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JFK.

Who owns our "history"? He who makes it up so that most everyone believes it.

--Oliver Stone, 1992

Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK is one of the worst historical films ever made. Let me elaborate. It is skillfully made, packs an emotional punch, and has a strong cast. If it were presented as a work of fiction, involving the fictional conspiracy to murder a fictional president, it would possess some merit, albeit descending into murkiness at times. However, it purports to be the truthful reconstruction of a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

I profoundly disagree with that hardworking film critic Roger Ebert. He goes so far as to include JFK in his book The Great Movies, claiming that it doesn't matter that JFK contains factual inaccuracies. He tells us that it is not a film about the facts of the assassination of President Kennedy, but about the feelings. Ebert claims that all we can reasonably ask of an historical film is that it be skillfully made and approach some kind of emotional truth. Given that standard, he asserts that JFK is a masterpiece. It's like a collage of all the books and articles, documentaries and TV shows, and conspiracy theories since 1963. Ebert adds that Stone chose the perfect hero for his film, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. In the film Garrison is a noble if quixotic Everyman who won't give up on his quest to establish that a vast conspiracy to murder the president existed.

I am deeply disturbed by such a cavalier attitude toward the truth. Ebert is absolutely wrong. It is essential in a film about a recent historical event that touched the lives of so many Americans and citizens of other countries to get the basic facts right. At the heart of the Garrison story is the relentless prosecution of a man said to have been involved in a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, was put through the harrowing experience of a conspiracy trial. Previously in good health, he died of cancer three years after his legal proceedings ended. Many believe the stress of the trial contributed greatly to his death. How faithfully the film recreates the facts of the trial matters enormously. In fact, JFK is woefully inept in its handling of the trial. The film is loosely based on Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. It is not an objective account and gets many key pieces of evidence wrong.

The choice of Kevin Costner to play Garrison was an interesting one. He fit perfectly the Capraesque All-American Nice Guy and Defender of Democracy that Stone was looking for. He seems far removed from the actual Jim Garrison, who appears to have been a publicity-hungry egotist who engaged in many dubious tactics in the Shaw investigation. For a detailed account of Garrison's tactics and a thorough analysis of the differences between the real investigation and trial and what is depicted in JFK, I recommend Patricia Lambert's book Fake Witness: The Real Story of Jim Garrison's Investigation and Oliver Stone's Film JFK.

Lambert tells us that Tommy Lee Jones made for an unlikely Clay Shaw in the film, entirely lacking in the modesty and kindness that people who knew Shaw talk about. But Stone wasn't interested in these qualities. He apparently looked for the air of menace that Jones projects.

Before filming began, Stone referred to JFK as a history lesson. He said that he hoped his legacy would be "that I was a good historian as well as a good dramatist." Yet he didn't conduct his investigation of the alleged conspiracy like an historian seeking a truthful and balanced account of the situation, but like a showman looking for a dramatic tale of conspiracy. Lambert notes that Stone dramatized events that were uncorroborated or unreliably reported and he invented people and scenes that directly contradicted the facts. She adds that Stone concocted whatever the storyline needed that wasn't available from the historical record. For instance, the account of David Ferrie's statements to investigators is as wrong as it can be. Stone has Ferrie virtually confessing to the conspiracy. In reality, he denied any involvement in a conspiracy and repeatedly denied knowing Lee Harvey Oswald. He even volunteered to take a lie detector test.

Unlike the film's account, intruders didn't murder Ferrie in the night. This was a version of reality that Jim Garrison recounted to Stone. It had no basis in reality. The evening Ferrie died, he was under surveillance by investigators. One of them assures Lambert that he didn't witness any murder the night of Ferrie's death.

Garrison's account of the information given by a lawyer, Dean Andrews, is similarly twisted. This account also finds its way into the film. John Candy plays Andrews in the film. A sinister looking Andrews gorges on food in a restaurant while being interviewed by Garrison. Flashbacks establish unequivocally that Clay Shaw went by the name Clay Bertrand, an alias used by a conspirator. In another scene Andrews tells Garrison that he's afraid of being murdered by the federal government if he yields up Bertrand's real name. This confirms that there was an individual who went by the name of Bertrand. The real Andrews made it abundantly clear that "Bertrand" never existed. Further, he was emphatic that whoever "Bertrand" was, he was not Clay Shaw.

In JFK a key witness in real life--Perry Russo--was omitted altogether. As Lambert tells us, Russo was the witness who triggered Shaw's arrest and furnished the entire legal basis for the trial. By excluding him, Stone avoided scenes of Russo being drugged and hypnotized and his repeated recantations. Stone creates a fictional surrogate for Russo, a character named Willie O'Keefe.

Stone almost completely omits the defence's case in the trial. Important witnesses like Dean Andrews, Charles Appel, Edward O'Donnell, and James Phelan never take the stand in the film. What Stone did show, he misrepresented. Stone tells the audience that Shaw was acquitted in part because his attorney hypocritically exposed Willie O'Keefe's sexual behaviour. But the real Willie O'Keefe/Perry Russo, destroyed himself by what he said on and off the witness stand.

Stone's Clay Shaw is largely fictitious. Shaw is presented as an arrogant, elitist pleasure-seeker. He is gay and is shown in one scene dressed in drag, cavorting with David Ferrie at a decadent party. The real Shaw engaged in far tamer pursuits. In JFK, Shaw is seen to be a conspirator in the murder of the President. In actuality, the jury took less than an hour to acquit Shaw. Many newspapers commented on the glaring weaknesses of the prosecutions case.

Stone also omits the subsequent persecution of Shaw by Garrison, who laid perjury charges shortly after the trial. Shaw's lawyers took the matter to federal court, seeking an injunction restraining Garrison from proceeding with the charges. Shaw won a resounding victory before Judge Christenberry.

JFK ends with a reference to Clay Shaw's involvement with the CIA, making it appear that he could in fact have been involved in a CIA plot. In fact, Shaw's involvement was to provide routine information to the CIA's Domestic Contact Service, as did thousands of Americans travelling abroad in the Cold War years. This involvement did not make him an employee of the CIA; far less did it make him a conspirator.

JFK shamefully retells the Clay Shaw conspiracy trial from the viewpoint of an out-of-control District Attorney and is a gross distortion of the truth.

Robert Normey is a lawyer with the Constitutional and Aboriginal Law Branch of Alberta Justice in Edmonton, Alberta.
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Title Annotation:law and literature
Author:Normey, Robert
Publication:LawNow
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:1277
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