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 hypnotism-induced story of a single witness. This witness, Perry Raymond Russo, had testified that he 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 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 Pesci), 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 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 maintained his innocence, insisted 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 and, 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 not 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 being 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 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 a film fabricated a fictional scene showing the Rosenbergs confessing to J. Edgar Hoover that they were part a Communist conspiracy to steal atomic secrets.

And Ferrie's false confession 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."

Second, there were the inconsistent identification. According to the statement of his first interrogation, Russo, when shown photographs of Shaw, said that he had seen him from afar -- but never met the man. Subsequently, he changed his story to say he had met him at Ferrie's apartment. One week later, he told a homicide officer he was not sure the man he met was Shaw.

Third, there was the mis-identification of Oswald. Russo claimed the man introduced to him as "Leon Oswald" had a beard in September 1963 and was Ferries room-mate. Oswald was clean-shaven at that time, and Marina's room-mate (Ferrie's room mate, at the time, did have a beard).

While Garrison was stuck with this contradictory testimony; Oliver Stone was not. He simply substituted for Russo the fictional character "Willie O'Keefe" (played by Kevin Bacon) who had none of the real witness' deficiencies.

Unlike Russo, a heterosexual with no plausible access to Shaw's secret life, his replacement O'Keefe is fashioned as a handsome male prostitute who has been Shaw's homosexual lover and drug partner for over a year. Moreover, he is given the political persona of a neo-Nazi and Kennedy hater -- a political stance which more plausibly might allow him to be privy to a discussion as sensitive as the assassination plan. And, unlike Russo, who only popped up after Ferrie's death seeking publicity on local television, O'keefe contacts Garrison before Ferrie's death-- and before Garrison's investigation has even become public-- from state prison. He is serving time for prostitution, and he offers to cooperate with Garrison (whom he also physically admires) because "he has nothing to lose" and presumably because it might lead to a reduced prison sentence.

Unlike the real witness, O'Keefe displays no memory lapses requiring drug or hypnotic "objectification." He voluntarily relates a coherent story: Ferrie first introduced him to Shaw in the summer of 1962, Shaw immediately hired him to participate in elaborate orgies with him and Ferrie. In the course of this relationship, he met Shaw's associates including Oswald, who he has no problem identifying as beardless, and the anti-Castro Cubans mercenaries (including one bald-one who murders Ferrie). At one late-night meeting in Ferrie's apartment, after the Cubans depart, Ferrie, Oswald and Shaw discuss the plan for killing Kennedy, including the "cross fire" and "triangulation of fire").

The fictional O'keefe's story is supported by Ferrie's fictional confession, which is then given weight by Ferrie's fictional murder by the fictional bald-headed Cuban introduced in O'keefe's story. Since the Oliver Stone's audience is not apprised of the substitutions of fiction for fact, this cross-corroboration makes plausible to it the New Orleans plot.

The New Orleans conspiracy still remained a relatively low-level one, involving homosexuals, anti-Castro Cuban killers, Oswald, and CIA employees. To link it to the central coup d'etat in Washington D.C, Oliver Stone resorts to a deus ex machina: a fictional meeting Garrison has with a deep-throat style anonymous source, who identified himself only as "X."

"X" is a cynical man of military-bearing (played by Donald Sutherland). He meets Garrison in late February 1967, just after Ferrie's death, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. When asked by Garrison whether he is with the CIA, "X" refuses to identify the agency he represents, but tells Garrison he is "close, you do not know how close."

After describing the Warren Report as "fiction," "X" launches into a remarkable 15 minute exposition of the assassination. He discloses that Kennedy was "executed by device as old as the crucifixion-- a military firing squad." It was not some low-level plot but a full-blown "coup d'etat" with "Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings". Its purpose was to prevent Kennedy from withdrawing from Viet Nam and ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Since the military-industrial complex could not afford to lose this war threat-- a "$100 billion" in war contracts was at stake-- it ordered the assassination. The secret team of generals and officials who carried out this coup also arranged the "cover story" that framed Oswald as the lone assassin and sabotaged the telephone system in Washington D.C. after the assassination so no news would leak out. "Nothing was left to chance," X adds.

