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Film / JFK

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"To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of men."
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in the first words that appear onscreen

JFK 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, D.C. 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... Stone released an annotated screenplay with all of the references.


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.

Not to be confused with Killing Kennedy, the docudrama about JFK and Oswald which has Oswald as the lone gunman.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • "Be Quiet!" Nudge: More like a Groin Attack punch by Clay as David starts to describe how they could kill JFK.
  • 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.
  • 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 (naturally, as during the era he couldn't be open about it).
    Willie: He never snap in a million years.note 
  • Casting Gag: Jim Garrison himself makes a brief cameo as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the namesake of the commission investigating the Kennedy assassination and which ended with the official "Oswald acted alone" determination.
  • Character Title: Sort of. The movie is named after John F. Kennedy (specifically his initials) as his assassination serves as the gist of the story.
  • Composite Character: Several, including Willie, the male prostitute played by Kevin Bacon. (See here for details.)
  • Dan Browned: Holy crap, this is most definitely the case. This film presents outrageous assumptions as absolute proof that JFK's assassination was a giant conspiracy theory:
    • The epileptic man being taken to the hospital but never being admitted, then vanishing. In reality he was a man named Jerry Belknap who left the hospital on realizing the doctors were too busy trying to save Kennedy to treat his minor injuries.
    • The smoke on the grassy knoll. In actuality the rifles did not produce smoke like that, something Stone learned during filming and had to resort to smoke machines to get the desired effect.
    • The umbrella man signaling the shooters (actually a man named Louie Witt who was waving the umbrella as a deeply-obscure political protest)
    • The "three tramps" being arrested that day being undercover operatives (long since identified through the Dallas police records as actual at-the-time-homeless people, Gus Abrams, Harold Doyle, and John Gedney).
    • The thoroughly debunked "magic bullet" theory (it relies on JFK and Gov. Connally sitting differently than where they were actually sitting)
    • The trial was in reality a complete farce. Among many things, the defense caught one witness, a mailman, in a complete lie when they asked him if he ever delivered mail to a specific person. When he said yes, the defense said they’d made that person up and asked the witness if his testimony would change. And the mailman STILL claimed to have delivered mail to this fictional person. The jury, after hearing everything, only took half an hour to acquit Shaw, because Garrison had absolutely no credible evidence.
    • Ironically, one scene that’s completely historically accurate is the news report that states Garrison and his office bribed and drugged witnesses to get the evidence they wanted. It’s presented in the movie as a way to undermine Garrison’s credibility to the public, but multiple people have confirmed Garrison’s staff really did those things. Their star witness (whom O'Keefe is based on partly) was repeatedly drugged to elicit his "incriminating" testimony, for instance.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: A large number of the flashback sequences.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: 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 
  • Gay Conservative: Willie O'Keefe, who's in jail for gay prostitution, hated JFK for being soft on Communism and for helping civil rights.
  • Gilligan Cut: We get to see Dean Andrews talking to Clay Bertrand immediately after he tells Garrison he never met him.
  • Government Conspiracy: "X" and (eventually) Garrison, believe this is part of what killed Kennedy.
  • Historical Figures in Archival Media: The film uses footage and photographs taken of Kennedy on the day of the assassination.
  • 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 and many of his theory's particulars (namely, that Oswald, Shaw and Ferrie were not only co-conspirators but involved in a love triangle) were by all accounts preposterous, leading more than a few writers to accuse Garrison of homophobia. The movie makes a passing mention to Garrison's later indictment on bribery and corruption charges, but passes them off as a smear concocted by the Government Conspiracy to discredit him (which, to be fair, the real Garrison insisted as well). Indeed, many conspiracy theorists, that is people who doubted the Warren Commission, protested Garrison's trial and prosecution, along with his well-attested character flaws, as tarnishing any genuine grounds for criticism of the official report.
