Updated: May 8
"War, War, What Is It Good For?"
or: "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Truth"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast, Season 2, Episode 7.3B, Chapter 2)
Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner on the set of JFK
Oliver Stone is one of recent history’s most influential filmmakers. Born in 1946, he came from a privileged New York background, attended Ivy League schools in the Northeast, and vacationed often in France. His father was a successful and staunchly conservative New York stockbroker who inspired the role of the famous antagonist Gordon Gekko in Stone’s film Wall Street. His mother was a French Catholic social butterfly who sent him to boarding schools for much of his youth. As a young man, Oliver Stone was profoundly affected by his parents’ divorce and his father’s financial ruin due to failed high-risk investments. This set the young man on a leftward political journey that would permeate the ideology, tone, and message of many of his films—including Platoon, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street (one and two), Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U Turn, W., Snowden, and of course, JFK—films filled with social and moral criticism directed against colonialism, war, alienation, political corruption, poverty, the media, and corporate finance. To this list we can add a long list of documentaries—well, he called them documentaries—about Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and the Kennedy Assassination.
The young Stone flouted his family’s self-righteous elitism by dropping out of Yale University and travelling to Vietnam and Mexico to teach English, work in the merchant marine, and write an autobiographical novel. He returned to America a year later only to drop out of Yale again and enlist in the military (partly to spite his Republican father) around the same time that a New Orleans District Attorney named Jim Garrison arrested a local businessman called Clay Shaw on the charge of assassinating President Kennedy. (We’ll talk more about that later). Enlisting in the 25th Infantry Division, Stone specifically requested combat duty. But the war in Vietnam was far less glorious than the young man had expected. Morale among his fellow soldiers, many of whom had been either drafted or volunteered for lack of career options, was low. He witnessed atrocities perpetrated on simple peasants by his own fellow soldiers, and the wanton destruction of land, lives, and property by South Vietnamese and American troops. Like many of his brothers in arms, Private Stone became addicted to drugs, and was wounded twice, for which he received the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Unsurprisingly, Stone returned to America disillusioned and angry. He used his G.I. Bill benefits to enroll in film school at New York University, where he studied under the tutelage of Martin Scorsese. Becoming a filmmaker was another way for Stone to spite his disapproving father. He then moved to Hollywood to write screenplays and make a film about the dark side of the Vietnam war. In fact, he would end up making four.
The first of these, Platoon, was more than just a pessimistic depiction of ordinary infantrymen caught in a meatgrinder war. It was an indictment of America’s Cold War foreign policy and of the whole business of war. It was also a rebuttal to the year’s top Hollywood blockbuster, Top Gun, a triumphalist pro-American war flick featuring a glam rock soundtrack and a lots of military hardware porn. Stone had found his countercultural niche and would remain firmly in it for the next forty years.
Willem Dafoe, Charlie Sheen, and Tom Berenger in Platoon
It was in 1988, during a film festival in Havana, Cuba, where Stone was promoting his film Salvador—the story of an American journalist caught up in a bloody Latin-American civil war—that he met Ellen Ray, a committed socialist and owner of Sheridan Square Press. Ray was an ardent admirer of former New Orleans DA Jim Garrison—the only person ever to try a man for the assassination of President Kennedy. Garrison had recently sold his (…how shall I put this politely…) imaginative autobiography, On the Trail of the Assassins, to Ray’s publishing company. Ray in turn had the book rewritten by Zachary Sklar, a self-identified “red diaper baby” who reworked the story of Garrison’s prosecution of Clay Shaw into the style of a hardboiled detective novel. The thesis of Garrison’s book was that the fascist CIA and Military-Industrial Complex had murdered Kennedy to stop him from putting an end to the Cold War. It resonated profoundly with Stone’s contrarian left-wing worldview and his personal crusade to dole out blame for the Vietnam War. Fascinated by Garrison’s personal story (but not that interested in fact-checking his claims) Stone purchased the film rights to Garrison’s book and pitched the idea to Warner Brothers studios, who accepted to fund the project and let Stone direct it. The Vietnam vet with a grudge would henceforth be known as the world’s most recognizable Kennedy buff and one of the most influential conspiracy theorists in modern history. His reputation in Hollywood and in the press would never be quite the same again.
