The dedication in Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy is not to a person but to the past. Bugliosi dedicated his book to history. “To the historical record,” Bugliosi wrote, “knowing that nothing in the present can exist without the paternity of history, and hence, the latter is sacred, and should never be tampered with or defiled by untruths.” In a giant volume numbering well over a thousand pages, Bugliosi detailed the various conspiracy theories about the assassination of President Kennedy, and debunked them all using a handy weapon: the facts.
The facts of an event are important to all of us. At the dinner table we talk about how our day went, and in order to do that we must process the day’s information. Most people will tell the truth and recount the day’s interesting events from memory; some people will lie, but even in lying they must confront the facts in their mind. Our love of reality extends to the grandest of scales, where we use sources and evidence to ascertain the facts of a historical event.
Sticking stringently to the facts of a historical event can be difficult when it comes to art. Most films are two hours long, a stretch that elapses quickly and in most cases allows for only a cursory examination of an event. Even a typical work of literature doesn’t accommodate the whole reality of an event. Artists, of course, enjoy artistic license. We allow them to bend to truth a little bit—and in some cases a lot—so they might entertain us with a unique perspective on the event they are adapting. But how far should artistic license extend? Does it fall under artistic license if one, say, misrepresents an event entirely?
Oliver Stone calls himself a fan of history. If we’re to take his self-characterization seriously, then we must assume the discipline of history has collapsed into utter disarray, for no more prominent filmmaker has done more to mutilate the historical record as Stone has. From his catalog of ‘historical’ works, I would submit that Alexander and JFK are easily the crassest and most factually erroneous. I’d like to focus on the latter here. (I have touched upon Stone’s mistreatment of Alexander the Great before.) There is no question that a well-made historical film can elicit feelings of wonder and, indeed, can educate its audience. Stone’s JFK does precisely the opposite of that.
JFK follows Louisianan District Attorney Jim Garrison as he attempts to unravel the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy, a conspiracy he believes was covered up by the government. Stone’s film is ludicrous and difficult to follow—to put it kindly, JFK simply doesn’t track intellectually. I won’t go into the conspiracy theory here, mostly because it’s baseless and, shockingly, there is absolutely no evidence that anybody other than Lee Harvey Oswald had a hand in the assassination of President Kennedy. However, I do want to touch on instances in the film where Stone unquestionably lies to his audience.
“Stone is forty-five going on eight. In his three-hour lie [JFK], Stone falsifies so much he may be an intellectual sociopath.”
—Political commentator George Will
Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at President Kennedy, and conspiracy theorists have long alleged that Oswald did not have the speed to fire the shots in the 8.4 second window evident in the Zapruder film. If Oswald couldn’t get off three shots in that time, then there was a cover up or at least a falsification of evidence by the Warren Commission (the state investigation of the assassination). But this assertion is an untruth which Stone has his characters repeat several times throughout the film. It is possible to aim and fire three shots in 8.4 seconds. Stone goes further: he alleges that no subsequent investigation could repeat Oswald’s ‘feat’—not tests carried out by the Warren Commission marksmen, or by the FBI marksmen. This is a lie. Both investigations showed that firing three shots in the 8.4 second span was not only possible, but easy. Stone also cites the oft-repeated claim that Oswald was a poor shot. This despite the fact that Oswald made the rank of “sharpshooter” in the Marine Corps (he scored 212/250 in one test to earn that rank, while in a later test he managed 191/250, still enough to be ranked as a “marksman”). Oswald was a more than capable shot, and he’d had more than enough practice with his rifle. All this information can be found easily. Reality is unmistakable.
Perhaps more dangerously, Stone portrays District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) as an utterly virtuous character, a hero fighting for the truth. In fact, Garrison has gone down in history as one of the justice system’s greatest villains. He was a sociopath and a homophobe. He lied in court and fabricated evidence routinely, and in the trial upon which JFK is based, he tried to convict the innocent Clay Shaw (a gay man) with fake evidence that he had engineered. Luckily, the jury decided that Shaw was innocent—after just fifty-four minutes of deliberation, no less. Garrison’s trial was a sham, and Jim Garrison was most definitely not a good man. How can one possibly depict Garrison as a hero, given the man’s character?