"X" explains that two weeks before President Kennedy was due to arrive in Dallas, his superior, "General Y", ordered him to accompany a group of officials on a trip to the South Pole. If he hadn't been sent away, he would have had the routine duty of arranging "additional security" for the President in Dallas-- which would have made the assassination impossible. When he returned and realized what had happened, he deduced that there could be only one reason for "Y" sending him away at this critical time: to prevent him from interfering with the assassination plan in Dallas. X tells Garrison he cannot publicly reveal these secrets, because, before he could testify, he would be "gagged, arrested and put in an insane asylum", but he urges him to "make arrests" anyhow. With the New Orleans conspiracy now connected to the Washington conspiracy, Garrison returns to New Orleans and arrests Clay Shaw.

Garrison, in reality, had not met such a source. Rather than going to Washington D.C., he spent the week between Ferrie's death and Shaw's arrest filling in the lapsed memory of the new witness Russo (with the help of Sodium Pentathol). Even though the original Garrison never met "X," Oliver Stone, the New Garrison, not only found "X" but retained him as his technical adviser for JFK. This super source, whose story was anachronistically slipped him into the old Garrison's case is Colonel Leroy Fletcher Prouty. Before his retirement from the Air Force in December 1963, Colonel Prouty had worked in the Pentagon in the Office of Special Operations-- which provided planes and other equipment for covert activities. In November 1963, Prouty had been sent to the South Pole at the time of the assassination, but here the similarity between the real and fictional "X" ends.

Unlike the character in the film, Prouty's duties did not include providing "additional security" for the President's motorcades, according to the Secret Service (which did have that responsibility). In his own writings ("The Anatomy of Assassination" in Uncloaking The CIA) , Prouty bases this allegation that the President's security was withdrawn not on any personal knowledge (he does not claim here any responsibility for Presidential security) but on the failure of the Secret Service to make sure, as is required by its "manual", that all windows on the parade route be sealed, to post counter-sniper teams on the roofs, and to maintain the speed of the President's car at "44 miles per hour," In fact, however, these procedures were not required by the manual of the Secret Service.

He was not even a liaison with the Secret Service, the CIA, or the Air Force Military Police. Nor was there anything mysterious about Prouty's November assignment: he had applied for retirement in the summer of 1963 and, while his paperwork was being processed, he had been detached to various temporary duties, including this lark to the Antipodes. "X"'s logic that there was a connection between this pre-retirement trip and the events in Dallas has no apparent basis in reality.

Prouty did demonstrate, however, a penchant for claiming participation in historic events. For example, he puts himself at the Roosevelt-Stalin-Churchill summit in Teheran in 1943 (Churchill at some point revealed to him that the world was ruled by a "high cabal"); at Yale, when George Bush learned "everything he knew" about machinations of the oil cartel; at the surrender of Japan in 1945, where he personally witnessed U.S. intelligence lay the basis of two future wars by covertly shipping "the largest arm cache in history" to North Vietnam and Korea; at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 where he personally procured CIA ships that were re-named after George Bush's wife "Barbara," George Bush's oil company "Zapata" and George Bush's residence "Houston"; and in Vietnam, here he reported on "a CIA clandestine operation that got out of hand."

Aside from advising Oliver Stone, Prouty is also extremely active with other conspiracy-hunters. He served, for example, as editorial adviser to publications of the futuristic Church of Scientology; as a consultant to the far right Lyndon LaRouche Organization, who also provided its Convention with a presentation comparing the U.S. government's prosecution of Lyndon LaRouche (for mail fraud) "to the persecution of Socrates"; a Board member of the Populist Action Committee, where he joined Robert Weems, the former leader of the Klu Klux Klan, and John Rarick, the organizer of the White Citizens Council; and as a featured speaker for the anti-civil rights organization called the Liberty Lobby, whose founder, Willis Carto, also set up The Institute for Historic Review, a disseminator of books and video-tapes that allege that the Nazi death camps in Europe were fictions devised by Zionist propaganda to justify tax money being donated to Israel. (It also published Prouty's own book: The Secret Team: The CIA And Its Allies In Control Of The United States And The World.)

Prouty also exposed the machinations of putative global conspiracies. For example, when the Liberty Lobby held its annual Board of Policy Convention in 1991, he presented a special seminar on "Who Is The Enemy," that blamed the high price of oil on a systematic plot of a cabal to deliberately shut down oil pipelines in the Middle East. "Why?" he asked, and explained to the seminar: "Because of the Israelis. That is their business on behalf of the oil companies. That's why they get $3 billion a year from the U.S. tax payer." His enemy list also included the CIA, usurers, school textbooks, the media, political parties, international banks, federal crises-planning exercises, and the U.S.-Soviet Trade and Economic Council (which, according to Prouty, had stage-managed, along with David Rockefeller, the liquidation of the Berlin Wall to profit from "the rubles and the gold").

