Oliver Stone's epic counter-propaganda blast, released 1991, which portrays the ill-fated investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) into suspicious circumstances surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald's contacts and stay in New Orleans, which led ultimately to a failed prosecution of leading NO businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to assassinate president Kennedy.

As cinema, most agree the film works very well. The director's usual solid and muscular talents are ably applied to the task in hand, which is essentially to present Garrison's case for the prosecution. The acting is at least competent, in Costner's case, and several smaller parts are done exceptionally well - in particular, Gary Oldman does a superb take-off of Oswald, and Joe Pesci is beyond perfection as oddball suspect David Ferrie.

For anyone who has read much into the assassination, and at least considered the possibility of conspiracy, the film should be a delight, just for the thrill of seeing classic characters and items of evidence brought to life with such gusto and attention to detail, like Oswald's FPCC leaflets, the single bullet theory, Ed Asner's Guy Banister, a rascist ex-SAC turned PI, involved in gun-running and selling political dirt on students he spied on to their prospective employers. The recreation of the assassination itself is an amazing piece of editing work, and puts the viewer in Dealy Plaza in a visceral way that no dry documentary or potboiler could ever hope to match.

If the film were presented as simply entertainment, we could stop there. But the details of the handling of the film - internal, like the careful distinctions made between historical facts and Garrison's speculations, and external, such as the marketing and publicity accompanying the release - these details place the film in the realm of "edutainment": it seeks and implicitly claims to inform the viewer. Judged on that level, things become a bit more cloudy.

One thing that may certainly be said about the JFK assassination is that it's very hard to find a single piece of evidence in the case that hasn't been minutely examined by several people who've reached wildly differing conclusions and interpretations. The result, if you'll allow a bit of metaphor mixing, is a mountain of research and documentation, a bottomless pit of conflicting claims and counterclaims about evidential status and significance, and therefore a complete minefield for anyone setting out to present the "true story". Stone's tame assassination buff, scriptwriter Zachary Sklar who ghost-wrote Garrison's own memoir of the investigation, On the Trail of the Assassins, took on the job of keeping the film on the straight-and-narrow, evidence wise, but Stone also had a major influence on the final script, and I think the best we can really say for it on that count is that, though sincere, the film is undoubtedly flawed in its treatment of several details.

Putting aside minor nitpicking, such as the the silly Southern accents of Garrison and Ferrie (Garrison was from Ohio!), and granting (I think fairly) a little license to introduce evidence that only became available in later years, and coalesce some of the reams of testimony for purposes of digestibility, there are still apparent blunders, such as the identification of Ferrie in photos of Shaw's gay fancy dress parties, and the inclusion of Fletcher Prouty's version of timing of the New Zealand newspaper coverage of Oswald's background. The latter occurs during perhaps the weakest point of the film, historically speaking, in which an implausible, though fascinating, vision of a huge institutionalized coup d'etat is presented, involving many people from many different branches of the government and military. The "Mr X" character (Donald Sutherland) who lays this on Garrison is an uncomfortable transplant of Prouty and his version of the assassination into the circumstances in which the real-life Garrison met the mysterious Richard Case Nagell, who told quite a different story.

It is entirely possibly to question the foundations and the integrity of the Garrison investigation itself; many have done so, and attacked the film for taking it seriously at all, as indeed Garrison was ridiculed and disparaged by the contemporary reporting of his case. False Witness, a recent book by Patricia Lambert on Garrison and Stone's film, is out-and-out condemnatory, finding not a single virtue in the whole enterprise. But unless you go as deep into the case as the researchers themselves, it's not possible to hold more than a half-informed opinion, based on partial accounts and incomplete evidence, on such sweeping and controversial claims.

In real life, Garrison lost his case and Clay Shaw was acquitted, but the game was really already largely over when potential star witness David Ferrie was found dead at a critical point in Garrison's dealings with him. (In the ambiguous manner typical of the case, Ferrie's death was apparently of natural causes, and accompanied by two possible suicide notes. As the film points out, the known facts are consistent with a forced overdose of Proloid, which Ferrie was in possession of.)

