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The Cinematic Influences of Oliver Stone’s JFK

The nation was approaching the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks when Oliver Stone was doing press for his upcoming drama World Trade Center. It was summer 2006, and exhaustion and distrust long replaced the sense of solidarity that emerged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Now came an Oliver Stone movie about 9/11. “This movie could have been about hope or fear,” Stone said in an interview at the time. I decided it had to be about hope.” Hope for a better world, for a better America is, perhaps at times obliquely, a recurring theme in Oliver Stone’s filmography.

It is one of those ironic coincidences of history that President John Kennedy and the motorcade were en route to Dallas’s arm of the World Trade Center for a luncheon on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was gunned down in Dealey Plaza. How this tragedy happened was the subject of Oliver Stone’s epic JFK. Most of Stone’s work has garnered criticism and controversy over the years, but perhaps none more so than JFK — and that includes such titles as Natural Born Killers, Snowden, and Nixon, among others. The documentaries — on Castro, Putin, Chavez — are equally controversial. Pointedly, such controversy is very rarely about the filmmaking, but about the ideas within the films. With 1991’s JFK, nominated for eight Academy Awards, the look, tone, and pacing of that film were well ahead of its time, a master class in presenting mountains of material and characters, trusting the audience would keep up, all without losing focus on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Having his films technically and aesthetically above reproach has bolstered Stone’s defenses against his critics; coupled with having co-written most of his scripts has allowed him to meet controversy head on, pivoting arguments into social and historical perspectives, peppering his viewpoint with references to Greek myths, Buddhism, Roman history, and a thorough grasp of film and art history.

Simply, Oliver Stone typically does his homework, and in the wake of the critical success of JFK, a studio picture (Warner Bros.) featuring a lineup of A-list stars that guaranteed maximum media exposure, something remarkable happened: the passing of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which created the Assassination Records Review Board. As a direct result of Stone’s film, the American people have been given access to the tens of thousands of documents related to the assassination investigations that were hitherto locked away in government vaults.

At the time of JFK’s release, Stone was in the midst of an incredible directorial blitz: ten films in ten years, a streak that included two Best Director wins for Stone, and a run few filmmakers have matched since: Salvador and Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Doors and JFK (1991), Heaven & Earth (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995). Hope, or the shattering of hope and the journey towards some kind of peace, permeates throughout these pictures. But it is in the enduring legacy of JFK, both the slain 35th U.S. president and film that bears his initials, that remains a benchmark in Stone’s canon, and a landmark in the American cinematic experience. While Platoon is his most autobiographical, JFK is Oliver Stone articulating the gaping hole in the American heart wrought by President Kennedy’s murder; a story of an America losing itself in the shadows of a state within a state, a darkness embodied not only in the exploding violence in Dealey Plaza, but in the senselessness of the Vietnam War, and a string of presidencies with agendas driven by intelligence and secrets rather than instilling inspiration and hope in the republic.

“A mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma,” David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) frets in JFK

Thirty years after JFK’s release, Stone returned to Dallas with his JFK cinematographer, Robert Richardson, in a new documentary on the November 22, 1963 assassination, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. Showtime released the two hour documentary in July 2021. It garnered a new wave of attention for Stone, particularly a widely viewed interview on The Joe Rogan Experience. JFK Revisited was followed in March 2022 by a fuller, expanded four-hour miniseries, now titled JFK: Destiny Betrayed.

Oliver Stone behind the grassy knoll fence in JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass

Stone’s intent for returning to the assassination was to update audiences on the advances made in the case in light of the JFK Records Act and Assassination Records Review Board. This meant continuing the argument made in JFK that the Warren Commission deliberately misled the American people away from the truth of who saw what and when in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And yet, what lingers in mainstream media and culture is that anything related to Oliver Stone is to be met with suspicion, that a conspiracy theorist lurks among us. Yet, often overlooked, is that for as much attention and ad hominem attacks Stone endured about making a film that suggested conspiracy at the highest echelons of the intelligence and military communities, JFK is actually an adaptation of two non-fiction books: Crossfire by Jim Marrs, first published in 1989, and Jim Garrison’s memoir On the Trail of the Assassins (1988). Garrison, New Orleans D.A. from 1962 to 1973, is the lead character in Stone’s adaptation and is portrayed by Kevin Costner. The film follows Garrison’s obsessive foray into the assassination of President Kennedy, leading to the arrest and trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for conspiracy to assassinate the president. Stone depicts the trial as the film’s climax, layering the mystery-thriller elements of JFK with those of a courtroom drama.