So this is the intellectual provenance of the man Oliver Stone chose as his technical adviser-- and the man called "X". In JFK, X displays secret knowledge about the ultimate conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination when he tells Garrison the "who?" and "how? " of the shooting are "just scenery" to hide the "why?. The "why," in turn, proceeds from the unbreakable rule of the power-elite that "the organizing principle of any society is for war". Because Kennedy violated this precept by taking steps to end the war, he had to die.

Prouty/X's secret knowledge about the elite's organizing principle and the "war system" derives itself from a very special source-- a suppressed Kennedy Administration study, which he discussed on the Liberty Lobby's Radio Free America on December 14, 1989. He explained then that this study was so secret that the group of "power brokers" who conducted it met, according to Prouty, "in an underground storage and security area" in the Hudson Valley of New York called "Iron Mountain". The explosive issue they addressed was: could America survive "if and when a condition of permanent peace should arise". Their conclusion, which "X" would echo almost word for word in the film JFK two years later, was "the organization of society for the possibility of war is its principal political stabilizer" ; without a believable war threat: "no government could remain in power" , and consequently, "the elimination of war ... implies the eventual elimination of national sovereignty." He explains on this radio program and in a subsequent issue of "Spotlight," the newspaper of the Liberty Lobby, that these conclusions come directly from the Report from this Iron Mountain group-- which he has obtained a copy of (and which the Holocaust-doubting Institute For Historic Research re- published.) He concludes the program by relating it the "high cabal ... calling the shots."

While Prouty quotes accurately from the Report from Iron Mountain, he fails to realize it was a complete hoax. There was no group in underground storage vaults in Iron Mountain, no study of the elimination of the war threat, no report from power brokers. The Report From Iron Mountain was a brilliant spoof by political satirist Leonard Lewin of think tanks in 1967. Victor Navasky, then the editor of the humor magazine, Monocle, who was in on the gag, persuaded Dial Press to put Lewin's book on its non-fiction instead of fiction list, which resulted in a front page news story in the New York Times about the "suppressed" Report. Subsequently, it was revealed by the author for what it was. What neither the author nor Navasky could foresee was that this hoax would re- emerge a quarter of a century later, first in the radical- right radio broadcasts and Liberty Lobby publications, and then, as the connective logic of Oliver's Stone's film, JFK.

Not only did his technical adviser on JFK prove unable to distinguish a mirthful hoax from somber reality, but Oliver Stone himself proved unable to separate the false scenes in JFK from the reality of Garrison's case at a Town Hall Meeting in New York in March 1992-- a meeting in which he again compared himself to Garrison as one of four people libeled by the media for "representing an unofficial history" of the assassination (the other two in this quarter are, according to Stone: Oswald and President Kennedy)-- The Panel at Town Hall included Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron and myself, and it was moderated by Victor Navasky, now the editor of The Nation. When I pointed out to Stone that his depiction of Ferrie confessing to Garrison was false history, he replied that even though such a meeting never happened, he had "sketched" it into Ferrie's last night because Ferrie had at an earlier point "raved and ranted" to one of Garrison's investigators. Stone, in any case, saw no problem in his misrepresenting this fiction as fact in his "unofficial history." He also dismissed other challenges to the fictitious evidence he inserted in JFK-- such as the six scenes depicting someone pasting Oswald's head on a photograph of some other gunman's body to frame him-- by responding to person who had questioned this fiction by meticulously citing the actual photographic evidence, "I don't know where you get your facts". Moreover, he not only vouched for the bona fides of Prouty, but he presented as pure "truth" X's thesis that the "military industrial complex" killed Kennedy so he would not end the war in Viet Nam.

Oliver Stone, as the new Garrison, demonstrated yet again how easily pierced is the thin membrane that separates the mainstream media from the festering pools of fantasies on its peripheries. What he allowed to ooze into JFK from these fringes, with the help of his technical advisers like Colonel Prouty, is the tormenting concept that "secret teams" and "high cabals" fabricated entire historic events to fool them-- a concept that incorporates in its schema even the Iron Mountain Hoax. In doing so, Oliver Stone organized a flight from reality.

Special thanks to Lona Manning from Kelowna, B.C. for her assistance in proof-reading the internet version of this piece.