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JFK (film)

JFK is a 1991 American film directed by Oliver Stone. The film was released on December 20, 1991. The film examines the events leading to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and alleged subsequent cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner.) Garrison filed charges against New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for his alleged participation in a conspiracy to assassinate the President. The film was adapted by Stone and Zachary Sklar from the books On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs.

Stone's film became embroiled in controversy even before it was finished filming when Washington Post national security correspondent George Lardner showed up on the set and wrote a scathing article attacking the film based on the first draft of the screenplay. Upon JFK's theatrical release many of the major newspapers in the United States of America ran editorials criticizing what they perceived as liberties that Stone took with historical facts, including the film's implications of President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of a coup d'etat to kill Kennedy. Initially, Stone's film performed slowly at the box office but it gradually picked up momentum, earning over $205 million in worldwide gross; Garrison's estate subsequently sued Warner Bros. for their share of the film's profits, alleging Hollywood accounting. JFK went on to win two Academy Awards and was nominated for eight in total, including Best Picture.


The film opens first with newsreel footage including the farewell address in 1961 of outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower warning about the buildup of the "military-industrial complex" and then with a summary of John F. Kennedy's years as President — emphasizing the events that, in Stone's thesis, would lead to his assassination — which finally builds to a reconstruction of the assassination on November 22, 1963. The film then switches to following New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as he learns about the president's death, and of potential links between the assassination and New Orleans. Attempting to help the government's investigation, Garrison and his team investigate the New Orleans links and bring in several potential accomplices, including private pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), before being forced to let them go, as their investigation is publicly rebuked by the federal government. As suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is himself shot on live television by Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle Murray) before he can go to trial, Garrison closes the investigation, but he still remains uneasy about what has happened.

The investigation is later reopened in 1966 after Garrison is encouraged to read through the Warren Report and notices what he believes to be multiple inaccuracies. He and other members of the staff interrogate several witnesses of the Kennedy assassination and others involved with Oswald, Ruby, and Ferrie at some point or another. Their first witness is Willie O'Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a gay, Fascist male prostitute inmate serving five years in prison for soliciting, who reveals he witnessed Ferrie discussing a coup d'état. As well as briefly meeting Oswald, O'Keefe was romantically involved with an enigmatic man called "Clay Bertrand." Another important person is teacher Jean Hill (Ellen McElduff) who witnessed some shots fired at Kennedy coming from the grassy knoll, and she states that upon giving her story, the Secret Service threatened her into saying only three shots came from the book depository and nothing else. She proves this by revealing the changes to her testimony made by the Warren Commission during their "investigation" into the case. The D.A staff tests the single bullet theory by trying to aim an empty rifle from the same alleged window where Oswald shot JFK, but they also conclude that Oswald was a poor marksman, indicating that the shots were fired by someone else, perhaps multiple marksmen.

Garrison secretly meets a shadowy high-level figure in Washington D.C. who identifies himself only as X (Donald Sutherland) and who suggests a conspiracy at the highest levels of government, implicating members of the CIA, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, Secret Service, FBI, and Kennedy's vice-president Lyndon Baines Johnson as co-conspirators with motives for Kennedy's assassination and/or the cover-up afterwards. X explains that the President was killed because he wanted to pull the United States out of the Vietnam War and dismantle the CIA. X encourages Garrison to keep digging and prosecute New Orleans based international businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to murder Kennedy. Upon interrogating Shaw, the businessman denies any knowledge of meeting Ferrie, O'Keefe or Oswald, but he is soon charged with conspiring to murder the President.

As Garrison gets closer to his court date and case against Shaw, some of his staff begin to doubt his motives and leave the investigation when they start to disagree with his methods. Garrison's marriage begins to show signs of strain when his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) complains that he is spending more time on the case than with his own family. Even his oldest son is convinced that his father does not keep his promises at family engagements. After a sinister phone call is made to their daughter, Liz accuses him of being selfish and attacking Shaw only because of his homosexuality. In addition, the media launch several broadcasts on television and articles in newspapers attacking Garrison's character and criticizing the way his office is spending the taxpayers' money on their investigation. Some key witnesses become scared and refuse to testify while others are killed, such as Ferrie, under suspicious circumstances. Before his death, a panicked Ferrie tells Garrison that "they" are after him and reveals there was a conspiracy around Kennedy's death, but he dies of an apparent suicidal overdose.