On the advice of Ellen Ray and her husband and business partner Bill Schaap, Stone hired Zachary Sklar to write the first draft of his screenplay. Sklar’s script was ambitious, complex, and as convoluted as Garrison’s memoir—which is not all that surprising, given that Sklar had ghost-written that one as well. It not only told the story of the Clay Shaw investigation from Garrison’s self-serving viewpoint, the movie script also combined twenty-five years of the musings of other leading conspiracists, including Jim Marrs, who pegged Vice President Lyndon Johnson as a leading conspirator, and retired Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, who claimed that his former superior officer, Brigadier-General Edward Lansdale, was the chief engineer of Kennedy’s assassination. (On Prouty, see Paranoid Planet Episode 2.2)
Despite its ill-vetted research, Oliver Stone’s JFK was a remarkable feat of movie-making magic, seamlessly meshing the pseudo-historical theories of dozens of conspiracy books into a (somewhat) coherent narrative, and featuring an impressive slate of Hollywood stars, a great musical score, Academy-Award winning editing work, and many cameo appearances, including one for Garrison himself as Chief Justice Earl Warren.
A Scene from Oliver Stone's JFK
featuring Jim Garrison as Chief Justice Earl Warren
Released a few days before Christmas 1991, JFK was a resounding success, earning four Golden Globe nomination (winning two) and eight Academy Awards nominations (winning two). “What made the movie such a powerful experience,” wrote author Patricia Lambert, “was its apparent authenticity. […] What is clear is that [Stone] knew how to make a film that appeared to deliver it.” But the film was also highly controversial due to its carefree interpretation of events that were still fresh in the memories of many journalists who had covered the Shaw trial back when it was still front-page news. The vilification of Clay Shaw, of President Johnson, of Chief Justice Earl Warren, and of General Lansdale were themselves met with severe criticism, but it was the film’s asepticized depiction of Jim Garrison as a stalwart example of judicial integrity that drew the most ire from those who had known him and witnessed his paranoid and heavy-handed tactics firsthand.
Tight deadlines and “artistic liberties” were not sufficient reasons to explain away the film’s numerous historical errors. To many of Stone’s critics, the film was nothing less than a shameful rewriting of history, a deliberate piece of political propaganda imposed on an unwitting public with millions of Hollywood dollars—a story that, to paraphrase the film’s fictionalized Garrison, had managed to turn white into black and black into white.
One way Stone’s alleged bio-pic used to circumvent the rules of truth-telling was to use pseudonyms for several historical persons who might end up suing the filmmaker for defamation. Marina Oswald’s benefactors Ruth and Michael Payne, Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale, and Garrison’s own investigator William Wood, to name a few, were depicted in the film as malevolent pawns of the CIA. Changing the names of his antagonists did not only allow Stone to make personal attacks on these individuals while at the same time proclaim that the film was merely speculative fiction, it also made it more difficult for inquisitive viewers to fact-check some of the film’s erroneous claims. The film also contained several composite characters, like the former intelligence officer called Mr.X (played by Donald Sutherland) and the flamboyantly gay racist Willie O’Keefe (played by Kevin Bacon). While Stone and Sklar said this was done to produce a screenplay that was easier to follow, they did not acknowledge that this helped them avoid having to explain the immoral actions and low credibility of the real historical persons these composite characters were based on. Finally, Stone’s film made many claims that were debunked long before the film script was even written, some even before the real Garrison might have used them in court. These include allegedly fake personal photographs of Lee Oswald sporting a rifle, a pistol, and Marxist newspapers, the claims of eyewitnesses like Jean Hill and Julia Ann Mercer who said they saw a shooter on the grassy knoll—claims that were proven to be incorrect and unreliable—and the ridiculous “magic bullet theory” which was in fact a fabrication by conspiracists to discredit what the Warren Commission’s Report actually said.
A Scene from Oliver Stone's JFK
featuring Kevin Bacon as "Willie O'Keefe" (a.k.a. Perry Russo)
While JFK received high acclaim from filmgoers, film critics, Hollywood liberals, and those predisposed to believe in evil government plots, it was lambasted by many historians, political journalists, and former participant-observers in the original trial of Clay Shaw. Even the most positive reviews—like that of film critic Roger Ebert—could not avoid having to justify the Director’s carelessness in reporting facts accurately. The negative ones gave Stone’s movie the shaft—despite its aesthetic magnificence—for utterly distorting the past with impunity. “One can admire Stone’s filmmaking skills,” wrote film critic Richard Roeper, “while denouncing the utter ‘crapolla’ presented as evidence of a conspiracy. […] As a work of fantastical fiction, JFK is an interesting if overblown vision of a parallel universe. As a dramatic interpretation of events, it’s journalistically bankrupt nonsense, […] an entertaining, provocative, well-made piece of trash.” Famed syndicated political columnist Charles Krauthammer called JFK “a big lie told with such self-assurance and technical skill that it can disturb, even convince, the most skeptical. […] As history, ‘JFK’ is a travesty. It has the structure and texture of a Stalinist show trial.”
