“JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass” lives up to its title. Directed by Oliver Stone, it’s a kind of documentary companion-piece sequel to “JFK,” and yes, it takes you through the looking glass again. There are moments when it gives you that heady, tingling, oh-my-God-I-have-seen-the-truth-that-was-hidden! sensation of revelatory immersion, the kind that hits you when you’re confronted with an autopsy photo in which a wound is said to have mysteriously disappeared, or when you’re staring at a declassified page from the Warren Commission Report in which Gerald Ford, with a few penciled-in words, literally shifts by six inches the place where the first bullet entered JFK. At moments like that, you feel the frisson of the junkie-hit injections that conspiracy theory is built upon. They’re the moments you can feel yourself slipping through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole, or wherever else it is that you feel more alive than you did the moment before, because you’ve now glimpsed where The Forbidden Truth resides.
Does “JFK Revisited” reveal a smoking gun? No, it doesn’t. It says that Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle wasn’t a smoking gun — and claims that he wasn’t even in the Texas School Book Depository. (Chew on that one for a while.) Yet the film, in another way, presents almost every moment in it as a smoking gun. In the 30 years since “JFK” was released, Stone has never let go of the belief that there’s a hidden history of things, one that the official history is designed to cover up. If anything, he’s only expanded that belief (it’s the premise of his fascinating 12-part documentary “The Untold History of the United States,” released on Showtime in 2012).
We used to call it “conspiracy theory,” and that’s still a good phrase for it, but to the increasingly vast number of Americans who now live inside it, it is neither conspiracy nor theory; it is simply reality. In “Through the Looking Glass,” Stone, after presenting two hours’ worth of evidence about the JFK assassination, refers to what he has shown us as “conspiracy fact,” as if he had finally blown the hinges off the Oswald lone-gunman scenario. His words are meant to be a rebuke to all those who have written him off over the years as a brilliant but frothing information-age political fantasist.
The JFK assassination launched the Age of Conspiracy, and many conspiracies followed — Paul is Dead, the fake moon landing, the cover-up of alien abductions, the murder of Princess Diana, 9/11 as inside job. That a good portion of the American public now thinks Joe Biden stole the election, and that QAnon is something other than organized media psychosis, shows you just how far through the looking glass we’ve gone.
But in the continuum of conspiracy theory that has escalated for 60 years, there’s no doubt that “JFK,” Stone’s blacks-ops puzzle of a true-life political thriller, gave a seismic boost of legitimacy to the metaphysic of conspiracy theory. Released in 1991, the film had an ominous dazzle. It sucked you into the vortex and was taken as deadly seriously as it deserved to be. It reopened the case in the American imagination, to the point that Congress, in 1992, passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, declassifying half a million documents that had emerged from the findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976. Those documents were supposed to have remained sealed until 2029, but “JFK” undid that deadline. And “Through the Looking Glass” is built on information contained in them. In other words, it’s based on the U.S. government’s own record of the JFK assassination, and Stone’s interpretation of it.
After “JFK,” I came back through the looking glass myself. Up until then, I’d always believed that there was some kind of conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, and that belief was only heightened by the poetic power of “JFK.” But as I was moved to consume more about the assassination than I ever had before, and to confront new evidence and analysis like the kind presented in Gerald Posner’s 1993 book “Case Closed” or Robert Stone’s mind-opening 2007 documentary “Oswald’s Ghost,” I began to swing back to the lone-gunman version of events, and to see it, in an odd way, as the ultimate looking-glass scenario: the one that now completely challenged our sense of reality. (How could one small sick man like Lee Harvey Oswald commit an act so horrifically monumental? That’s the real vortex.)
“JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass” isn’t a dizzying docu-dream, like “JFK.” It’s rooted in minutiae, gray testimony, concrete information. It doesn’t play like a delirious crackpot riff — rather, it’s made in a somber just-the-facts-ma’am style, though one that isn’t too far removed from the reality-as-suspense-film vibe you get on shows like “Unsolved Mysteries” or “Forensic Files.” The opening fanfare includes a 1963 clip of a man with a crewcut saying “the shot came from the hill” (i.e., the grassy knoll). Apart from that, it’s a standard Dealey-Plaza-and-Parkland-and-Cronkite-and-Jackie-and-LBJ-and-Jack-Ruby-and-the-Warren-Commission montage, with tumultuous Phillip Glassy music heightening the history. But once the film settles into its presentation of documents, forensic evidence, and talking heads, that soundtrack music is giving you a message, caressing each moment into a turbulent paranoia that says, “There’s a reason what you’re seeing is disturbing. It’s real.” If the music were stripped away, the film’s effect would be less insistent, and it says something that a filmmaker as serious as Stone feels the need to pump it all up.
In “Through the Looking Glass,” Stone expands on the story, and the theories, we already know, from what he claims is the farfetched quality of the so-called magic-bullet theory to the bullet’s chain of custody to the film’s contention that JFK’s corpse was whisked out of Dallas so that civilian physicians couldn’t determine that he was shot by more than one gunman. Stone devotes a lot of time to the Oswald saga, as voluminously as it’s already been covered. He shows us the images of Oswald in his backyard, holding up the 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano infantry rifle that was found, along with three shell casings, on the sixth floor of the book depository. Stone directs our attention to contradictory versions of where the rifle strap was supposedly attached (on the side or the back?), and in two different photos he shows us Oswald with his wedding ring on two different hands. This is supposed to suggest that the photos were faked. (But if they were going to be faked with this level of pre-Photoshop expertise, why didn’t the fakers notice the wedding ring?)
