When I was about five years old, two things happened that drastically altered my innocent perception of the world at the time. The first thing was seeing President John F. Kennedy’s head exploding on the living room television set while getting ready to go to bed one night. I think I was probably too young for that. I had no idea what a Zapruder even was. The second thing was discovering my grandpa’s stack of Playboys during a game of hide-and-seek at my grandparents’ house. I was definitely too young for that experience. 1983 must have been a rough year for Mom and Dad. They had a lot of explaining to do that year. Their explanation about the magazines was pretty straightforward, though to be honest, after witnessing my mother unleash Hellfire on my grandfather, no explanation was really necessary. But the explanation they provided about the president getting whacked was not as clear. I remember Dad having to assure me—though I remained skeptical for awhile afterwards—that the president I had seen on the television was not the current president at the time. That president, he explained, was Ronald Reagan, and he had survived his shooting. Imagine my five year old brain trying to work this equation out while moping around the playground at recess as the other kids were chasing each other around like monkeys, and you’ll have a pretty accurate picture of my early grammar school days.
I obviously have no idea what it was like for those who lived through those times – not just the Kennedy assassination, but everything else from that era, the Vietnam War, the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, the deep division in the country, the riots, the following assassinations of Dr. King and President Kennedy’s brother… but as a kid who gradually discovered these things from a considerable distance, and always through the foggy lens of other peoples’ differing views, it all sounded a lot like a very dark fairy tale—the kind you didn’t want to hear before going to bed at night. I knew I was supposed to learn something from it, that there was some kind of moral to the story, but I had no idea what it was, and no one else did either. My dad just told me it was a mystery, and that as much as we wanted to know what really happened to JFK, we probably never would. And he encouraged me not to think so much about it. So I didn’t. And when Oliver Stone’s 1991 film about the assassination was released it completely escaped my radar. As far as I knew, Kevin Costner was still just Robin Hood.
Then, about 10 years ago, while attending seminary, my brothers and I decided to unwind one evening with a viewing of JFK. I’m sure we had a pot of something on the stove, primed and ready, as we settled in for the three-hour duration of the film, but even so, the experience of seeing that movie wasn’t a relaxing one. It was exercise. It was a marathon of the mentally exhausting variety. Don’t get me wrong though. The film is brilliant; the work of a mad genius, and I’m pretty sure it accomplished exactly what Stone wanted it to accomplish – which as far as I can tell was to drudge up something from the nasty bog where United States History goes to die, and shine light on it in an effort to make people do that thing that we sometimes prefer not to do in these matters – think. And by the time I was done thinking, I was exhausted. The same was true this week when I watched it again. Stone and Costner didn’t just make a film about the determined lawyer in New Orleans named Jim Garrison who wanted to dig until he found the truth – they made a documentary of the crime, presented all the evidence, stated their case, and then used the film medium as a vehicle to get it where it needed to go so ordinary people could access it and make sense out of it. They succeeded in this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the hypothesis, they did an excellent job in presenting it. The true brilliance of the movie is that you can’t separate the film from the historical account. They’re woven together in such a way that forces the viewer to examine the facts and consider the possible explanations in the same way the courtroom jury is doing in the third act of the movie. Wherever possible, Stone used real video and audio from the time period, along with painstakingly accurate recreations of incidents that were captured on film, including Abraham Zapruder’s home movie, and the news footage of Oswald’s murder. And to drive the intention of all this home, in the final courtroom scene, as Costner’s character is making his closing argument to the jury, he looks directly into the camera to deliver his final line, “it’s up to you.”
So what is the hypothesis of the film? If you haven’t seen it, or you don’t think you ever will, I’ll try and break it down for you as best I can. And there’s really two parts to the hypothesis. The first part deals with HOW Kennedy was assassinated, and takes a very simple and direct look at the forensic evidence – the Zapruder film which establishes the time frame and the exact place of the assassination, the number of shots that were fired, where they were fired from, the trajectory of the bullets, the autopsy photos, and other things of this nature. This is basically all the stuff that could not be faked, so if there was a conspiracy, the forensic evidence had to be cleaned up, wiped away, lost, or hidden from the public, and most of it was – even the Zapruder film was hidden from the public for many years after the assassination. An honest look at the HOW leads to one basic conclusion: that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have killed President Kennedy alone, even if he was the best sniper to have ever lived. Just to clarify: I’m not commenting on what I personally believe, I’m just relaying what the filmmakers have shown.