Stone’s duplicity wouldn’t be as problematic if JFK came across as a work of fiction. But it doesn’t—Stone purposefully filmed it and edited it as if it were a dramatized documentary. For example, he used old stock film to record entire fictional sequences, making the footage look authentic and historical—grainy, scratched up, low-resolution and the like. Some of these scenes are legitimately remarkable; in one instance, footage of Gary Oldman, playing Oswald, is intercut with real footage of Oswald, and the two look almost identical. Stone, then, has made a film that attempts to look believable and factual, not dramatized. The average audience member would be fooled by much of the fake footage within.
Critics mused upon Alexander’s many historical inaccuracies. Stone explained that he was trying to focus on Alexander’s character and portray Alexander in a certain way, and in doing so he had to adapt some facts and eschew others. This is the aforementioned artistic license coming into play. Stone, and other writers, have claimed similar things about JFK. Roger Ebert came to Stone’s defense, arguing that JFK was more about the emotion of the time than about the actual facts of the assassination. But even if Stone’s goal was to capture the insecurity of the American public, then or now—and that was most certainly not his primary goal—he didn’t do a very good job of it. Compare JFK to Mad Men’s third season which brilliantly reflected the various emotions felt by the public at the time—mostly sorrow, but also joy (or indifference, at any rate) in some. Mad Men is superior in this respect, and markedly more believable.
I certainly appreciate an artist’s desire to focus on character or on emotion. The best stories adapted from history do just that. We can go back all the way to the ancient storytellers for evidence of this: records show that the Trojan War actually happened, but I’m quite sure that most of the events in Homer’s epic poems did not occur. Still, he used the Trojan War as a foundation to tell a great fantastical tale about humanity. The bounty is great for an artist that does that well, but the penalties for failure are severe. Stone doesn’t quite manage it in Alexander, and certainly not in JFK. At least in the case of Alexander, it is clear that he was earnestly trying to tell a good story. He may have failed, and he may have characterized Alexander in a way that you (and certainly I) disagree with, but he should be nonetheless commended for his efforts and for his undertaking. But JFK is not that. JFK is cynical, deliberate, and damaging.
In JFK, then, Stone bends history and lies outright. Is that artistic license? Is it acceptable for a filmmaker to perpetrate that kind of hoax on his viewers? I am irked by JFK, not solely because it is wrong and because the conspiracy theories are intellectually bankrupt, but because it successfully smeared the historical record. The conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination had almost disappeared (much as the Moon Hoax theory is virtually dead) before Stone single-handedly revived them, thereby indoctrinating an entire generation that wasn’t about to spend the smallest modicum of time to examine the veracity of his allegations. Most Americans, and many people worldwide, still believe that the President was cut down by a conspiracy. JFK certainly didn’t help correct this mistaken conviction.
Yet, I am a stalwart defender of freedom of speech, and I cannot possibly suggest to you that Stone should have somehow been barred from making his film. I cannot abide by any limitation on speech, not even if there were a sudden torrent of JFKs released. I cannot accept the censure of even the most historically inaccurate films, or inaccurate books, or any other inaccurate works of art. It is our right to be inaccurate if we wish. I cannot imagine ever placing any kind of limitation on filmmakers. Stone has the freedom to create whatever picture he wants and to write whatever story he wants.
That is a necessary conclusion. I find it to be an unsatisfactory one. While we can’t place a legal duty on Stone to tell the truth, Stone has failed in his civic duty to tell the truth by lying to his fellow citizens. When it comes to doing right by his viewers, Stone comes up morally destitute. He is knowingly deceitful, and even if we are to entertain the notion that he didn’t know his information was incorrect, it still means he didn’t afford a second of his time to check if his kooky conspiracy buddies were correct in their assertions.
I’ve heard it said of freedom of speech that one can say whatever one wants, but one cannot expect to be free from judgment and consequences. To put it another way, a man is free to spew racist and hateful nonsense, but in doing so he’ll have to accept that there will be non-judicial consequences for his actions—social exile, perhaps termination from his job, and so on. It may be the case that such a system of social censure exists in art. An artist is free to do anything he wants to history. One hopes that the audience will call him out if he does a poor job of it. Most viewers swallowed JFK and accepted it as gospel. We must ready ourselves and prepare a more appropriate response when the next scandalous film comes about.