In March 1969, a jury acquitted Shaw of the charges after less than an hour of deliberation. The film reflects that members of that jury stated publicly that they believed there was a conspiracy behind the assassination but not enough evidence to link Shaw to that conspiracy. Shaw died of lung cancer in 1974 but five years later in 1979, Richard Helms testified under oath that Clay Shaw had been a part-time contact of the Domestic Contacts Division of the CIA.

The credits of the film claim that records related to the assassination will not be released to the public until 2029. Controversy incited by the film led to the creation of the Assassination Records Review Board, which released virtually all such documents.


Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, New Orleans District Attorney who initially attempted to help the government's investigation of the New Orleans links and the JFK assassination and New Orleans. For the role of Garrison, Stone sent the copies of the script to Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. Initially, Costner turned Stone down. However, the actor's agent, Michael Ovitz, was a big fan of the project and helped the director convince the actor to take the role.

Before accepting the role, Costner conducted extensive research on Garrison including meeting the man, his friends and enemies. Two months after finally signing on to play Garrison in January 1991, his film Dances with Wolves won seven Academy Awards and so his presence greatly enhanced JFK's bankability in the studio's eyes. Although Costner's Jim Garrison is the central character around whom the film's story revolves, the film features a large cast of well-known stars. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child:

Many actors were willing to waive their normal fees because of the nature of the project and to lend their support. Martin Sheen provided the opening narration. The real Jim Garrison, a severe critic of the Warren Commission, ironically played Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren himself, during the scene in which he questions Jack Ruby in prison about his retrial. Supposed assassination witness Beverly Oliver, who claimed to be the Babushka lady, also appeared in a cameo role. Sean Stone, Oliver Stone's son, plays a secondary role as Garrison's oldest son Jasper.


Zachary Sklar, a journalist and a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, met Jim Garrison in 1987 and helped him rewrite a manuscript about the Kennedy assassination. He essentially changed it from a scholarly book in the third person to "a detective story — a whydunit" in the first person. Sklar edited the book and it was published in 1988. While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money.

The Kennedy Assassination had always had a profound effect on his life as he said, "The Kennedy murder was one of the signal events of the postwar generation, my generation". The filmmaker eventually met Garrison and grilled him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director. Stone's impressions from their meeting were that Garrison "made many mistakes. He trusted a lot of weirdoes and followed a lot of fake leads. But he went out on a limb, way out. And he kept going, even when he knew he was facing long odds".

Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. One of the filmmaker's primary goals with JFK was to provide an antidote to the Warren Commission Report that he believed was "a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a countermyth". Even though Marrs’ book collected many theories, Stone was hungry for more and hired Jane Rusconi, a recent Yale University graduate, to head up a team of researchers and assemble as much information about the assassination as possible while finishing Born on the Fourth of July. Stone read two dozen books on the JFK assassination while Rusconi read upwards of 100 to 200 books on the subject.

By December 1989, Stone began approaching studios to back his film. He met with three executives at Warner Bros. while in pre-production on The Doors who wanted him to make a film about Howard Hughes. However, Warren Beatty owned the rights and so Stone pitched JFK. Studio president and Chief Operating Officer Terry Semel liked the idea. He had a reputation for making political and controversial films with All the President's Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields. Stone made a handshake deal with Warner Bros. and the studio would get all the rights to the film and put up 20 million dollars for the budget. The director did this so that the screenplay would not be widely read and bid on, and he also knew that the material was potentially dangerous and wanted only one studio to finance it. Finally, Stone liked Semel's track record.


When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar (who edited Marrs’ book) to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and Rusconi's research into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie". Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: "I see the models as Z and Rashomon, I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination".

Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. Sklar spent a year researching and writing a 550 triple-spaced page screenplay. Stone rewrote it and condensed it closer to normal screenplay length. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland. He was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel Fletcher Prouty, another adviser for the film. However, unlike "Mr. X", Prouty had no connection to Presidential security at the time of the assassination. Prouty was a former Colonel in the Air Force, and military liaison between the CIA and the Pentagon. He wrote the 1975 book The Secret Team: The CIA and Its Allies in Control of the United States and the World, (republished in 1992). According to Stone, "I feel this was in the spirit of the truth because Garrison also met a deep throat type named Richard Case Nagell, who claimed to be a CIA agent and made Jim aware of a much larger scenario than the microcosm of New Orleans".

Early drafts of the screenplay suggested a four and a half-hour film with a potential budget of $40 million – double what Stone had agreed to with Warner Bros. The director knew film mogul Arnon Milchan and met with him to help finance the film. Milchan was eager to work on the project and launch his new company, Regency Films, with a high profile film like JFK. Milchan made a deal with Warner Bros. to put up the money for the film. Stone managed to pare down the script from a 190-page first draft to a 156-page shooting script.

Principal photography

Cinematographer Robert Richardson was a week and a half into shooting City of Hope for John Sayles when he got word that Stone was thinking about making JFK. By the time principal photography wrapped on City of Hope, he was ready to make his movie. To prepare, Richardson read up on various JFK assassination books starting with On the Trail of the Assassins and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.

The original idea was to film the opening sequence in 1.33:1 aspect ratio in order to simulate the TV screens that were available at the time of the assassination, then transition to 1.85:1 when Garrison began his investigation, and finally switch to 2.35:1 for scenes occurring in 1968 and later. However, because of time constraints and logistics, Richardson was forced to abandon this approach.

Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy Assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage he needed and so he used a total of seven cameras (two 35 mm and five 16 mm) and 14 film stocks. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay fifty thousand dollars to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.

The production spent four million to restore Dealey Plaza back to 1963 conditions. In addition to the challenging subject matter, the filmmaker utilized a variety of film stocks. As Richardson said, "It depends whether you want to shoot in 35 or 16 or Super 8. In many cases the lighting has to be different. For some shots, you could have multiple crews shooting at once, five cameras at the same time in different formats". Richardson said of Stone's style of direction, "Oliver disdains convention, he tries to force you into things that are not classic. There's this constant need to stretch, which forces your lighting into very diverse positions. Rarely do you resort to classic lighting modes".

Stone employed extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks for a specific effect. As he commented in an interview, "I wanted to do the film on two or three levels - sound and picture would take us back, and we'd go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning".

Among the many advisers for the film were Gerald Hemming, a former Marine who claimed involvement in various CIA activities, Robert Groden, a photographic expert and longtime JFK assassination researcher and author, and actual assassination witness Jean Hill.


Composer John Williams wrote and recorded six musical sequences in full for JFK before he had seen the entire film. Soon afterwards, he traveled to New Orleans where Stone was still shooting the film and saw approximately an hour's worth of edited material and some dailies. Williams remembers, "I thought his handling of Lee Harvey Oswald was particularly strong, and I understood some of the atmosphere of the film - the sordid elements, the underside of New Orleans". Stone cut the film to William's music after the composer had scored and recorded his sequences. For the Motorcade sequence, Williams described the score he composed as "strongly kinetic music, music of interlocking rhythmic disciplines". The composer remembered the moment he learned of the assassination of Kennedy and it stuck with him for years and was a significant factor in decided to work on this film. He said, "This is a very resonant subject for people of my generation, and that's why I welcomed the opportunity to participate in this film".


Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media. On May 14, 1991, Jon Margolis in the Chicago Tribune wrote that JFK was "an insult to the intelligence". This article was published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it". The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Stone responded to Lardner's article by hiring a public relations firm that specialized in political issues. Other attacks in the media soon followed. Anthony Lewis in the New York Times claimed that the film "tells us that our government cannot be trusted to give an honest account of a Presidential assassination". Washington Post columnist George Will attacked Stone, calling him, "a man of technical skill, scant education and negligible conscience".

Time magazine took Stone to task for doing this and then ran their own critique of the film-in-progress on June 10, 1991. They also claimed that Stone was trying to suppress a rival JFK assassination film based on Don DeLillo's 1988 novel Libra. Stone refuted these claims in a letter to the magazine. The filmmaker ended up splitting his time between making his film and responding to attacks from the press. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts".

