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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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Oliver Stone's production of JFK in 1991 represented the final word on the Kennedy assassination for many Americans. Through the practices and devices available to the filmmaker, Stone was able to create a convincing, plausible account of the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy. The assassination has spawned a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theory and speculation starting from November 22, 1963. Stone's JFK takes three accounts of the conspiracy and melds them together in a masterful and nearly seamless plot line. Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins forms the core of the story, with additional theories provided by Jim Marrs' Crossfire and John Newman's Kennedy and Vietnam. Each of these works had generated their own controversies before becoming associated with Stone's JFK and engendered even more after the association. The story they collectively tell is one of conspiracy in the highest echelons of government, as well as self-centeredness and hawkishness by the military. Stone planted enough reasonable doubt in the viewer's mind that—even though he might blanch at the mystifying government-wide conspiracy—he would still believe that the Warren Commission was hiding something and that some sort of conspiracy existed.

Oliver Stone asserted that his movie was historical instead of fiction and that he was a "cinematic historian" instead of a filmmaker. He claimed that he was being persecuted by the media, who he argued acted as a "priesthood" and pretended to be the "sole or privileged interpreters of our history." Stone further contended that history was "too important to leave to newsmen."1 The clear implication is that Stone considered himself a historian defending history from its poseurs. Robert Toplin's History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past takes up Stone's challenge and seeks to comprehend JFK's role as history and its mercurial director as historian. Toplin argues that JFK would have elicited much less controversy had Stone kept quiet about his historical aspirations or defended them as artistic license. A more balanced examination of the assassination reveals that JFK was not a historical work by any stretch of the imagination. Stone's claims brought that fact to the forefront and provided a focal point for critics.

The enduring legacy of that fateful day in Dallas is amazing. Hundreds of books have been written, countless documentaries have been filmed, and many symposia have been convened. The Warren Commission published 26 volumes of testimony, analysis, and evidence yet it could never be thorough enough for many. Max Holland speculates that the "disbelief attached to the Warren Report has to be grounded in unfinished business, some yearning that goes well beyond narrow questions like whether all pertinent government documents have been released."2 This paper cannot claim to present anything remotely like a definitive statement on such a well-travelled topic, but it will examine the larger issue of whether Oliver Stone's JFK was a work of history. The problems raised by Stone and the controversy surrounding JFK rise above the narrow questions of who did what, when and why.

The primary issues raised by Stone are what is history and who gets to speak for it. The major criticism of Stone's JFK is that it adopted a historical stance without employing a historical methodology. The historical methodology emphasizes research to discover facts and then provide an analysis of those facts in order to construct an interpretation. Such an interpretation invariably examines contradictory evidence since reality is rarely clean and clear in its facts. Even more rare is the interpretation that asserts certainty or excludes other possible interpretations. This occurs because of the messy nature of evidence—crucial items are lost forever, contradictory testimony points in two different directions without any probable resolution, or time weathers memories, evidence, and artifacts. Stone, on the other hand, does not engage in any such tempering or qualification. For him, the matter is crystal clear: the government killed its Commander-in-Chief in order to escalate the Vietnam War. Never mind that such a conclusion faces the evidentiary problems inherent in historical work; the evidence required to prove such a fantastic conclusion would be considerable and easily thwarted if such a powerful conspiracy existed. The conspiracy would have to involve a carefully coordinated and precisely executed plan spanning many federal, state, and local agencies, as well as the cooperation and silence of hundreds if not thousands of individuals.3

Yet such a conspiracy was asserted in JFK as fact. It is as if Stone thought that a conspiracy was self-evident: the details of which specific agencies, individuals, countries, or criminal organizations were involved are "narrow questions." There is no qualification by Stone, just a flurry of open-ended speculation. The result is a mishmash of concretes and theories that would make a postmodernist's head spin. Coincidences are used as evidence of conspiracy, or, at least, never considered as coincidences. The conclusion—that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy—is foregone and Stone, using Garrison's tome, throws out concrete after concrete in a shotgun approach to proving his notions. The viewer, unable to separate fact from fiction thanks to Stone's directorial skill, gives up and allows that Oswald had to have help.

