Twisted History

Here we go again. The schoolbook depository. The sixth-floor window. The grassy knoll. The umbrella man. The fourth shot. The pristine bullet. The eternal flame.

Re-create Dallas as it was on Nov. 22, 1963. Prune trees so they are the same height they were that day. Send an identical open limousine into the tight turn onto Elm Street, headed for the triple underpass. Roll the cameras on an event that stunned America and seared its heart. Follow the script:

Then the SHOTS: A volley sounding like a motorcycle backfire. A GLIMPSE of a MUZZLE FLASH... smoke.

Looking up from the TEXAS SCHOOL BOOK DEPOSITORY-all in line with the "official" version of events... PIGEONS by the hundreds suddenly shoot off the roof But the SCREEN (our screen) GOES GRAY as did the CBS-TV first bulletins to the country. CBS BULLETIN (FULL SCREEN) ... we interrupt this program to bring you this flash bulletin. A burst of gunfire! Three bursts of gunfire, apparently from automatic weapons, were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas ...

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But this is definitely not the "official" version of events. This is the movie "JFK" as brought to you by Oliver Stone, creator of "Platoon," "Wall Street" and "The Doors." In this version, Lee Harvey Oswald certainly does not act alone, may never even have fired a shot. The assassination, as seen through the eyes of Stone and his protagonist Jim Garrison, at the time the real-life New Orleans district attorney, was a grand conspiracy involving the CIA, the FBI, the Army and Navy, anti-Castro Cubans, New Orleans lowlifes and the Dallas police force. The motive: to thwart the dovish tendencies of John F. Kennedy who, if he had lived, would have pulled all American troops out of Vietnam, settled the cold war with the Soviet Union and patched up relations with Castro's Cuba. The shooting was, as Garrison (played by Kevin Costner keeps insisting, a coup d'etat that continues to gnaw at the American body politic. Stone makes plain his hope that the film will cause the investigation to be reopened. It ends with this message on the screen: DEDICATED TO THE YOUNG, IN WHOSE SPIRIT THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH MARCHES ON. The producers are preparing a ,'study guide" to the movie for use in schools.

In effect, Stone is inviting America to adopt an alternative version of history. His film categorically rejects the report of the Warren Commission, the imperfect but painstaking government investigation that concluded that Oswald murdered Kennedy acting on his own. That conclusion has never satisfied great part of the American public: a Washington Post survey last May indicated that 56 percent believe there was some sort conspiracy to kill JFK, and only 19 percent agree with the Warren Commission findings. And a vast network of conspiracy buffs has flourished ever since the assassination, tracing tangled lines of connection between obscure figures and erecting baroque palaces of supposition (page 52). This movie draws on many of these old notions-and will doubtless stir up a new wave of them.

It has also stirred up a torrent of outrage. Well before its release, the film had already set off a barrage of articles and even cover stories (Life, Esquire, Texas Monthly), mostly denouncing Stone for twisting the facts. Stone in turn has been stung into angry suggestions that the establishment media are simply subscribing to the Great Warren Commission Cover-up. Garrison, who was much ridiculed in the press for his handling of the case, thought journalists had turned into coconspirators, witting or unwitting, in an official scheme to conceal the dark truths of Nov. 22, 1963. This is beyond-the-looking-glass stuff: anyone entering the assassination debate is instantly transported into a frenzied fantasy world, in which the same evidence can be used to bolster either side (Oswald was the killer, Oswald was framed) and analysts are assumed to be agents with secret motives of their own.

The problem with "JFK"--writ very large because it's a big movie with big stars about a big event-is the problem of the docu-drama. A movie or a television show that re-creates history inevitably distorts history. It has to compress things into a short span; it has to extract clarity out of the essential messiness of life; it has to abide by certain dramatic conventions: major scenes, major characters, major speeches. All this makes for exaggeration. "It's like writing history with lightning," exclaimed Woodrow Wilson when he saw the first docu-drama, "Birth of a Nation," in 1915.

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In "JFK" all these problems are compounded by taking a highly speculative version of events--the Garrison/Stone conspiracy theory--and grafting it onto real events. Only the alert viewer will be able to distinguish real documentary footage from reconstructed scenes, shot in black and white, that often represent Garrison's suppositions about what might have happened. In presenting Kennedy's autopsy, for example, what appear to be genuine still photographs are intercut with dramatized footage. And these black-and-white recreations abound. A police officer brings the murder rifle to Oswald's corpse and presses his palm print onto the barrel. A mysterious figure deposits the "pristine bullet" (the one supposed to have wounded both Kennedy and John Connally) on what seems to be Connally's gurney in Parkland Hospital. A second "Oswald" appears at a rifle range in Dallas. Assassins gather behind the fence on the grass knoll. This is a film in which the real and the imagined, fact and fiction, keep shading into one another. As Leonard Garment wrote after seeing "The Final Days," the TV film on Nixon's fall, "A viewer watching a well-done docu-drama will find it near impossible to keep in mind the difference between its factual basis and the dramatic embellishments. It is all there, right before his very eyes, occupying the same level of reality." That's particularly true of young audiences who weren't alive in 1963. "We live in a media age," says film critic Leonard Maltin. "If a television or theatrical movie can paint a vivid enough picture for young people, they'll believe that's the way it was."

