Oliver Stone didn’t know that “JFK” would define him as it has when the towering political thriller hit theaters on Dec. 20, 1991. But in short order it proved to be at once a source of great pride for the filmmaker — the kind of achievement only possible on a hot streak like the one Stone was enjoying in the late-’80s and early-’90s — and something of an albatross.
“It was a hot potato from the get-go, much hotter than I thought,” Stone says now, reflecting on the film’s 25th anniversary. “I didn’t realize it would hit the central nerve core of the establishment … And it did take its toll. I think it’s changed the perception of me forever. Many now dismiss me as a filmmaker who is political and only into conspiracy theories. It labeled me and I was staggered. I wish, in a way, it had just died off.”
Pity, because what Stone exhibited with the film — which dramatically posits a massive cover-up of president John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination through the eyes of then-New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison — was a staggering command of visual storytelling. An admirer of director Costa-Gavras’ own 1969 political thriller, “Z,” Stone went into “JFK” wanting to make something analogous, a fractured film where “you look at a crime, you accept the first version of it, the official version, then you look at it again,” he says.
The director worked feverishly with screenwriter Zachary Sklar for the better part of 1990 developing the project, much of it conjured while he was finishing post-production on his rock biopic “The Doors.” Spinning off of tomes like Jim Marrs’ meticulously reported “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” and Garrison’s own “On the Trail of the Assassins,” with further inspirations like former U.S. Chief of Special Operations L. Fletcher Prouty (who became the basis for Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic “Mr. X” character), Stone cranked out a script so massive he felt it best to pull back on some of the details in the version he submitted to Warner Bros. for backing.
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“I was always concerned about them trying to simplify it,” he recalls. “I think that’s why we rushed, because we wanted to make the December date. If we hadn’t made that date, then we would have been called out. The three-hour version would have been shown to preview audiences and I can guarantee a preview audience would be saying, ‘I don’t understand this, I don’t understand that.’ Then we’d get the notes saying, ‘Clarify this, clarify that.’ I think that would have undone the movie. We needed a certain momentum for that movie.”
Actor Kevin Costner was also in the midst of well-earned industry cachet at the time, hot on the heels of “Field of Dreams” and Oscar glory with “Dances with Wolves,” not to mention summer blockbuster hit “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” As Garrison, he anchored an incredibly vast and sprawling ensemble that included many well-known character actors, as well as countless local faces plucked from the Dallas casting scene for bit roles.
“Everybody that came was ready to work, because Oliver is really on point,” Costner says. “It was a lot — a lot for me, and it was going to be a lot for them. There was no waiting. We needed to go and we had to be sharp all the way through. Every day was going to be a workload. There was nothing casual about that movie.”
For such a dense piece of work, it’s stunning to consider how swiftly Stone and his team moved through and executed it. There were a couple of months of prep and three months for shooting, and Stone must have just been swimming in material the whole time.
Indeed, listen to his director’s commentary on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases today, and you can hear him flipping through page after page of notes, cross-referencing many of the movie’s assertions with his research on the subject.
“I may have been in defensive mode,” Stone says. “You have no idea. I had never made a movie where I had to defend it six months later in the press. The media was very nasty and they’d set me up on shows. At some point I had quite a bit of research on my side, but I’d have to recall it all [on the spot] and I couldn’t do that.”
Cinematographer Robert Richardson had collaborated with the director on a number of previous works, including “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” The pair worked with a shifting aspect ratio on “JFK,” part of the whole manipulation conceit. Much of the movie’s kinetic look was derived from Abraham Zapruder’s famous amateur recording of the assassination.
“Oliver was at a massive height in respect to his capabilities,” Richardson recalls via email. “His intuition, atop his research, atop his utter devotion to concept made for an astounding film and one I will cherish as unique forever.”
Richardson went on to win his first-ever Academy Award for the film. The movie also won the film editing Oscar, owed to Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing’s painstaking assemblage of the massive amounts of film Stone and Richardson shot. “JFK” picked up six other nominations, including best picture and best director.
As for the film’s legacy, Richardson sees it much like the film’s postscript — “What’s past is prologue.” — portends.
“In my opinion ‘JFK’ will retain its relevancy regarding political corruption, as well as corporate and personal corruption, which is sadly inherent in this narcissistic world,” he says.
Costner sees it as a reminder to question those in authority, which is all too relevant today.
“What you have to keep in mind when you’re making a movie is you’re not making it for opening weekend, although that’s the god that everybody’s praying to out there,” the actor says. “The reality is there are going to be people that it has a chance to mark, and a movie like ‘JFK,’ it has a chance for generations to visit it when they come of an age where that interests them, and the questions posed are really important. There was a shift in the country. We used to think — my parents thought, certainly — that people in power told you the truth, and it’s really not always the case. We’ve seen that for the last 60 years.”
To that point, here is a film that uses an entire courtroom scene — wherein Garrison loftily quotes Lord Alfred Tennyson and (anachronistically) naturalist Edward Abbey to make his points — as a metaphor for cracking the public opinion. When a judge finally overrules an objection from the defense late in the lengthy sequence, it feels like a representation of the sort of fissure Garrison and those urging interrogation of the official record are eager to exploit.
One of Garrison’s lines, quoting 17th Century poet John Harington, is particularly haunting in the current political climate — despite the fact that Stone seems to think Donald Trump at America’s helm is no big deal: “Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Stone says he’s in a different place now than he was when he made “JFK.” He frankly appears to be more weary of the global power structure than ever before. He says he feels like he knows a lot more about government now and “the American fairytale” that’s conjured for mass consumption, and that “JFK” holds a special place for fronting that message of questioning our higher offices.
“Garrison is the only public record,” he says. “He rolled the ball into a public arena for the first time and allowed the Zapruder film to come out. And now so many more people have gotten on the bandwagon that governments lie. When we did the film, even for the ’91 period, we were all lining up to go into the Kuwait War. No one questioned that one, and there have been gigantic scandals in American life since then, including the weapons of mass destruction, the Iraq War, and now this whole issue about Russia hacking the United States. It’s another false flag and they keep repeating it and repeating it. You talk to people who are really doing their job in intelligence, they’ll tell you it’s just not true.”
Yes, in Stone’s view, the accusation that Russia hacked into Democratic National Committee emails with the specific intention of helping Trump win the presidency is another large-scale lie like the one he sought to dismantle in “JFK.” He instead believes former NSA official William Binney’s theory, that a disgruntled U.S. intelligence worker likely leaked the material.
But Stone hasn’t heard until this very moment that the FBI is now backing the CIA’s assessment on the matter. Nevertheless, he’s completely unmoved and unconvinced by the revelation. In fact, he’s reminded of the very forces surrounding the events of his 25-year-old opus.
“It’s very close to the Kennedy report,” he says. “This will harden the anti-Russia policy we’ve been taking for years. It’s a crazy world and it just shows you how Washington works. It’s lockstep. Groupthink. And it’s very dangerous, because now we’ve got to go to war with Russia. It’s the same mentality that locked in on the Kennedy case.”