In a film brimming with exceptional monologues, a segment from Garrison’s closing statement at Shaw’s trial summarizes not only a major theme of the film, but also the conclusion drawn from many who believe a conspiracy existed:

What kind of national security do we have when we’ve been robbed of our leaders? What national security permits the removal of fundamental power from the hands of the American people and validates the ascendancy of an invisible government in the United States? That kind of national security, gentlemen of the jury, is when it smells like it, feels like it, and looks like it, you call it what it is: Fascism!

Was the killing of John F. Kennedy a coup d’etat by the military industrial complex, one fomented not by a foreign power but conceived, carried out, and covered up by enemies within? After all, the alleged assassin, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, never lived to face trial, to defend or to explain himself. In the hours leading to his own public execution he claimed to have been a patsy. He denied he murdered the president when heckled with questions at a midnight, Kafkaesque press conference surrounded by Dallas police with no legal representation to be found. Before the weekend was out, the deus ex machina would descend in the form of Dallas mobster, Chicago native Jack Ruby, silencing Oswald forever in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters with a single bullet to the gut. “What is the truth and where did it go / Ask Oswald and Ruby — they oughta know,” Bob Dylan sings in his almost 17-minute song of the assassination, “Murder Most Foul.”

Suddenly, nothing was what it seemed. This turn for the surreal is reflected in the crucial scene in JFK, when Jim Garrison has to shake his staff out of their slumber: “Y’all gotta start thinking on a different level — like the CIA does. We’re through the looking glass. Here white is black and black is white.” Stone underscores the importance of Garrison’s exhortation with the subtitle of the 2021 documentary — Through the Looking Glass.

Kevin Coster as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in JFK

It is therefore easy to forget JFK is an adaptation. Jim Garrison provided Stone with the ideal protagonist to channel his own passion for the material. JFK also enabled Stone to honor the film’s cinematic predecessors, landmark films for their time in both form and content. In evoking these films, Stone subtly bridged the Kennedy assassination with other political assassinations of the time. Here, a vague remark from one Tommy Baumler, operative for New Orleans P.I. Guy Banister (Ed Asner in JFK), takes on new understanding: “[t]hose who killed John F. Kennedy were those who wanted to kill [French president Charles] de Gaulle.”

In August 1962, General de Gaulle survived yet another of the thirty assassination attempts made against him. The failed attack became the basis for Frederick Forsyth’s bestseller The Day of the Jackal (1971), followed by the 1973 popular film version directed by Fred Zinnemann. The right-wing French terrorist network OAS (Secret Army Organization) claimed responsibility for the attempt, seeking violence to protest de Gaulle’s granting freedom to Algeria: violence in the form of 140 bullets assaulting de Gaulle’s black Citroen DS 19, recreated as the opening scene in Zinnemann’s film.

Members of OAS attempt to assassinate President de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal

Algeria was a major point of contention in French politics, and was the backdrop for Pontecorvo’s landmark 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers. Oliver Stone has often cited The Battle of Algiers as a great cinematic influence, and Fred Zinnemann, a few years after The Day of the Jackal, lobbied to work with Stone, then primarily known as a screenwriter, on his dream project, Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate, a novel about terrorism, insurrection, and assassination in 1927 Shanghai. The project did not materialize, and has yet to be realized on film by anyone to date.

In tandem with other influences such as Z by Costa-Gavras in 1969 and two by John Frankenheimer, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964), about an attempted military coup on the White House, JFK clearly stands on the shoulders of these earlier works. Students of the JFK assassination might suggest the 1973 film Executive Action as a possible influence. While featuring Robert Ryan and Seven Days in May veteran Burt Lancaster and based on the work by first generation JFK researcher Mark Lane, the rather uninspired filmmaking pales in comparison to the caliber of these other films.

But there is more here than commonality in genre and subject matter. Z, for instance, is inspired by the real-life assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis, a thorn in the side to those who later overthrew the king of Greece, Constantine II, in a 1967 military coup d’etat. Lambrakis, outspoken in his anti-war stance, was assassinated seven months before the Dallas ambush, in May 1963.