The second part of the film’s hypothesis is much more difficult to process. This deals with WHY Kennedy was killed. This is the realm where all the conspiracy theories come into play, and though there are many, the film focuses primarily on one. Most of the exposition for this theory is delivered by Donald Sutherland who shows up in the middle of the film as a sort of retired black ops agent with no name – his character delivers the goods to Costner who incorporates it into his investigation. The theory is as follows: John F. Kennedy was a very young man who inherited the presidency of the two old war horses before him, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. From the beginning, he was at odds with the Military Commanders in the Pentagon and the CIA. He failed to support their actions, fired many of them, and ultimately planned to keep the U.S. from fully committing to open war in Vietnam. None of that stuff is conjecture, and in fact, there’s a recent Ken Burns documentary available from PBS on the Vietnam War that is probably the most exhaustive work ever done on the subject. I watched some of the episodes before writing this review just to make sure I had somewhat of a grasp on what was going on. But it explains the troubled relationship between Kennedy’s White House and the rest of the government in 1962 and 1963. All of that is undisputed fact as far as I can tell. What isn’t provable, and where the film has obviously received the most criticism, is the theory that, because of the disagreements that Kennedy was having with the rest of the government, the CIA and the Pentagon decided to remove him from office via an invisible coup d’etat, for the purposes of putting Lyndon B. Johnson into office – a much more pliable president who was in agreement with the tide of power, rather than planting himself as a levy against it. The additional part of the theory is that Oswald was a very experienced spy, and black ops agent that the CIA commissioned to orchestrate the assassination, and once it was done, they sent Jack Ruby to kill him so no one would ever know. The best conspiracy theories, as they say, are the ones that can neither be proven or disproven.
One very interesting result of the film’s release in 1991 was the overwhelming public demand for the truth. The outcry was apparently so great that George Sr. signed into law the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which was to make all of the government’s documents on the assassination available to the public in 2017. If you’re following the current news, this is beginning to happen, at least in part – though “surprisingly” nothing of any real significance has been discovered. As of the date of this review, there are still a handful of the “most sensitive” documents waiting to be released by the President. If any of Oliver Stone’s theory were true, would they still have documents laying around 50 years later that could prove our government hasn’t been our government since 1963?
I guess, to sum up my honest thoughts about all this—not necessarily the JFK movie—but all the stuff it makes me think about, I have to go back to that part of myself that is still the little kid wandering around the edges of the school playground trying to figure things out for myself. The conclusion I couldn’t seem to find back then, just because I was too young, is the one that I accept now—that there used to be this mythical place called the United States of America. And at some point before I was alive, the king of this land was murdered in broad daylight with the whole country watching. And no one had a definite answer as to why he was killed… just conjectures, just fog, uncertainty, lies, smoke, and shadows. And on that day, because no one could stand up and tell the truth – the myth of America died along with him. And ever since then, we’ve been looking at ourselves, and seeing what is actually here, not the myth, but the reality. My generation, and the generations after us—we grew up in the reality, while being told about the myth. But the two things don’t match. So we’ve found our myths in other stories… in galaxies far far away, in cinematic universes, in books and in fairy tales about people and places that never existed.
And what about the reality of November 22, 1963? What really happened that day? The next guy took the throne and sent over 58,000 Americans to their deaths in an effort to stop a little country in southeast Asia from doing the same thing that our founding fathers did to the British Empire in the 1780s.
My Church History professor in seminary once said that, “given enough time, every institution eventually becomes the exact opposite of what it was originally intended to be.” I’ve pondered his quote many times in the years since I first heard him say it, mostly in an effort to convince myself that it’s not always true. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found any evidence that it’s not. The older I get, the more I read, the more I learn—the more it seems like that old professor knew what he was talking about.