Stone’s most hostile critics saw the film as an attack on truth-telling itself. The Washington Post’s George Lardner, Jr. was Stone’s earliest, and perhaps most scornful, reviewer. He compared the film to Alice in Wonderland and condemned it as a disgraceful whitewash of the real Jim Garrison. Lardner had good reasons to be suspicious. A copy of JFK’s script, which was leaked to him while the film was still in production, contained a scene that Lardner had personal knowledge was wrong. It showed David Ferrie, one of the film’s antagonists described as a CIA spook, being murdered by two Cuban thugs who drowned the man in his own toilet on the same night that Lardner was sitting in that apartment, interviewing Ferrie until the early morning. Far from being a government agent, the real Ferrie was a part-time private detective working for a mafia-connected lawyer. And far from trying to hide from the press, it was Ferrie himself who had contacted the journalist in order to expose Jim Garrison’s investigation of him as a belligenrent witch hunt. The film made no reference at all to Ferrie’s mob ties; it presented him instead as a deranged homosexual fascist. Lardner also reminded his readers of the many unethical activities the real Garrison had used to drum up false evidence against Clay Shaw: bribing witnesses, the use of hypnotism and sodium pentothal (or “truth serum”) to manufacture false statements, and the use of favors and threats to manipulate eye-witness testimonies.
Washington Post journalist George Lardner, Jr.
George Will, the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated political columnist, had little better to say about Stone’s film than to call it “an act of execrable history and contemptible citizenship by a man of technical skill, scant education and negligible conscience.” 
Renown historians who devoted much of their lives researching Kennedy and his times showed an equal amount of disdain for the film. These include William Manchester, Robert Dallek, James Giglio, and Ronald Steele. “The trouble with this exciting and irreverent movie,” wrote Steele, “lies […] in the determination of Stone to pin the tail on whatever donkey he can find to explain how Everything Went Wrong. […] Watching JFK is like entering the Twilight Zone. […] The burden of proof lies with [Stone], and the historical record points in the other direction.”
Former Warren Commission counsel David Belin was particularly upset at the way Stone’s film attacked Chief Justice Earl Warren (played onscreen by, of all people, a greying Jim Garrison). Until he was asked to chair the Commission that bore his name, Warren had made it his priority to promote and enforce civil rights and desegregation. If there was a man on the Warren Commission who most embodied Kennedy’s liberal values it was Warren himself. Stone’s film, Belin wrote, “crosses the threshold of slander and character assassination—a 1990’s version of McCarthyism.”
Why should we pay so much attention to this long--though partial—list of decades-old negative reviews? It is because once the initial outcry of critics faded after the film ceased to be front-page news, and the critics and historians were forced to move on to other things, Stone’s movie and its supporting literature continued to be cited for decades by avid Kennedy buffs as if the film was cold hard fact. It went on to make many new converts (including a younger version of myself) to the idea that JFK was killed by people inside his own government. Decades later, many of these converts continue to see this event through the prism of Oliver Stone’s film and remain largely ignorant of the counter-arguments made by a long list of qualified epistemic authorities. There are probably few people under the age of fifty today who can remember the media circus that occurred in 1991-92 following the release of Stone’s JFK, and even less of the many reasons for the outrage of critics—the sort of critics who could not possibly all have been dupes of the CIA and Wall street bankers, but who had a greater insight into the context of the Kennedy assassination than would a filmmaker, even one as talented as Mr. Stone.
Oliver Stone defends JFK at the National Press Club in Washington, 1992.