That's clearly what Oliver Stone is hoping will happen. "JFK" is not just an entertainment, it's a work of propaganda. In some prerelease screenings, Stone has personally asked those who write about the film not to discuss its thesis, so that audiences can make up their minds for themselves. That request is out of bounds. Of course people should make up their own minds about the Kennedy assassination. But in doing so they should be aware of some information that "JFK" leaves out and some dubious material that it includes. What was the evidence that Oswald acted alone? Is it true that Kennedy was planning a pullout from Vietnam? Was Jim Garrison a brave and lonely battler for truth?

The Oswald of "JFK" is even more bizarre than the angry loner portrayed by the Warren Commission: an antiCastro activist who distributed pro-Castro literature as a cover, a hanger-on in a seedy New Orleans set of homosexuals and anti-Castroites who talk wildly of killing Kennedy. He may have known enough about the plot to try to warn the Feds about it in advance but seems to take no part in the shooting. When he realizes JFK has been shot from the building where he works, it suddenly dawns on him that he's the "patsy," set up to take the rap. So he leaves the building, goes home to get a gun, maybe (or maybe not) kills Officer J.D. Tippet, then winds up in a movie theater where the police have been tipped off to find him.

Some findings of the Warren Commission that do not appear in the movie:

He was the owner of the MannlicherCarcano 6.5-mm rifle found on the sixth floor of the Depository building. Ballistics tests show that the bullets that struck Kennedy and Connally came from that rifle.

The morning of the assassination, Oswald carried to work a long, thin paper parcel-"curtain rods," he said. Paper wrapping consistent with that seen on the parcel was found on the sixth floor, along with the rifle.

The autopsy on Kennedy's body produced the unanimous medical finding that all the shots that struck him came from the rear. A House Select Committee on Assassinations investigated further in the late '70s, calling in a wound ballistics expert to evaluate the sudden backward movement of the president's head, which some take as proof that the final shot came from in front. The committee determined that the rearward movement ofthe head could have come from nerve damage and was not "fundamentally inconsistent with a bullet striking from the rear. "

A number of eyewitnesses identified Oswald as the man who shot Officer Tippit. The shell casings that the gunman tossed away at the scene were identified as having come from Oswald's revolver, which he had when he was arrested in the movie theater.

And if there was a conspiracy-particularly the massive conspiracy posited in this movie-is it imaginable that not a single member of it has cracked? The tug of conscience, the lust for notoriety, even greed for money (for such a story would be worth many thousands of dollars as well as immunity) would surely have brought someone forward in the past 28 years.

It's an essential part of Stone's thesis that Kennedy was planning to pull out of Vietnam once he was re-elected. Not only that, but he would have healed relations with America's communist rivals. That's why the conspiracy was hatched: the military-industrial complex wanted their war, and Kennedy was going to take it away from them. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was much more their kind of guy.

Does that notion seem plausible? Stone's interpretation draws heavily on the work of a young Army major named John Newman, who will soon publish (with a boost from Stone) a book called "JFK & Vietnam," based on his Ph.D. thesis. He is persuaded that by the spring of 1963 Kennedy had decided to get all American troops out of Vietnam, even if it meant losing the war, but to wait until after the 1964 election for fear the withdrawal would hurt him politically. Newman's evidence: two antiwar senators, Mike Mansfield and Wayne Morse, remember Kennedy telling them as much, and so does his friend and assistant Kenneth O'Donnell. Also, shortly before he died, he ordered that 1,000 U.S. advisers (out of a total of more than 16,000) be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of the year.

This really does not seem terribly compelling. JFK's statements to the senators, even if not colored by wishful memories, could have been tinged with politics. And the 1,000-man withdrawal, around 6 percent of the total, was just a token that might never have been repeated. McGeorge Bundy, who was Kennedy's special assistant for national-security affairs, doesn't believe it signified any shift of policy, nor does he know of any evidence that Kennedy had a private plan for pulling out of Vietnam. "I don't think we know what he would have done if he'd lived," Bundy said last week. "I don't know, and I don't know anyone who does know." What's more, he added, "Kennedy didn't hide his views: his public statements were what he believed." And his public statements were about bearing the burden and staying the course. In the speech he was scheduled to deliver at the Dallas Trade Mart just minutes after he was killed, he was going to say: "Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task ... We in this country, in this generation, are-by destiny rather than choice-the watchmen on the walls of freedom." Newman argues that all this was just politically motivated deception.

If there was no clear sign that Kennedy was going to pull out of Vietnam, there was no clear motive for Stone's grand conspiracy to kill him.

In the movie, Jim Garrison is an all-American hero--how could he not be, with Kevin Costner in the part? Beset by doubters on all sides, stymied by the FBI, ridiculed by the press, he pushes on regardless, a lonely seeker after truth, justice and the American way. In New Orleans, they remember Garrison a little differently.