One of the film’s two narrators, Whoopi Goldberg, tells us that there’s “powerful evidence that Oswald was not on the sixth floor at the time of the shooting.” The movie fills this in by going into the records to explore the testimony of Vickie Adams, who knew Oswald from the book depository. After Adams and her friend heard shots being fired, they ran down the back stairs to see what was happening. Since Oswald, according to the official story, made his escape by going down those same back stairs, the film treats it as a seismic revelation that they never saw him. He must not have been there!
But might not Oswald have heard them and hung back for 10 seconds? Why does this idea — that the two women never saw Oswald — prove anything? (Oh, but the wedding ring!) The movie, in what some will take to be a powerful piece of evidence, uses the declassified documents to show us that the Warren Commission actually altered the timing of the two women’s departure so that it would line up with the idea of Oswald-as-the-lone-gunman. This leads the film into one of the murkier realities of the JFK assassination: that the Warren Commission may well have tampered with certain evidence. Not everything lined up, and they connected the dots, coloring in some dots where they had none. Is that a scandal, a political outrage? Yes and yes. But does it, in fact, mean that the Oswald-as-lone-gunman scenario was all made up?
Stone’s grand thesis is that JFK was assassinated by the CIA. He presents a whole vast rationale for why the CIA would have done this, one that expands on the JFK-wanted-to-pull-out-of-Vietnam scenario presented at the end of “JFK.” According to the documentary, JFK wanted to mend fences, bring a progressive vision to the world, make friends out of nations and forces that the CIA preferred to preserve as enemies; he wanted to neuter the CIA itself. There’s no question that the CIA, by the early ’60s, was a rogue organization that helped to carry out assassinations and was responsible for other scurrilous actions. This is not news. So it isn’t hard to make the Agency sound like ominous culprits, and to make the Director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles (who was fired by JFK over the Bay of Pigs fiasco), into a sinister schemer, because that’s what he was. His very presence on the Warren Commission is treated by the movie as a scandal, and maybe that’s the case.
Yet the theory that the CIA assassinated Kennedy remains, in “Through the Looking Glass,” an ominous abstraction supported by random wisps of “circumstantial evidence.” Goldberg, in the narration, says of Oswald, “The underlying mystery remains: Why would anyone use a rifle in an assassination knowing there was a paper trail that would lead right back to them?” Is that so hard to fathom? Oswald bought his rifle through a mail-order catalogue under a fake name. Seven months before the JFK assassination, he used that same rifle to try and assassinate the retired U.S. Major General Edwin Walker by shooting into his home. “Through the Looking Glass” holds a magnifying glass up to certain inconsistencies in the evidence that will probably never be resolved, but the movie also takes wild swings. Why would Oswald have left a paper trail? Because he never expected to be caught. And because he was a sick puppy who was mentally ill enough to want to shoot the president.
When Stone gets into the most intense section of evidence, the details of bullet trajectories and what happened to the president’s brain, you listen with a kind of mesmerized numbness, riding along, for a while, with what the film is claiming. It says that the brain photographs in the National Archives are not, in fact, photos of JFK’s brain — that another brain was swapped in for a second (bogus) set of photos. A number of witnesses, almost all of whose testimony is reported to us as hearsay, are said to have claimed that they saw a gaping hole in the back of Kennedy’s head, an occipital wound suggesting that he’d been shot from the front. Dr. Malcolm Perry, who performed the tracheotomy on Kennedy, claimed at the time that the hole in Kennedy’s throat was an entrance wound. Then he changed his story.
This is a movie review, not a forensic dossier, but here’s my honest response to all that. The evidentiary climax of “JFK” takes place in court, where Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison shows the Zapruder film and tells the jury that the bullet that split Kennedy’s head open sent his head “back and to the left.” That infamous movement was long ago dissected by ballistics experts, but the point is this: Stone, in the end, was willing to draw cosmic conclusions by looking at the Zapruder film.
Well, when I look at the Zapruder film, what my eyes see, at that horrific moment, is that the back of JFK’s head is intact. There is no occipital wound. The bullet tore through the side of his head. And if you watch his hands up at his throat just beforehand and watch Texas Gov. John Connally’s movements, the timing and flow of the magic-bullet theory line up perfectly. (Speaking of the throat wound, if it was, as the documentary claims, an entrance wound, caused by a bullet coming from the grassy knoll, wouldn’t that bullet have ripped through the side of Kennedy’s neck?)
But I have one more question. Near the end, referring to the moment that became the most cataclysmic of the 20th century, Stone says that the president was killed in a “crossfire.” But how could there have been a crossfire if Oswald wasn’t even in the book depository? Was there another shooter in the book depository using Oswald’s rifle? Was there a shooter across the street? The film barely even explains its theory. Talk about skimping on details! In “JFK Revisited,” Oliver Stone leads us through the looking glass, all right, but the real question is whether he’s found the truth or an even more hypnotically spectacular lie.