In response to the backlash levelled against his film, Oliver Stone dug in his heels and became an ardent defender of JFK conspiracy theories. He took part in talk shows and public debates, sent op-ed pieces to the country’s leading newspapers, and filed libel and copyright infringement suits against major media outlets. Such tactics, ironically, began to resemble those used by the real Jim Garrison while he was preparing his ill-fated Shaw trial. Stone’s tenacity wasn’t all bad, as it did elicit the federal government to pass the 1992 JFK Records Act, which created the Assassination Records Review Board that oversaw the gradual release of thousands of classified documents pertaining to the President Kennedy’s time in office and the government’s two previous investigations of his assassination. While these documents have served as a goldmine for Kennedy researchers and fostered more speculations and ambitious theories about a government cover-up, they have failed almost three decades later, to produce any clear evidence proving that Lee Harvey Oswald was either innocent, or was involved in a larger conspiracy. No doubt, many see what they want to see by reading between the lines of official documents, but nothing has surfaced to justify the many wild accusations made by Jim Garrison and Oliver Stone. But then, that’s what you would expect to find, these two men might tell us, if the CIA had destroyed all of the proofs of its own involvement. But lack of evidence really doesn’t prove anything, except maybe for those who don’t care all that much about evidence.
When a person obsesses over a singular problem for an extended period of time, they begin to see traces of it everywhere. Pick weeds out of your yard for a number of days and pretty soon they are all that you see when you go for a stroll. A new mother is forever awakened by phantom cries in the night, and a conspiracist sees a suspicious man lurking in every grainy picture. And so it is with the disenchanted rich boy who left his Ivy League school to go fight in Vietnam, found no greater purpose there than senseless bloodshed, and returned home with the need to rewrite history. The story laid out in the film JFK, in a sense, is not the story of a murdered President, nor does it have much to teach us about the historical Jim Garrison. It is a metaphor for what happened inside Oliver Stone.
Private Oliver Stone in Vietnam
 On Stone’s life and oeuvre, see Robert Brent Toplin: History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, University of Illinois Press, 1996.  Patricia Lambert: False Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison’s Investigation and Oliver Stone’s Film JFK, M. Evans & Company, 1998. p.xvi.  Reprinted in Richard Roeper's Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century, Chicago Review Press, 2008, p.229-230.  Charles Krauthammer: "'JFK': A Lie, but Harmless," The Washington Post, January 10, 1992.  George Lardner, Jr.: "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland," Washington Post, May 19, 1991.  George Will: "'JFK' Makes a Hash of History," Wilmington Morning Star, December 25, 1991, Accessed via Google News.  Ronald Steel: "Mr. Smith Goes to the Twilight Zone—JFK directed by Oliver Stone," The New Republic, 206.5 (Feb 3, 1992): 30.  David W. Belin: "Op-Ed: Earl Warren's Assassins," March 7, 1992, New York Times, http://jfk.hood.edu/Collection/Weisberg%20Subject%20Index%20Files/S%20Disk/Stone%20Oliver%20JFK%20Movie/Schools/Item%2005.pdf.  Gary Crowdus: "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone," Cineaste, vol. 19, number 1, 1992, reprinted in Charles L. P. Silet, ed.: Oliver Stone: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), University Press of Mississippi, 2001, p.98.
This essay is an abridged version of an unpublished chapter excised from my book: Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination, Routledge, 2022.
M.J. Gagné, 2018/2023.
And a big thanks to Roberto Mazza for co-hosting this episode!
Documents related to this episode:*
1. JFK (Warner Bros., 1991). Dir. by Oliver Stone. Featuring Kevin Costner, Michael Rooker, and Jay O. Sanders.
2. Blast From the Past (Warner Bros., 1999). Dir. by Hugh Wilson. Featuring Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek, and Branden Fraser.
4. Jim Garrison: On the Trail of the Assassins. Sheridan Square Press, 1988. (2012 edition)
5. Michel J. Gagné: Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination: Debunking the Myths and Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, 2022.
6. Gerald Posner: Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Random House, 1993.
7. ArtStation podcast, featuring Kevin Strike.
8. "Discovered V1" by .Gomi, 2021. freesound.org. (featured in episode 7.3A sponsor ad).
9. JFK REVISITED: Through The Looking Glass (Ingenious Media, 2021). Dir. by Oliver Stone. Featuring Oliver Stone, Jefferson Morley, and Paul Bleau.
10. Platoon. Dir. by Oliver Stone. Featuring Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger.
11. Fred Litwin: On the Trail of Delusion: Jim Garrison, the Great Accuser. Northern Blues books, 2020.
12. On the Trail of Delusion (Fred Litwin's personal website).
13. "The Magic Loogie," Seinfeld, Season 3, Episode 17. (TV Program, 1989-98). Created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, and Wayne Knight.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.