Oliver Stone's JFK: A Controversial Filmmaker at His Peak

November 13, 2023 - 1:40pm
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Oliver Stone's JFK were written by Lance St. Laurent, Project Assistant for the Cinematheque and PhD candidate in the department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of the original theatrical release version of JFK will screen as the final film in our "Cinema in the Shadow of the JFK Assassination" series at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, November 19 at 2 p.m. The Chazen is located at 750 University Ave, and admission is free!

By Lance St. Laurent

No Hollywood film should be held to the standard of an objective historical text, so it’s no knock on the quality of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy epic JFK to say that one should not approach it as a work that unearths great historical secrets or conclusively blows the lid off the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Historians and journalists were quick to criticize Stone’s film even before its release, and one can easily find a litany of rebuttals, denials, and officially sanctioned counter-narratives to most, if not all the bold claims that Stone’s film makes over its dizzying three hour run time. Stone, never one to shy away from self-aggrandizement, went as far as to claim, “Never before in the history of movies has a film been attacked in first draft screenplay form. All the established media seem to be terrified of my movie.” Stone may overstate his case somewhat, but he has a point. Hollywood has always played fast and loose with history, so why did this film warrant Newsweek to preemptively assuage its readers with the headline “Why Oliver Stone’s New Film Can’t Be Trusted?” Is it because of the film’s perceived lack of historical rigor, or because it touched on something deeper? Newsweek was right to say that JFK can’t be trusted, not because of its historical inaccuracies, but because it weaponizes the language of Hollywood into a truly destabilizing work of A-list agitprop that dared to ask the average American viewer to glimpse behind the veil of American power.

By the 1990s, Oliver Stone had already established himself as one of the most successful and politically charged filmmakers of his generation. Stone had managed to parlay his career as an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for 1979’s Midnight Express) into an even more successful one as a director, fictionalizing his own experiences as a Vietnam War veteran into the Best Picture winning Platoon (1986). Platoon was not Stone’s debut, but it—along with his other film released the same year, Salvador (1986)—established him as a filmmaker specializing in melodrama with an edge of left-wing agitation. His run of hits in the 1980s further cemented this reputation, with films like Wall Street (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) garnering both mainstream success and critical plaudits while challenging prevailing cultural trends and social mores of 1980s America.

It was during Stone’s successful run in the late 1980s that Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of Assassins was first published, and Stone quickly secured the rights. Like many in his generation, Stone saw the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent investigation surrounding it as formative events in his own political development, a primal scene of Baby Boomer disillusionment. In adapting Garrison’s book, Stone also purchased the rights to another JFK assassination book, Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, hoping to do justice to not only the story of Jim Garrison’s quest for the truth but also to the larger, more insidious machinations that, in Stone’s telling, suppressed the truth about the assassination. Despite its controversial subject matter, Stone’s reputation helped secure him a $20 million budget from Warner Brothers and a massive cast of recognizable stars.

Stone had made political films before, and he had made films that were logistically complex, but JFK was something different. Stone’s initial draft of the screenplay suggested a 4½ hour film budgeted at $40 million, twice what WB had promised. While Stone was able to pare down the screenplay to a more acceptable runtime and secure outside financing for his expanding budget, JFK represented a huge step up for the filmmaker, not just in terms of scope, but also narrative and stylistic ambition. What begins as an almost Capra-esque slice of American domesticity quickly spirals into a swirling gyre of conspiracy—a barrage of names, locations, events, connections, varying film stocks, and alternate angles (both literal and metaphorical), all somehow wrangled into a legible form by the film’s two editors, Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia.

Guiding us through this descent into madness is New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner at his most wholesome. As characterized by Stone, Garrison is an idealized figure of American innocence, a man of unwavering moral fortitude and belief in the American system of justice and governance. That moral core never falters, but his belief in the American system—like the beliefs of so many of Stone’s protagonists—is shaken to the core by the magnitude of what he uncovers, and by the depths of its depravity.

There’s an animating tension at the heart of JFK; it feels as if it’s being pulled in multiple directions at once, seemingly by design. It’s a sprawling epic of national disillusionment that somehow also functions as a rousing, old-fashioned man against the system story. It’s both romanticized and deeply cynical, as if Stone himself can’t fully decide if the fundamental decency of the American people can overcome the sins of its corrupt systems. And try as he might, Stone himself can never fully reconcile these conflicting visions; they collide and conflict but never coalesce into a fully coherent point-of-view. There’s a sense that something has been achieved by the film’s end, but it’s never entirely clear what that is. Jim Garrison has his day in court, but all these years later, the Warren Commission’s single bullet theory remains the official story of the JFK assassination.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the firestorm of controversy surrounding JFK, the film proved to have strong box-office legs after a soft opening, ultimately grossing over $200 million worldwide. The film was also a major player at that year’s Oscars, earning 8 Oscar nominations and winning 2 for Cinematography and Editing. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of the end for Stone’s career as an A-list director. The rest of the 90s would see him attempt to hit the same highs as JFK, either through similar style and subject matter of earlier work—as in the Vietnam drama Heaven & Earth or 1995’s underrated Nixon—or through outright provocations—such as 1994’s exhausting Natural Born Killers. His 2000s were plagued by a string of high-profile films that failed to capture the attention of critics or audiences. By 2021, the release of his documentary JFK Revisited felt less like the victory lap of an acclaimed auteur than a desperate bid to relive the glory days.

Still, Stone’s influence on contemporary filmmaking is readily apparent. One can see resonances with Jim Garrison’s quixotic quest for justice in a film like David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), which similarly follows a wholesome protagonist through a disillusioning years-long obsession with an unsolved crime. More recently, several critics cited the influence of JFK’s frenzied, elliptical structure on Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, another star-filled epic of American innocence lost. Culturally, JFK’s influence is even more palpable. Conspiratorial thought has become the norm, with every harebrained theory imaginable little more than a click away for anyone who desires them. In an era where the very definition of truth is up for debate, the public pearl-clutching and outrage surrounding JFK seem almost quaint. Removed from controversy, all that remains is the film itself, and on that front, Stone ultimately prevails. Even today, JFK retains the power to grip audiences and pull them through the looking glass, dazzling with its narrative ambition and formal complexity long after the shock of infamy has worn off.