Yes, you know what side I’m on,” Stone says of his characterizations. “I didn’t say it was an impartial documentary, did I?”

To spend time with Oliver Stone is to enter a different kind of looking glass, where a man often caricatured as a wild-eyed provocateur is thoughtful, easygoing and generous even at his most contrarian; where he’ll go hammer and tongs about Clay Shaw’s role in the CIA or the Kennedys’ relationship with Dulles (“You’re hard core,” he says, shaking his head, after a spirited back-and-forth about the single-bullet theory), and then invite a journalist to peruse his “JFK” archive while he goes upstairs to work. He is not a Trump fan and considers George W. Bush “the worst president we’ve ever had.” He rejects present-day conspiracies like QAnon, but he thinks the Jan. 6 insurrection has been overblown. For the record, Stone has been quadruple-vaxxed against covid-19: “Two Sputniks and two Pfizers,” he says proudly.

Stone’s last narrative feature was 2016’s “Snowden”; since 2001 he’s been making documentaries, including admiring portraits of Fidel Castro and Vladimir Putin. He is currently at work on a film in favor of nuclear energy. Nonfiction, he says, is “more alluring to me as a way to tell the truth, without ... having to go through all the BS of disguising.”

Still, he accepts that “JFK” will remain his undisputed masterwork. When asked about the film’s legacy, Stone demurs. “I think it’s one of a kind,” he says simply, adding that it marked a crucial turning point in his career.

“No longer was I judged as a filmmaker,” he says, admitting that his journey through the vagaries of public opinion left him feeling defensive and hurt.

“A lot of filmmakers would say, ‘It’s just a movie.’ It never felt like that to me. A filmmaker should take responsibility for his movie, whether it’s fiction or fact.”

As for the “conspiracy theorist” label he has carried since making “JFK,” he is both philosophical and unapologetic. “I have really not gone in that direction,” he says, before adding: “Conspiracies have happened. Anybody who reads history knows that. But we act so innocent in America, like ‘Who, us?’ ” Stone laughs ruefully. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

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