Personally, I'm prepared to put aside niggling evidentiary squabbles and view the film as a magnificent piece of propaganda for the underdog view in favour of a conspiracy. In this regard it was undoubtedly a great success: the political momentum it generated resulted in the Assassination Records Review Act, which has added an avalanche of related documents to the public record.

But besides all that, it's somehow just refreshing to see such care and expense lavished on putting forward the unorthodox side of the debate, when undoubtedly much care and expense has been spent (and paid for in US tax dollars!) on ridiculing the conspiracy view and upholding the official line. In the spirit of buff-ology, I present supporting documentation for this claim below, in the form of a CIA memo circulated to station chiefs around the world in 1967 (the year in which Garrison's investigation became a public and controversial topic) which was released under the US FOIA. The document is a strategy guide for arguing down the conspiracy case, and its contents are meant for dissemination to CIA "elite" assets in the media and other positions of influence. People in a position to get their views prominently placed in important national newspapers and magazines. Politicians, editors of sunday supplements, and, I suppose, film reviewers.

Credits

Cast:

Director:

Screenplay

Music:

Based on the books On The Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs.



  CIA Document #1035-960
  
  RE: Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report
  
  1. Our Concern. From the day of President Kennedy's assassination on,
  there has been speculation about the responsibility for his murder.
  Although this was stemmed for a time by the Warren Commission report,
  (which appeared at the end of September 1964), various writers have now
  had time to scan the Commission's published report and documents for new
  pretexts for questioning, and there has been a new wave of books and
  articles criticizing the Commission's findings. In most cases the critics
  have speculated as to the existence of some kind of conspiracy, and often
  they have implied that the Commission itself was involved. Presumably as a
  result of the increasing challenge to the Warren Commission's report, a
  public opinion poll recently indicated that 46% of the American public did
  not think that Oswald acted alone, while more than half of those polled
  thought that the Commission had left some questions unresolved. Doubtless
  polls abroad would show similar, or possibly more adverse results.
  
  2. This trend of opinion is a matter of concern to the U.S. government,
  including our organization. The members of the Warren Commission were
  naturally chosen for their integrity, experience and prominence. They
  represented both major parties, and they and their staff were deliberately
  drawn from all sections of the country. Just because of the standing of
  the Commissioners, efforts to impugn their rectitude and wisdom tend to
  cast doubt on the whole leadership of American society. Moreover, there
  seems to be an increasing tendency to hint that President Johnson himself,
  as the one person who might be said to have benefited, was in some way
  responsible for the assassination.
  
  Innuendo of such seriousness affects not only the individual concerned,
  but also the whole reputation of the American government. Our organization
  itself is directly involved: among other facts, we contributed information
  to the investigation. Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion
  on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey
  Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material
  countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists, so as
  to inhibit the circulation of such claims in other countries. Background
  information is supplied in a classified section and in a number of
  unclassified attachments.
  
  3. Action. We do not recommend that discussion of the assassination
  question be initiated where it is not already taking place. Where
  discussion is active business addresses are requested:
  
  a. To discuss the publicity problem with [?????] and friendly elite contacts
  (especially politicians and editors), pointing out that the Warren
  Commission made as thorough an investigation as humanly possible, that the
  charges of the critics are without serious foundation, and that further
  speculative discussion only plays into the hands of the opposition. Point
  out also that parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately
  generated by Communist propagandists. Urge them to use their influence to
  discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation.
   
  b. To employ propaganda assets to negate and refute the attacks of the
  critics. Book reviews and feature articles are particularly appropriate
  for this purpose. The unclassified attachments to this guidance should
  provide useful background material for passing to assets. Our ploy should
  point out, as applicable, that the critics are (I) wedded to theories
  adopted before the evidence was in, (I) politically interested, (III)
  financially interested, (IV) hasty and inaccurate in their research, or
  (V) infatuated with their own theories. In the course of discussions of
  the whole phenomenon of criticism, a useful strategy may be to single out
  Epstein's theory for attack, using the attached Fletcher [Knebel?] article
  and Spectator piece for background. (Although Mark Lane's book is much
  less convincing that Epstein's and comes off badly where confronted by
  knowledgeable critics, it is also much more difficult to answer as a
  whole, as one becomes lost in a morass of unrelated details.)

