"To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of men."
— Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in the first words that appear onscreen
is a 1991 film directed and co-written by Oliver Stone
about the assassination of John F. Kennedy
and its aftermath, based around the investigation by New Orleans
District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner
). After reading the Warren Report and finding it unsatisfactory, Garrison decides to launch an investigation on his own. After reviewing witness reports and interviewing some people on his own, Garrison becomes convinced Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, and that all of the suspicious events seem to be circling a Texas businessman named Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones
), who goes by the alias Clay Bertrand. Shaw has connections to Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman
), the CIA, the FBI, and others.
After his case gains publicity, Garrison is invited to Washington, DC
for a confidential meeting. The man (Donald Sutherland
), who goes only by the name "X", says that Garrison is closer to the truth than he thinks, and gives him background information regarding his suspicions that JFK was killed by a conspiracy involving the CIA, the military, and business interests (the "Military-Industrial Complex") in order to, among other things, stop him from bringing The Vietnam War
and the Cold War
to an end.
Invigorated by this new information, Garrison arrests Shaw for conspiracy and puts him on trial, detailing his entire theory about the assassination and the various inconsistencies with the "official story", most famously the theory of the "magic bullet". Despite his passionate push at the trial (and, as was later revealed, the belief by jury members that there was
a conspiracy) Shaw is acquitted of all charges.
The film was and still is intensely controversial for its liberal use of Artistic License
in depicting the events of and around Garrison's investigation, when in reality the movie is not
meant to be the definitive investigation into Kennedy's death, but rather an allegory of the general public's frustration over not knowing the actual truth about the assassination. Or so Stone says, but in other interviews, well...
The movie was a major critical and box office success, winning two Academy Awards
(for editing and cinematography), and was nominated for six more, losing Best Picture to The Silence of the Lambs
Based on the books On the Trail of the Assassins
by Jim Garrison and Crossfire
by Jim Marrs.
This film provides examples of:
- A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: Ferrie uses this exact Churchill quote when trying to convince Garrison to drop his investigation in a paranoia fueled rant.
- Arc Words: "Operation Mongoose"
- Artistic License – History: It would be easier to list what the film didn't get wrong, and that's just considering information not tied to the JFK assassination. Even Oliver Stone has stated regret at not making the film's fictional status clearer.
- Bay of Pigs Invasion: According to the film, the failure of this and the political fallout that followed may have been first push in what eventually became a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.
- "Be Quiet!" Nudge: More like a Groin Attack punch by Clay when David starts to describe the JFK assassination.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: The final line of Garrison's closing statement at the trial of Clay Shaw ("It's up to you") is delivered directly to the camera.
- Bury Your Gays: David Ferrie.
- Camp Gay: Clay Shaw. Mrs. Garrison even questions whether Jim is going after Shaw because he is gay at one point. He denies this. However, Shaw only behaves this way during the party. Otherwise, he's Straight Gay, if a little upper crust effete.
- Casting Gag: The real Jim Garrison plays Chief Justice Earl Warren (a.k.a. the man who created the Warren Report officially referring to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone shooter).
- Cluster F-Bomb: Joe Pesci, naturally.
- Cold War
- Composite Character: Several, including Willie, the male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon. (See here for details.)
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Another part of the alleged conspiracy. Clay Shaw is a literal example.
- Flame Bait: Both the film itself and the in-universe subject matter.
- Government Conspiracy: "X" and (eventually) Garrison, believe this is part of what killed Kennedy.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: The real Jim Garrison tried to railroad an innocent man, Shaw, after his investigation came up empty. The trial was a fiasco. Indeed, many conspiracy theorists, that is people who doubted the Warren Commission, protested Garrison's trial and prosecution as tarnishing any genuine grounds for criticism of the official report.
- Arguably, JFK is given one of these so that Stone can portray Lyndon Johnson as a manipulative super-villain who rams the Tonkin Gulf resolution through Congress to get elected. In fact, Kennedy had de facto committed the US to South Vietnam by the time he was assassinated, and the CIA-backed coup that killed Ngo Dingh Diem and plunged South Vietnam into chaos had already taken place.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Lyndon Johnson is given one of these.