Once the film was released in theaters, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far". In it, he called for studio censorship and wrote, "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue". Veteran movie critic for The Washingtonian, Pat Dowell had her 34-word capsule review for the January issue rejected by her editor John Limpert on the grounds that he did not want a positive review for a movie he felt was "preposterous" associated with the magazine". Dowell resigned in protest.

The Miami Herald said, "the focus on the trivialities of personality conveniently prevents us from having to confront the tough questions his film raises". However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying, "The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche". Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote, "Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum".

On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled, "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush" attacking the film. New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles — "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant". A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an article entitled, "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Jack Valenti, then president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, denounced Stone's film in a seven-page statement. He wrote, "In much the same way, young German boys and girls in 1941 were mesmerized by Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, in which Adolf Hitler was depicted as a newborn God. Both J. F. K. and Triumph of the Will are equally a propaganda masterpiece and equally a hoax. Mr. Stone and Leni Reifenstahl have another genetic linkage: neither of them carried a disclaimer on their film that its contents were mostly pure fiction".

Stone even received death threats as he recalled in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them". Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's movie as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade. The Sydney Morning Herald named JFK as the best film of 1991. It currently has a rating of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes (increasing to 86% for their "Cream of the Crop" designation). Entertainment Weekly ranked it the 5th Most Controversial Movie Ever.

Years after its release, Stone said of the film that it "was the beginning of a new era for me in terms of filmmaking because it's not just about a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. It's also about the way we look at our recent history . . . It shifts from black and white to color, and then back again, and views people from offbeat angles".

Box office

JFK was released in theaters on December 20, 1991. The box office for the film started slow but picked up momentum and by the first week in January 1992, it had grossed over USD $50 million worldwide. Stone started to get support for his film. Warner Brothers executives pointed out that because of the film's long running time, it had fewer screenings.

On its first week of release, JFK tied Beauty and the Beast for fifth place in the U.S. box office and its critics began to say it was a failure. However, JFK eventually earned over $205 million worldwide, and $70 million in the United States during its initial run.

Awards and nominations

JFK was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Director (Oliver Stone), Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Sound, Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stone and Zachary Sklar). It won two awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Stone was nominated for Best Director of the year by the Directors Guild of America but did not win. He also won a Golden Globe for Best Director and in his acceptance speech, he said, "A terrible lie was told to us 28 years ago. I hope that this film can be the first step in righting that wrong".

Cultural impact

The popularity of JFK led to the passage of The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (also known as the JFK Act) and the formation of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board. The Act was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in late October 1992. The ARRB worked until 1998. Witnesses were interviewed (some for the first time), the U.S. government purchased the Zapruder film, and previously-classified documents relating to the assassination were finally made available to public scrutiny. By ARRB law, all existing assassination-related documents will be made public by 2017.


To date, there have been three separate releases of Stone's film on DVD. The first edition was released in 2000 on a single disc with the movie split over both sides. It was a director's cut that added 17 minutes to the film. Due to an error on the packaging, this version states it features an anamorphic widescreen transfer. However, the DVD itself contains a non-anamorphic widescreen print, further compounded by a rather poor transfer.

In 2001, the "Director's Cut" was released again, this time part of the Oliver Stone Collection box set with the movie on one disc and supplemental material on the second. Stone contributed several extras to this edition, including an audio commentary, two multi-media essays, and 54 minutes worth of deleted or expanded scenes with optional commentary by Stone. Finally, in 2003, a two-DVD "Special Edition" was released with all of the extras on the 2001 edition in addition to a 90-minute documentary entitled, Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy.


Further reading

  • Mark C. Carnes "Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies". Cineaste, .
  • Gary Crowdus "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone". Cineaste, .
  • Eric Hamburg (2002). JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me: An Idealist's Journey from Capitol Hill to Hollywood Hell. PublicAffairs.
  • James Riordan (1996). Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press.
  • Oliver Stone (2000). JFK: The Book of the Film. Applause Books.
  • Robert Brent Toplin (1996). History by Hollywood "JFK: Fact, Fiction, and Supposition",pp.45-78. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252065360

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