    • Depending on your POV, JFK himself is given one of these. The real Kennedy was, for the most part, a typical Cold War liberal, but Stone portrays him as a radical progressive and Lyndon Johnson as a manipulative super-villain who rams the Tonkin Gulf resolution through Congress to get elected. In fact, Kennedy's record on Vietnam is much more mixed, and open to interpretation. He had de facto committed the US to South Vietnam by the time he was assassinated, and the CIA-backed coup that killed Ngo Dinh Diem and plunged South Vietnam into chaos had already taken place (though Kennedy expressed regret about the coup after it happened). The snippet of Kennedy telling Walter Cronkite that "in the last analysis, it's (South Vietnam's) war" is taken out of context from a longer interview where he also tells Cronkite that withdrawing American troops from Vietnam would be a mistake. That said, Kennedy made comments to his advisers indicating that he hoped he could withdraw troops from Vietnam in the future, but suspected he couldn't until after the 1964 election because Republicans would turn it into a campaign issue.
    • The opening narration also stresses Kennedy's support for the Civil Rights Movement, which was largely lukewarm until the last months of his presidency (his speech sampled in the film came in June 1963, just five months before his death) and peacemaking efforts with the Soviet Union while ignoring his brinksmanship over Cuba (which is blamed, naturally, on the CIA "lying" to Kennedy) and Berlin, along with the increases in military spending and armaments production which occurred during his administration. Conversely, there's no acknowledgment of Lyndon Johnson's work in actually passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, as the film defines him entirely through his actions in Vietnam.
    • Jack Lemmon's character, Jack Martin, is portrayed as twitchy and evasive but basically honest. In real life, he had, prior to the events of the movie, worked as an abortion provider, and bragged about beating a murder rap when one of his unfortunate "patients" died. His claims about the assassination were also much less credible.
    • "Mr. X" is based on L. Fletcher Prouty, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and conspiracy theorist who served as an adviser to the film. The movie not only exaggerates his military role (he was not involved with Presidential security as "X" claims, nor was his role on the Joint Chiefs of Staff as important as the movie suggests) but ignores his less savory beliefs. Prouty was also an all-purpose conspiracy theorist who, among other claims, believed that the Jonestown Massacre was a government hoax, that Princess Diana was murdered by the CIA, and associated with the anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying Liberty Lobby. More within the realms of standard Hollywood History, he didn't meet Garrison until years after Clay Shaw's trial.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Clay Shaw was, in real life, a Renaissance Man whose achievements in architecture, business and theater (he wrote several plays, one of them at age 16) are nigh-legendary, and who openly supported and backed John F. Kennedy. This film's Clay Shaw is a Depraved Homosexual lunatic with ties to various far-right groups before the assassination. Shaw was admired as a philanthropist and patron of the arts (he was friends with Tennessee Williams). Also there's no firm evidence he'd ever even met David Ferrie or Lee Harvey Oswald.
    • Dean Andrews is presented as a sinister manipulator. The real Dean Andrews was described repeatedly as a Large Ham who wouldn't harm a fly.
    • As mentioned above, Lyndon Johnson gets this big time.
  • 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.
  • Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy: Both Garrison's hypothesis for the assassination, and Mr. X's unconfirmed suspicions, involve a vast plot to assassinate JFK, conceived and undertaken by a number of high-ranking officials and members of the military industrial complex as well as criminals, mercenaries and black ops soldiers.
    "Mr. X": As early as 1961, they knew Kennedy wasn't going to go to war in South-East Asia. Like Caesar, he is surrounded by enemies and something's underway, but it has no face - yet everybody in the loop knows."
  • 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).
  • Overt Rendezvous: Garrison and "X" meet in a public park in Washington D.C.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: The film is told largely in flashback by unreliable narrators recounting various versions of events leading up to the Kennedy assassination. The role of Lee Harvey Oswald, in particular, is portrayed variously as lone assassin, innocent patsy, and part of a conspiracy, depending on the point of view of the person narrating that version of events.
  • 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.note 
  • Re-Cut: Oliver Stone later released a Director's Cut that ran for 206 minutes. More details here
  • Rewind, Replay, Repeat: One of the most famous examples during Garrison's closing statement, when he puts the footage of Kennedy being shot in the head on a loop to emphasize the direction:
    "Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left."note 
  • A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma: David Ferrie refers to the Kennedy assassination as "a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma" when trying to convince Jim Garrison to drop his investigation during a paranoia-fueled rant.
  • 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:
  • 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 up 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.