- More controversially, by ennobling Garrison it makes out Clay Shaw and Ferrie to be villains, when at the time, even people who were doubtful of the Warren Commission regarded them as innocent. Clay Shaw in fact had voted for Kennedy, was highly loved by the people of New Orleans, an intellectual and friend of Tennessee Williams.
- It's Always Mardi Gras in New Orleans: One of Garrison's investigators interviews an informant during a Mardi Gras parade.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Near the end of his monologue, Mr. X says "Don't take my word for it—don't believe me. Do your own work, your own thinking."
- Loads and Loads of Characters: And even more in the Director's Cut.
- The Mafia: Another possible contributor to the assassination and cover-up.
- Mr. Exposition: "X" and Garrison. X's monologue lasts over 15 minutes, and Garrison's closing statement at the trial lasts over 20. And yet, thanks to Oliver Stone's direction, it never feels slow.
- Narrator: Martin Sheen narrates the opening montage.
- No, Except Yes: One clip of an interview with Oswald about three months before the events in Dallasnote has him stating about his political beliefs: "I am not a Communist. I am a Marxist-Leninist."note
- Off on a Technicality: Much of the information about Clay Shaw is thrown out (particularly the fact that he used the alias "Clay Bertrand" while participating in his shady deals) because he didn't have a lawyer present while he was being booked.note The movie says this wasn't legally sound, and then implies that it may have been part of the Government Conspiracy to keep Shaw from being convicted. In real life, the judge took over questioning when the booking officer was called in and determined that he had badly violated procedure; in turn, the jurors reported in their statements that they were disgusted by Garrison's lack of evidence (their deliberations, including bathroom breaks, lasted a half-hour).
- Politically Correct History: Averted. The film makes it quite clear that Kennedy was not popular in the South. Some gentlemen in the bar are actually seen cheering when they hear that he has been assassinated.
- In addition, the movie doesn't portray Kennedy as being a saint, either. He's said to fund military development only in districts he needs to win his next election.
- The movie does fail with research on a gigantic scale by leaving out the part where JFK was responsible for starting the Vietnam War, and pretending he was instead looking to end it.
- Posthumous Character: Oswald dies soon after the movie begins, but that doesn't prevent him from appearing in a large number of flashbacks and faux documentary footage.
- Properly Paranoid: Jim Garrison starts feeling paranoid about what he's getting into even before he finds bugs planted in his offices.note Possibly David Ferrie, too.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: When shooting a flashback to visualize a character seeing smoke come from a rifle at "the grassy knoll" during the shooting, Oliver Stone had to use a smoke machine because modern rifles don't emit enough smoke, ironically disproving some of the claimed evidence for a second gunman there in doing so.
- Unintentional example: One scene features Garrison and one of his staff in the Depository with a gun identical to Oswald's. The staffer quotes the supposed time stated by the Warren Report for Oswald's shots, 5.6 seconds,note and then goes through the motions of firing three shots while Garrison times him. Garrison then announces his time as "Six, seven seconds." As numerous people who've timed the scene have reported, Garrison's staffer actually makes the shots in 5.6 seconds.
- Rewind, Replay, Repeat: One of the most famous examples during Garrison's closing statement, when he puts the shot of Kennedy being shot in the head on a loop to emphasize the direction:
- Sanity Slippage: David Ferrie, in spades.
- Shout-Out: Sir Walter Scott: "Oh! what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive!"
- Lee Harvey Oswald's capture at the theater is compared to Josef K's from The Trial.
- Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Authority forgets a dying king."
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare: "One may smile, and smile, and be a villain."
- "Like Ceasar, he is surrounded by enemies …"
- Spiritual Successor: To Executive Action, the first film to outline a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, using the exact same "triangulated fire" theory, complete with the third shot hitting Connally but not Kennedy.
- Straight Gay:
- David Ferrie.
- Willie O'Keefe. He swishes when walking to meet Garrison, but becomes a stereotypical Southern racist railing against JFK at one point.
- Clay Shaw, according to O'Keefe, calling him a "butch john", saying that he wasn't a limp wrist, and wouldn't snap in a million years.
- Those Two Guys: The fifth movie to feature both Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but the only one where they never share a scene.
- Totally Radical: Dean Andrews.
- The Vietnam War
- What Might Have Been: Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were Stone's first choices for the role of Jim Garrison.
- Who Shot JFK?: The Movie.