JFK (The Movie)

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JFK (The Movie)

Upon its release in 1991, director Oliver Stone's controversial film JFK elicited cries from citizens who insisted that the U.S. government make public confidential Warren Commission files pertaining to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That the government made public some (but not all) of the files following the film's popular success not only reflects the power of Stone's film but also the overall power of film as a pop culture medium.

With JFK, Stone challenged the government by providing an alternative theory to the one reached by the Warren Commission. Stone not only consulted texts by popular historians (Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs) and historical records, but he also posited his own interpretation of events concerning JFK's assassination. Furthermore, although many individuals and groups have challenged the Warren Commission Report since its release, for the most part the mass public had not responded to the report with a collective fervor until Stone presented his film. Following the film's release, acting in response to—among other things—JFK viewer outcry, President George Bush "signed into law the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. [T]he bill provided for the establishment of an independent commission charged with releasing all government records related to Kennedy's assassination except those that clearly jeopardized personal privacy or national security."

Stone's film chronicles the events propelled into motion by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in 1969, when Garrison brought New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw to trial, accusing him of conspiring to assassinate JFK. In the film, Stone presents myriad characters—some actual, some hypothetical, and some composites. The technical achievements of JFK add a dimension of realism to the film, but this realism gives audience members (particularly historians) a potential problem in distinguishing fact from fabrication. For example, Stone blends actual Zapruder film footage with his fabricated footage, editing them together in a seamless fashion. Finally, in JFK, viewers learn about Stone's theory in which the American government, the military, the Mafia, Cuban nationalists, the military-industrial complex, then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, and, of course, Clay Shaw and Lee Harvey Oswald all conspired to assassinate JFK.

The overall response to JFK by both the general public and the media was both positive and negative. Positive responses mostly came from those viewers whom Stone enlightened, such as younger citizens out of touch with the assassination. The negative responses to the film came (and still come) from those whom Stone attacks, mainly the press, the government, and historians. Interestingly, to promote further reading on the topic and to appease his harshest critics, Stone released a fully-documented screenplay to the film, replete with some ninety critical articles dealing with the film as well as the assassination itself and actual historical records.

Stone included the phrase "The Story That Won't Go Away" in his title for JFK. If overall response to the film provides any indication, this story certainly has not gone away. If anything, Stone brought it back into the public consciousness with JFK —a film whose power relies not upon its accuracy in portraying certain events but on its ability to reopen one of the darkest chapters in American history.

—Jason T. McEntee

Further Reading/Viewing:

Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. New York, Warner Books, 1988.

JFK. (film). Warner Brothers, 1991.

Mackey-Kallis, Susan. Oliver Stone's America: Dreaming the Myth Outward. Boulder, Westview Press, 1996.

Marrs, Jim. Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. New York, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1989.

Stone, Oliver, and Zachary Sklar. JFK: The Book of the Film, a Documented Screenplay. New York, Applause Books, 1992.