  
  4. In private to media discussions not directed at any particular writer,
  or in attacking publications which may be yet forthcoming, the following
  arguments should be useful:
  
  a. No significant new evidence has emerged which the Commission did not
  consider. The assassination is sometimes compared (e.g., by Joachim Joesten
  and Bertrand Russell) with the Dreyfus case; however, unlike that
  case, the attack on the Warren Commission have produced no new evidence,
  no new culprits have been convincingly identified, and there is no
  agreement among the critics. (A better parallel, though an imperfect one,
  might be with the Reichstag fire of 1933, which some competent historians
  (Fritz Tobias, A.J.P. Taylor, D.C. Watt) now believe was set by
  Vander Lubbe on his own initiative, without acting for either Nazis or
  Communists; the Nazis tried to pin the blame on the Communists, but the
  latter have been more successful in convincing the world that the Nazis
  were to blame.)
   
  b. Critics usually overvalue particular items and ignore others. They tend
  to place more emphasis on the recollections of individual witnesses (which
  are less reliable and more divergent--and hence offer more hand-holds for
  criticism) and less on ballistics, autopsy, and photographic evidence. A
  close examination of the Commission's records will usually show that the
  conflicting eyewitness accounts are quoted out of context, or were
  discarded by the Commission for good and sufficient reason.
   
  c. Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to
  conceal in the United States, esp. since informants could expect to
  receive large royalties, etc. Note that Robert Kennedy, Attorney General
  at the time and John F. Kennedy's brother, would be the last man to
  overlook or conceal any conspiracy. And as one reviewer pointed out,
  Congressman Gerald R. Ford would hardly have held his tongue for the sake
  of the Democratic administration, and Senator Russell would have had every
  political interest in exposing any misdeeds on the part of Chief Justice
  Warren. A conspirator moreover would hardly choose a location for a
  shooting where so much depended on conditions beyond his control: the
  route, the speed of the cars, the moving target, the risk that the
  assassin would be discovered. A group of wealthy conspirators could have
  arranged much more secure conditions.
   
  d. Critics have often been enticed by a form of intellectual pride: they
  light on some theory and fall in love with it; they also scoff at the
  Commission because it did not always answer every question with a flat
  decision one way or the other. Actually, the make-up of the Commission and
  its staff was an excellent safeguard against over-commitment to any one
  theory, or against the illicit transformation of probabilities into
  certainties.
   
  e. Oswald would not have been any sensible person's choice for a
  co-conspirator. He was a "loner," mixed up, of questionable reliability
  and an unknown quantity to any professional intelligence service.
   
  f. As to charges that the Commission's report was a rush job, it emerged
  three months after the deadline originally set. But to the degree that the
  Commission tried to speed up its reporting, this was largely due to the
  pressure of irresponsible speculation already appearing, in some cases
  coming from the same critics who, refusing to admit their errors, are now
  putting out new criticisms.
   
  g. Such vague accusations as that "more than ten people have died
  mysteriously" can always be explained in some natural way e.g.: the
  individuals concerned have for the most part died of natural causes; the
  Commission staff questioned 418 witnesses (the FBI interviewed far more
  people, conduction 25,000 interviews and re interviews), and in such a
  large group, a certain number of deaths are to be expected. (When Penn
  Jones, one of the originators of the "ten mysterious deaths" line,
  appeared on television, it emerged that two of the deaths on his list were
  from heart attacks, one from cancer, one was from a head-on collision on a
  bridge, and one occurred when a driver drifted into a bridge abutment.)

    
  5. Where possible, counter speculation by encouraging reference to the
  Commission's Report itself. Open-minded foreign readers should still be
  impressed by the care, thoroughness, objectivity and speed with which the
  Commission worked. Reviewers of other books might be encouraged to add to
  their account the idea that, checking back with the report itself, they
  found it far superior to the work of its critics.
  

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