Rosemary James covered his investigation for the now defunct New Orleans States-Item. "He went from a highly intelligent eccentric to a lunatic in the period of one year," she said last week. "Every time press interest in the case would start to wane, he would propound a new theory. One week it would be 14 Cubans shooting from storm drains. The next week, it would be H. L. Hunt and the far right in Dallas. This was no Robin Hood--no Untouchable either."

Charles Ward, now a judge on the state court of appeals, was one of Garrison's assistants in the case. "Most of the time you marshal the facts, then deduce your theories," he told The Times-Picayune in 1983. "But Garrison deduced a theory, then marshaled his facts. And if the facts didn't fit, he'd say they had been altered by the CIA."

Some of his staff became alarmed about his behavior. He would call meetings, then disappear into the men's room for a while, emerge with a new theory and send aides to try to prove it. Former investigator William Gurvich, who defected to Shaw's defense team, told of him spreading out a road map on his desk and drawing circles around places where Oswald or some of his friends had lived in New Orleans. Then he'd order background checks on people who lived in the same neighborhoods.

The climax of "JFK" is Garrison's long, impassioned closing argument in the Clay Shaw trial. In fact, Garrison did not deliver the main closing argument in the case; Assistant D.A. James Alcock did. And Garrison did not even stick around for the verdict-not guilty, after less than an hour's deliberation by the jury.

Fact and fiction-the Kennedy assassination is an inexhaustible mine of both. Oliver Stone would have us believe that the truth is still elusive, that there are sources still untapped, leads unpursued, villains on the loose. It's not impossible. But it's also fair to say that this may be the most exhaustively investigated event in history-which paradoxically accounts for many of the loose ends still dangling at its edges. Officially and unofficially, professionally and amateurishly, the occurrences of Nov. 22, 1963, have been sifted and resifted and doubtless will be sifted again. So much so that this is no longer just an episode in American history it's a cult. The movie "JFK" is not history; it's an act of devotion, a declaration of faith.

As Oliver Stone was putting the finishing touches on his epic "JFK" last week, he sat down with NEWSWEEK'S David Ansen to defend the highly controversial perspective of the film. Some highlights from the interview:

I would live with that. I think the artist's obligations are to interpret history and reinterpret it as he sees fit. If I did my homework, I don't feel I have a responsibility to Clay Shaw [the New Orleans businessman tried by zealous prosecutor Jim Garrison for conspiracy to kill JFK] because he was proven innocent in court. Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes trial, but that doesn't make what he did any less right.

Filmmakers make myths. They take the true meanings of events and shape them. D. W. Griffith did it in "Birth of a Nation." In "Reds," Warren Beatty probably made John Reed better than he was [but] was truthful in a mythic sense. I made Garrison better than he is for a larger purpose.

Is Clay Shaw violated by my work? Is he going to come haunt me at night, drive me to the edge of madness? I have to live with my conscience and if I have done wrong, it's going to come back on me. John Kennedy might be in my dreams, too, saying, "Do it, go out there, find my assassins, bring them to justice."

Again, it was a question of do I have time in this three hour scenario to really get into Kennedy stealing the election in '60? Or that he said one thing to the public and did another behind their backs? Those are valid points and I stand faulted on both Garrison and Kennedy. But my defense would be that there is a larger issue at stake. Ultimately, they were good guys.

No, I don't think it will because most of the participants are dead. But the American public should demand access to the files of the House Select Committee [sealed until 2029]. And a public inquiry should get underway about the CIA. They should be reined in. They were supposed to gather intelligence originally, not practice covert operations and destabilize governments. As an intelligence-gathering apparatus, they have been sorely remiss recently on the Soviet Union as well as in Iraq and Iran. Maybe the movie can contribute to a climate for reform.

Totally. It would have been a much healthier place. The massacre in Southeast Asia would not have occurred. The cycles of poverty and recession were fueled by the war economy by Johnson. Inflation resulted on a massive scale. The whole economic world shifted as a result of the Vietnam War.

And it wasn't like we went over there and just lost 58,000 lives--we killed 2 million people. The CIA practiced what they had been doing in the '5Os on a much larger level in Vietnam. The covert mentality continued right into the '90s. You go from Vietnam into Watergate and into the '80s with Irangate.

The forces that killed Kennedy did not operate in a vacuum. That parallel covert government has existed through the last 28 years. Lawrence Walsh couldn't bring Oliver North and that bunch to justice. It's a mentality that won't go away. One hopes the movie would make people want to strip away the lies and covert operations.

A couple of lunatics like Jim Garrison keep saying, hey, wake up, something happened. People like me, sons of Jim Garrison, promulgate the theory. I think people are more on my side than the government's. If they don't believe me this go-round, they'll believe me when another shocking thing happens.

OLIVER STONE: 'My responsibility is to myself. I have to live with my conscience and if I have done wrong, it's going to come back to me.'

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