JFK: Oliver Stone's Fictional Reality


by Edward Jay Epstein

Well before the advent of the Hollywood pseudo documentary, Karl Marx suggested that all great events and personalities in world history happen twice: "the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." Oliver Stone's film "JFK" repesents the second coming of Jim Garrison.

In 1969, when Jim Garrison's Conspiracy-To-Kill-Kennedy trial collapsed, his entire case that the accused, Clay Shaw, had participated in an assassination plot turned out to be based on nothing more than the hypnotized- induced story of a single witness. This witness, Perry Raymond Russo, had testified that he had had no conscious memory of his own conspiracy story before he had been drugged, hypnotized, and fed hypothetical circumstances about the plot he was supposed to have witnessed by the district attorney. To the dismay of his supporters-- and three of his Garrison's staff resigned-- this was the essence of Garrison's show trial: a witness who acknowledged he could not, after this bizarre treatment, separate fantasy from reality. After that, Garrison's meretricious prosecution of it was considered by the press to be, as the New York Times noted in an editorial, "one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of American jurisprudence." In this debacle, Garrison himself was exposed as a man who had recklessly disregarded the truth when it suited his purposes.

Then, in 1991, a generation later, Garrison re-emerges phoenix-like from the debris as the truth-seeking prosecutor (played by Kevin Costner) in the film "JFK"-- and who brilliantly solves the mystery of the Kennedy Assassination. In this version, there is no hypnosis: the reborn Garrison resourcefully uncovers cogent evidence that Clay Shaw planned the Dallas ambush of President Kennedy in New Orleans with two confederates: David William Ferrie (played by Joe Persci), a homosexual soldier of fortune and Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Gary Oldman). He establishes that this trio, who also participate together in orgies, all worked for the CIA, and were recruited into a conspiracy to seize power in Washington.

Filmed in a grainy semi-documentary style, with newsreels as well as amateur footage incorporated into it, "JFK" purports to reveal the actual truth about the Kennedy Assassination. From the moment it was released, its director Oliver Stone has so passionately defended its factual accuracy that he became, for all practical purposes, the new Garrison. What could be more appropriate in the age of media than a crusading film-maker replacing a crusading District Attorney as the symbol of the truth-finder in society? In this capacity, Oliver Stone-Garrison played out his case on television news programs, talk shows, magazines and the op- ed pages of news papers. He held his own press conferences, with his attractive researcher at his side, met with Congressional leaders, and he, as the original Garrison had done a quarter of a century before, used this public platform to focus attention on the possibility that the government was hiding the truth about the Kennedy Assassination. In exploiting this torment of secrecy, Stone proved far more successful than his predecessor in rousing interest in releasing the classified files pertaining to the assassination.

But where Jim Garrison failed in building a plausible conspiracy case against Clay Shaw, how did Oliver Stone succeed? The answer is that whereas the original Garrison only attempted to coax, intimidate and hypnotize unable witnesses into providing him with incriminating evidence, the new Garrison, Oliver Stone, fabricated for his film the crucial evidence and witnesses that were missing in real life-- even when this license required deliberately falsifying reality and depicting events that never happened. Consider, for example, the way he fabricated Ferrie's dramatic confession to Garrison in a hotel room only hours before he died.

In reality, as well as in Jim Garrison's account of the case, David Ferrie steadfastly maintaining his innocence, insisting he did not know Lee Harvey Oswald, he was not in the CIA, and that he had no knowledge of any plot to kill Kennedy. The last known person to speak to Ferrie was George Lardner, Jr. of the Washington Post, who Ferrie had met with from midnight to 4 a.m. of February 22, 1967. During this interview, Ferrie described Garrison (who he hasn't seen for weeks) as "a joke". Several hours later, Ferrie died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

In "JFK", Oliver Stone invents, and falsifies, his own version of Ferrie's last night. Instead of being calmly interviewed by a reporter in his home, "JFK" shows a panicked Ferrie being doggedly interrogated by Jim Garrison in a hotel suite until he finally break down and confesses. Ferrie names his CIA controller an, in rapid-fire succession, Ferrie admits in the film everything he denied in real life. He acknowledges that he taught Oswald " everything". He then explains that no only does he know Clay Shaw but he is being blackmailed by him and controlled by him. He also admits that he works for the CIA-- along with Oswald, Shaw and "the Cubans", who were the "shooters" in Dallas. He displays intimate knowledge of the plot by explaining that the "shooters" were recruited without told whose orders they were carrying out. He tells a cool Garrison that the plot is "too big" to be investigated, implying that powerful figures are behind it, and that, because they know Ferrie is now talking, they have issued a "death warrant" for him.

After Ferrie leaves Garrison and returns to his apartment, he is shown being chased, held down, and murdered by a bald-headed man who forces pills down his throat. The murderer, who is shown in other fictional scenes as an associate of Shaw, Oswald, and the Anti-Castro Cuban shooters. When Garrison arrives at the murder scene and finds the empty bottle of pills, he concludes Ferrie was murdered which gives Ferrie's earlier revelations to Garrison the force of a death-bed confession. (In reality, the coroner ruled that Ferrie had died from "natural causes"--a verdict that Garrison, as the empowered authority, did not contest).

Oliver Stone's transformations in this scene involves more than some trivial cinematic contrivances. They provide the linkage for the conspiracy. Ferrie's confession connects the team of anonymous Cuban "shooters" in Dallas with Clay Shaw, David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans and, at a higher level, the CIA "untouchables". Whereas in actuality Ferrie denied he was in the CIA, ever knew Oswald, or knew anything about a plot to kill JFK, in the film, Stone has Ferrie confess he was in the CIA, knew and trained Oswald and knew key details of the plot to shoot JFK. These fabricated admissions changes the entire story-- just as it would change the story about the execution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg if film fabricated a fictional scene showing the Rosen bergs confessing to J. Edgar Hoover that they were part a Communist conspiracy to steal atomic secrets.

And Ferrie's false confessions is not an isolated bit of license. Throughout JFK, in dozens of scenes, Oliver Stone substitutes fiction for fact when it advances his case. He even blatantly contradicts the two books he represents as being the basis for "JFK"-- Jim Garrison, " On The Trail of the Assassins" (Warners Books, 1988) and James Marrs, Cross Fire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (Carroll and Graf, 1990).. He makes especially effective use of this substitution technique when it comes to witnesses. Here, like all fictionalizers, he has an advantage over fact finders: he can artfully fashion his replacement witnesses to meet the audience's criteria for what is credible. His substitution of the fictive "Willie O'Keefe" to replace Garrison's flawed witness, Perry Raymond Russo, is a case in point.

Russo, it will be recalled, was Garrison's sole witness to the alleged plot that was planned in Ferrie's apartment. But in actuality his credibility suffered from three problems.

First, there was the memory lapse. Russo did not tell his incriminating story until four years after the assassination and then only after he had been rendered semiconscious by sodium pentathol and instructed by a hypnotist to imagine he is watching an important discussion "about assassinating someone."

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