And here we have a crucial difference between Stone and historians. Historians, presumably, would have seen coincidence and looked for the simplest explanation that fits the facts. Occam's Razor, which states that the simplest theory is probably the most correct, is a fundamental part of the historical method—at least implicitly. Stone, on the other hand, weaves fanciful and elaborate theories as to how the simplest explanations are really what the conspiracy would have you believe. Stone and his ilk would rather construct convoluted hypotheses than recognize the messy and contradictory nature of contemporaneous statements and evidence. Some of the information that came out of Dallas in the week following the assassination was speculation and contradictory. However, certain things become apparent based on preponderance and weight. Sure, some people thought they heard shots coming from fence by the grassy knoll—but they can be mistaken. When their testimony is coupled with ballistics evidence and other products of forensic science, we can see that they were mistaken. Thus, for Stone and others, no eyewitness account can be discounted and all must be explained. Any theories or hypotheses constructed up to that point were subject to recasting and accommodation of new evidence.

In shooting a feature film that relies on fictional devices and dramatized reenactments, Stone looks at first blush to be yet another Hollywood director making a big-budget movie. His statements both before and after the film's release indicate that he viewed the movie differently. In press conferences, opinion pieces, articles, and interviews, Stone positioned himself as a historian or "cinematic historian." He defended the film's historical accuracy in long, point-by-point rebuttals sent out as press releases and sometimes printed as editorials. He engaged his critics at every juncture possible: in talk radio interviews, in speeches, in press conferences. He also railed against the academic establishment that accused him of historical revisionism and rewriting history.4 Stone's positions exposed him to criticism by historians, both academic and independent.

It is tempting to write off a lot of the criticism by historians as professional jealousy. A similar reaction—though considerably less strident—greeted filmmaker Ken Burns after he claimed to be a member of the historical profession. Envy may have motivated some of the filmmakers' detractors, but it could not possibly explain all of it: there was just too much criticism from a very diverse group of historians and scholars. The issue at stake was one of specialization. These historians perceived that, if people like Stone could call themselves historians, their hold on history in the public mind was very tenuous. Conceivably, anyone anywhere could spout out nonsense and call themselves historians. Since the public is generally deficient in historical skills, this nonsense could be uncritically accepted. The historical profession, lacking an accrediting agency, did not have any means of automatically conferring authority. One could not be a licensed historian and the various historical organizations were professional in nature.

Stone, as we have seen, called himself a historian, even though he flagrantly violated the historical methodology. Such self-description cannot be taken at face value and one must wonder how many members of the general public actually concurred. Ultimately, JFK must be judged on the basis of its comportment with the historical record. This is the same as any piece of historical work, whether it was produced by a well-credentialed professor, a doctoral student, or a journalist. There are plenty of professors and doctoral students who are less objective and more irrational than any journalist. And the reverse is also true. That is why historical works must be judged on their own merits, rather than on the authority and education of the author.

That being said, though, works produced by academics do tend to be of higher quality and of a more scholarly bent than non-historian efforts. That is due mostly to the specialized training that academic writers receive. They are taught how to use and understand historical evidence. They learn how to deal with contradictory records. All of these lessons make the work more consonant with the messiness of reality. Non-academics tend to see the world in binary terms—black and white—rather than the subtleties present in such a complex context. Stone qua artist was perfectly within his rights to present open-ended speculation about the Kennedy assassination. He crafted a masterpiece of speculative fiction—very persuasive and compelling. If he had left it at that, few would have faulted him. Certainly, historians would have been able to enjoy the film as entertainment, rather than as an attack on their profession. As Toplin characterizes it, Stone "fudged the issue [by] claiming to be both a truth-seeking investigator and an artist who operated free of the standards that guide historical interpretation."5

1 Stone, Oliver. "Who is Rewriting History?" JFK: The Book of the Film. Eds. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar. (NY: Applause Books, 1992), 276.

2 Holland, Max. "After Thirty Years: Making Sense of the Assassination," Reviews in American History 22:2 (Jun. 1994): 192.

3 Posner, Gerald. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. New York: Random House, 1993. Posner's work, called "a masterpiece of solid research, objectivity, and careful reasoning" in a review in the Journal of American History, explodes the conspiracy theories by pursuing the simplest explanations. One is struck, after reading his work, at the tenaciousness with which conspiracy buffs cling to their theories even when their theories contradict the facts. For the best exposition of the case against a conspiracy, Posner's book is unequaled. Reeves, Thomas C. "A Review of Case Closed," Journal of American History 81:3 (Dec. 1994): 1379.

4 Stone, "Who is Rewriting History?"

5 Toplin, Robert B. History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 78.