Entry dated :: March 3, 1992
Town Hall, New York City
Oliver Stone:
Debating JFK

Town Hall was packed— some 1200 people. The event was called immodestly “Hollywood and History,” and sponsored by the Nation Magazine. It was supposed to be a no-holds-barred debate about whether Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK was fact or fiction, according to Victor Navasky, the Nation ‘s editor-in-chief, who was moderating it. The hero of Stone’s movie was none other than Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner), the New Orleans District Attorney who had tried a New Orleans business man named Clay Shaw for conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. Even though a jury acquitted Shaw, the movie depicts Garrison unraveling a CIA-backed conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Since I had debunked Garrison in a New Yorker piece, Navasky had asked that I confront Stone in a debate, and I agreed to participate. The other participants on stage were Norman Mailer, who had just written Harlot’s Ghost, a roman a clef novel suggesting the involvement of a rogue faction of the CIA in the Kennedy assassination, and Nora Ephron, a film writer whose experience on her movie Silkwood furnished a perspective on how Hollywood treated reality-based stories.
Oliver Stone arrived promptly at 7:30 PM, accompanied by two comely assistants, Jane Rusconi, his chief researcher on JFK, who sat next to him on stage, and Kristina Hare, his production assistant, who sat in the first row. He received an almost ten-minute long standing ovation. It was clearly his audience.
Navasky opened the discussion with a well-received joke. He asked “Will all of you out there that think you yourself don’t belong on this panel please stand up?” No one did.
Mailer spoke first. He began by saying that the JFK assassination should be “seen not as history but as a myth in which the gods warred and a god fell.” He remarked about Stone, “Of course, like many a movie man beforehand, he mislabeled the product. He did not make cinematic history, and in fact, to hell with that. He's dared something more dangerous. He entered the echoing halls of the largest paranoid myth of our time: the undeclared national belief that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by the concentrated forces of maligned power in the land.”
Three years earlier, Mailer had formed what he called the “Dynamite Club,” consisting of two initial members, me and Don Delillo, who had written the novel Libra about Oswald. He gradually expanded the club to include other conspiracy investigators, including Jim Hougan, the author of Spooks, Bernard “Bud” Fensterwald, who had founded his own “Assassiuatio Archives and Research Center,” and even, for one session in Washington, G. Gordon Liddy, the organizer of the infamous Watergate break-in. At the meetings, most of which were at Mailer’s house in Brooklyn or at my apartment in Manhattan, he sketched out his view that JFK was killed as part of an apocalyptical struggle to change history, so I was not totally surprised at his deification of Kennedy as a “god.”.
Next came Nora Ephron. “I'm not here to talk about JFK, per se,” she began, “but about what it is like to have written a movie based on something that happened.” She then provided immensely entertaining anecdotes about the problems she had in Silkwood which showed that movies often need to varnish a factual story with a layer of fictive embellishment, such as adding “spoons at a table.” Her account greatly amused everyone, although it evaded the issue of Stone’s movie.
So it fell to me to point out that Stone’s JFK had diverged so far from the facts of the case that it was nothing short of an organized misrepresentation of reality. I had prepared the night before by jotting down the issues on two 3x5 cards. The first card dealt with the general problem of mixing fact and fiction, It read: “Although they may aim at the same purpose of finding truth, non-Fiction and fiction are two distinct forms of knowledge. The writer of non-fiction is limited by the universe of discoverable fact. He cannot make up what he does not know-- no matter how strong his intuition or suspicion. The writer of fiction knows no such boundary: He can fill in whatever gaps exist with his imagination.”
The second card dealt with the falsity of one specific scene in JFK in which David Ferrie (played by Joe Pesci), Garrison’s original suspect, confesses to Garrison that he had been involved in the assassination along with the CIA, Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Gary Oldman), and Clay Shaw (played by Tommy Lee Jones.) Ferrie is then found mysteriously dead. I noted on the card, “In the factual universe, Ferrie confessed to no such thing. Contrary to Stone’s version, Garrison never claimed that he made any confession. In his own book Trail of the Assassin. Garrison acknowledged that Ferrie insiste//d that he had no connection whatsoever with Oswald, Shaw or the assassination. So the key scene in JFK is pure invention. Yet, the audience has no way of knowing this, and once the fictional confession is added, the audience is irretrievably misled.”
But now surveying the audience, I realized I needed a more winning approach. So I took another tact. “ I'm going to be in the minority,” I began, “but I believe there is a difference between nonfiction and fiction. I don't believe the difference is a trivial difference.” I said Stone has every right to present whatever view he considers valid--or even entertaining--in a work of fiction. Everyone else does it. And as such, it may contain much truth in it, and it may look likes a news documentary but it cannot be considered non-fiction because it blends in fictional characters and fictional episodes. But, as we all know, a real event also happened in New Orleans in 1967.”
I then pointed out that in that event “there was a flagrant abuse of prosecutorial power by Jim Garrison. Over a dozen people were arrested or charged with a crime-- although they were never prosecuted. Three were members of the press-- Walter Sheridan of NBC News, David Chandler of Life magazine, and Richard Townley of WSDU-TV. Arrest warrants were issued for them on charges of bribery because they charged Garrison was fabricating evidence Three were members of Garrison's own staff. They were charged with larceny for leaking Garrison's purported evidence to the press. Six were potential witnesses. They claimed Garrison asked them to perjure themselves or plant evidence in return for legal favors or cash. He also arrested someone called Edgar Eugene Bradley, charging him with "conspiracy to kill JFK." The reason: The arrest was just a desperate effort to divert public opinion. After Bradley--whoever he is--was released; Garrison forgot about him. The assistant DA said "it was a mistake". You won't find Bradley's name in the movie JFK.”
At this point, having appealed to the civil liberties’ side of the Nation audience, I was not booed. So I proceeded to make the points I had prepared.
Stone was the final speaker. He lumbered over to the podium, and responded, “I obviously would like to address some of your questions, Mr. Epstein, but we'll wait till afterward.”He said that his film represented the mythic “ common man: Jim Garrison risking a comfortable life to do battle with the forces of overwhelming evil. He cannot in the end, of course, be triumphant because this would mean a successful political revolution against this invisible government. He must fail, and become a martyr in his quest for truth.” The audience gave him another standing ovation.
The “debate” ended at 11 pm.
Afterwards, we gathered backstage. Sonserai Lee, a Korean-American friend of mine, arrived. We had a plan to dine at the Royalton Hotel. Stone, who had not previously spoke to me, suddenly shouted from across the room, “ Hey guys, where are you going to dinner?”
Sonserai said “The Royalton,” and, next thing I knew, he joined us for dinner along with his assistant Kristina Hare.
At dinner, Stone proved to be far more insightful that I had expected from his movie. He also had demonstrated the sort of sill and charm that a successful movie director needs to keep actors performing. Towards the end of dinner, he brought up the CIA’s former counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton. When I mentioned I knew Angleton, he exclaimed, “Wow. Did he say if the CIA killed JFK.”