Yves Montand as Grigoris Lambrakis just before he is attacked in Z by Costa-Gavras

One of the financial backers of the Greek Colonels Coup was Sicilian lawyer for the mob and future financial mastermind for the Vatican, Michele Sindona. Sindona’s wizardry for Vatican assets, bizarrely including Paramount studios at a point, would ultimately bottom out in a spectacular crash that would lead to the largest banking disaster in post-World War II Europe, the Banco Ambrosiano collapse. This was the crux of the Vatican Bank scandal that led to the hanging of banker Roberto Calvi in 1982, events dramatized by Coppola and Puzo in The Godfather, Part III (1990). Giuseppe Ferrara’s 2002 Italian film, I banchieri di Dio (The Bankers of God), also dramatizes the sordid scandal, with Rutger Hauer as American archbishop and Vatican Bank president Paul Marcinkus.

The murder of President Kennedy did not exist in a silo, as an isolated anomaly. It was the age of assassinations, not only in the United States but in Latin America, Africa, Europe, particularly Italy, There, this explosion of political terrorism instigated by a ruthless state-within-a-state, one content to operate outside public scrutiny, where there are no campaigns, ribbon cuttings, or motorcades, was an era known as the “Years of Lead,” launched with the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in December 1969. We know of the existence of such a secret order, confirmed by Italian PM Guilio Andreotti in 1990: the powerful Masonic cabal Propaganda Due (P2). P2 nearly toppled the Italian government on at least one occasion, but it was most effective at a strategy of tension: covert subversion and destabilization, infiltration by its members into nearly all areas of Italian infrastructure, and if needed, assassination. Its puppetmaster was Licio Gelli, a volunteer Blackshirt during World War II, whose influence spanned into Latin America, particularly with Juan Peron in Argentina, and especially the right-wingers of American politics, namely Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger; he attended Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981.

P2 longed to thwart the gains of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and it was supported by CIA’s Operation Demagnetize in this quest to thwart PCI’s momentum, even if it meant dirty tricks such as election interference, on one hand, or murder, on the other. Case in point: the assassination of public administrator Enrico Mattei in 1962. Mattei was a Christian Democrat who championed the policy of l’apertura, the “opening to the left,” an idea anathema to rabid anti-communists on both sides of the Atlantic. Two other politicians supported this idea: Aldo Moro, and John F. Kennedy, who traveled through Rome like a conqueror in the summer of 1963. A year after Mattei’s death, PM Moro envisioned a coalition government, one that would welcome Socialists, “the Historic Compromise.” On November 22, 1963, posters were slapped on the walls of Rome during a neo-fascist rally decrying Moro’s center-left coalition, going so far as to hint at assassinating the PM. But it would be a vision he would pursue for the next fifteen years. On the cusp of achieving a coalition cabinet for the new government under Guilio Andreotti, Moro was kidnapped, his five bodyguards killed. Eventually, Moro himself was murdered in May 1978, a definite message that there would be no Historic Compromise. While the Red Brigades took responsibility for Moro’s kidnapping and murder, Italian journalist Mino Pecorelli alluded to an entirely different beast all together: a stay-behind army sponsored by NATO — Gladio. Pecorelli was shot to death in his car in 1979.

Marco Bellochio co-wrote and directed Esterno notte (Exterior Night), about the Aldo Moro case, which premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, nearly 20 years after Bellochio previously explored Moro’s fate in Buongiorno, notte. The tragedy of Enrico Mattei was adapted by Francesco Rosi in 1972, Il Caso Mattei, which deftly combines a dramatic narrative with documentary elements featuring Rosi himself. It won that year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes.

This is some of the international context of JFK’s killing. Stone’s work has helped position the murder away from its perception as an isolated incident, a random act of violence by a crazed lone gunman, and place it in the milieu of a global strategy of tension where assassinations were frequent, where the fate of one’s country became shaped by those who benefited from the chaos they themselves created.

“There was a hunger within filmmakers like Lean (and Kubrick, Coppola, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and Stone) to break through the boundaries, to dare a big idea and have the effrontery to impose it on timid studio executives,” Roger Ebert wrote ten days before the September 11 attacks. If JFK took up the mantle set by the best political thrillers of the Cold War, what stands on JFK’s shoulders more than thirty years after its release? Perhaps the public needs to see the assassination a new way, in the way James Shapiro, English professor at Columbia, said of 9/11: “[S]omebody has to come along and see something that happened at that moment in a way that is new to the people who breathed it, who felt it and who saw it again and again on television.”

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