Can Hollywood Solve JFK’s Murder?

Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone didn’t spend $40 million and shoot 650,000 feet of film to prove that the Warren Commission was right. Says Stone: “I’m fighting the battle of my life.”
Stone directs the assassination. Was Kennedy a CIA casualty?

A generation of hamlets

On a sunny day in April, a skinny tourist kid from Joplin, Missouri, saunters into the former Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas and heads toward the sixth floor, better known as the JFK assassination exhibit. Passing through security guards and airport-regulation metal detectors at the exhibit’s entrance, the kid becomes incredulous. “What’s with all the security?” he asks. “I mean, they aren’t going to shoot Kennedy again, are they ?”

On the sixth floor, however, that is precisely what is happening. No one is looking at the exhibit — a multimedia display of pictures, placards, and the original radio and TV reports. Instead, the $4-a-ticket crowd gathers around the six south windows, only a few feet from Lee Harvey Oswald’s corner perch. Now, instead of an assassin at the glass, there is this crowd watching a procession of sixties statesmen in big-finned black Cadillacs and Continentals float down Houston Street toward the infamously orange Texas School Book Depository, which looks exactly as it did in 1963. The cops drive black-and-white 1963 Ford Galaxies and Harleys, and the parade throng on Elm Street is decked out in razor-thin ties, scarves, and sixties innocence. All to greet Jack and Jackie, who are young again and waving. “It’s beautiful, beautiful,” swoons a woman at the sixth-floor windows.

Suddenly, a shot rings out. Then another. And then several more. A cloud of blood explodes in the air, and Kennedy clutches his throat. As Jackie frantically climbs across the trunk of the convertible, the crowd in the street scatters in fear and pandemonium, and the woman at the sixth-floor window breaks into tears. Real tears. Not just for the blank bullets but also for the thought that has lingered in the American consciousness for 28 years: Had Kennedy lived, everything might have turned out differently.

This time, there is no doubt who is behind the assassination in Dealey Plaza. Standing atop the grassy knoll, so full of angst and anger that he once told an interviewer that he himself might have assassinated Richard Nixon had the right people approached him at the right time, is Oliver Stone, the Academy award-winning director, screenwriter, and celluloid crusader, whose films have revived the sixties from Vietnam to Jim Morrison. Stone is a filmmaker of unforgettably brutal images: James Woods running amok in Salvador; Charlie Sheen baptized by blood in Platoon; Michael Douglas slithering across Wall Street; Tom Cruise paralyzed, impotent, and forgotten in Born on the Fourth of July; Val Kilmer making love with death in The Doors. This is Oliver Stone’s world on parade. Now Hollywood’s master of rage has come to Dallas to recreate the end of American innocence in JFK, a three-hour, $40 million epic. With JFK, Stone aspired to do for the Kennedy assassination what Platoon did for Vietnam: make it live again for the world to question. He calls the assassination the seminal event of his generation and says it left behind “a generation of Hamlets” — children of a murdered king whose killers have inherited the throne.

The DA and the CIA

Scheduled to open December 20, JFK is partially based on a 1988 book by controversial former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, On the Trial of the Assassins. Garrison believes that the assassination was the result of a coup d’etat conducted by rough forces within the Central Intelligence Agency determined to stop Kennedy from ending the Cold War and sanctioned after the fact by Lyndon Johnson. The book’s theories, whether plausible or not, are the perfect bedrock for an Oliver Stone tale of deception, death, and deliverance. As Stone’s protagonist, there is Garrison, played by a drawling Kevin Costner, who unwittingly stumbled onto the crime of the century after discovering that Lee Harvey Oswald (Garry Oldman) spent the summer of 1963 in New Orleans. Obsessed with perceived lapses in the Warren Commission report — testimony ignored, facts jumbled, documents sealed or destroyed, a commission of CIA intimates swiftly ratifying its lone-nut conclusion — Garrison brought to court the only criminal prosecution in the murder of John F. Kennedy.

In the book, Garrison’s trial begins on the night of the assassination, when private eye Guy Banister (Ed Asner), a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, gets sloppy drunk and pistol-whips his associate, Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon). The reason? Martin told Banister that he hadn’t forgotten the happenings in Banister’s office that summer — an office that served as a center for a collection of oddballs plotting against Castro, a wild parade of fanatical anti-Castro Cubans and mercenaries, notably Oswald and David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). A crackerjack CIA pilot, Kennedy hater, and drag queen, Ferrie wears greasepaint eyebrows and a crude mohair wig. Ferrie’s activities, however, are wilder than his appearance, especially a hasty trip to Texas on the day of the assassination. Tipped that Ferrie was supposed to have been the getaway pilot for the assassins, Garrison builds his case. Bringing charges, however, isn’t easy. Banister died nine months after the assassination. And Ferrie dies suspiciously in the middle of Garrison’s investigation, leaving the DA to arrest supposed conspirator Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a New Orleans business titan with CIA connections. Along the way, Garrison tracks Oswald through New Orleans, Dallas, and Russia to Dealey Plaza, where, according to Garrison, the supposed marksman was not at the sniper’s perch but in the School Book Depository’s lunchroom.

Before Shaw is brought to trial, Garrison’s case begins to crumble. The FBI attacks the investigation and shadows Garrison and his staff. Crucial witnesses die. Files are stolen from Garrison’s office as fast as phone taps appear. Requests for extradition of key witnesses are denied. And while the 1969 trial provides evidence contrary to the Warren Commission’s conclusions, a jury rapidly exonerates Shaw. Members of the media, from Johnny Carson to Garrison’s hometown Times-Picayune, label the district attorney a publicity-mad buffoon. Even Garrison’s wife, played in the film by Sissy Spacek, worries about her husband’s

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