What Assassins did to President John F. Kennedy in about six seconds at Dallas nearly 40 years ago, Director Oliver Stone does in just under seven minutes for his 1991 film JFK, mostly behind the credits. Remarkably, only a half a minute of that footage is staged. (We see documentary clips intercut with scenes of ALLEGED material witness Rose Cheramie [Sally Kirkland] being thrown from a car, later treated in a hospital.) Within the abortive investigation and criminal conspiracy trial of bon vivant businessman Clay Shaw by New Orleans' DA Jim Garrison, DirectorStone spends the next three hours recounting events of the Assassination half a dozen times from slightly different points of view.
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The word "alleged" above is vital to understanding this labyrinthine Case, and Stone's dazzling movie. No one contests, for instance, that Louisiana State Police Lieutenant Francis Fruge found Rose Cheramie, a drug dealer and prostitute, injured by a roadside. Lieutenant Fruge drove her to a hospital at Eunice, Louisiana, on the evening of November 20, 1963, two days before the Assassination. Based on what she told him during the ride, he arranged to interview her in hospital after the Assassination. Those facts are documented.
According to Investigator Anthony Summers (Not In Your Lifetime, 1998), Lieutenant Fruge claimed he reported to Dallas Police that Rose Cheramie told him, on the way to the hospital, she had been driving to Dallas with two Latino men from Miami, that they were planning to assassinate the President in Dallas that weekend.
Following the Assassination, Fruge arranged an immediate hospital interview with Cheramie, still in treatment for her injuries and for drug dependence. In her statement, she claimed she met the men who injured her while working for one Jack Ruby, running guns and selling drugs. After she had protest the Assassination plot loudly at a brothel called the Silver Slipper, the men threw her out of their car near Eunice. Hearsay testimony by doctors at the hospital gave support to the tale.
Fruge interviewed people at the Silver Slipper who remembered a woman arguing with two men; they confirmed the men's identity. One they knew as "Osanto"; the other as an Anti-Castro associate of Mob Boss Carlos Marcello: Sergio Arcacha Smith, a Cuban Dictator Batista functionary. He had set up an office of the Cuban Revolutionary Council at 544 Camp Street, New Orleans. The building was shared with former Chicago FBI Chief, Guy Banister, who would figure large in DA Garrison's investigation of the Assassination.
However, at the time, with Lee Harvey Oswald murdered in Police Headquarters over the weekend in question, Dallas authorities showed little interest in the story of an unreliable heroin addict.
Rose Cheramie and Guy Banister both died in 1965, a year or so after the Assassination: Banister of a heart attack, Cheramie run over on a road near where she came into the case. Sergio Arcacha Smith died recently in Florida.
Few of these "facts" were ever tested in a court of law. Director Stone is able to give to them a total of less than a minute scattered throughout JFK. He touches literally on hundreds of such incidents in the film. As you can see, a book or, at least a film, might be devoted to Rose Cheramie alone.
As some experts and film critics complain, many of the "facts" Stone takes up are unproven, but few of those "facts" did Stone simply make up!
Dashiel Hammett wrote: For any crime story, there is what is reported by police and in the papers, there is what a good investigator may come up with, and then there is the truth.
Oliver Stone offers the facts, the "facts," and his version of the truth in JFK. His facts appear more accurate than the Warren Commission's; his "facts,"in total, more convincing; and his truth no more outrageous!
In 20 brief, brilliant minutes, Director Stone introduces all the principals and limns the shape of the Conspiracy.
After the first runthrough of the Assassination, Stone shows DA Garrison (Kevin Costner) receiving the news in New Orleans. The DA takes his investigators to a bar to watch the Assassination coverage on TV. The climate of the country is established as angry men argue with each other over the efficacy of shooting the President. (One of them is played by Perry H. Russo, an actual key witness, who gave extensive, somewhat unreliable accounts of conspiracy discussions between Dave Ferrie and Clay Shaw.) Like most Americans, Garrison is depressed and heartsick by what he hears and sees.
Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) appears in recreated TV footage, shouting, "I'm just a patsy!" (Only a soundtrack of this cry now exists.) Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) is seen in the background of a TV Bio as Oswald passes out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets at the New Orleans Trademart. (An actual still photo of this scene may be found in The Death of a President by Robert Groden.)
Across town, at another bar, Former FBI Agent Guy Banister (Ed Asner) and his "investigator," Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon), drunkenly mutter to each other about Kennedy's murder. Banister is jubilant, but he later beats Martin with a gun butt because he suspects him of going through company files. (The film eventually dramatizes reports an angered Martin made about Banister's activities, but strangely enough, gives no credit for an account, which began Garrison's case, concerning his friend and employee Dave Ferrie's hellish drive to Houston at the behest of Godfather Carlos Marcello.)
The next day, we witness Oswald's death on TV while Garrison carries out a routine investigation of leads in the New Orleans area. We meet his wife, Liz Garrison (Sissy Spacek), who is trying to make a middleclass life, his son Jasper (Stone's son, Sean), his other children, and their maid (who immediately believes JFK's murder was a conspiracy).
Six months later, as the Warren Commission Report is issued, DA Garrison is on a plane with U.S. Senator Russell Long (Walter Mathau), who gives him the Long view. [After all, his own famous Uncle Huey was mysteriously assassinated). Long doesn't buy the Official Version.
Three years later, in 1968, after ruining his family life reading evidenciary files of the Warren Commission, Garrison launches his own probe. At 531 and 544 Camp Street, he lays out a hunch for his investigators: Lee Harvey Oswald was a kind of Intelligence double agent, who in the two years before the Assassination, had returned to his birthplace of New Orleans. He had renewed his friendship with old Civil Air Patrol mentor David Ferrie, associate of Guy Banister and Carlos Marcello, and involved himself in Anti-Castro gun running, drug smuggling and guerilla action.
Garrison calls in Bannister employee and Marchello pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) for questioning. Ferrie, a former Cleveland choirboy, a defrocked priest, was also an expert Eastern Airlines pilot fired on morals charges, a Patriot, a Minuteman, private eye, skilled chemist, cancer researcher, weapons buff, and a pederast.
Ferrie proved to be a man no screenwriter could easily have invented. He suffered from a condition, which robbed his body of hair, so that he wore elaborate wigs and false eyebrows.
On the day of the Assassination, before his drive to Houston to pilot a plane (which never appeared), Ferrie stood on the steps of the New Orleans Federal Courthouse with his employer Carlos Marcello, just before a jury acquitted Marcello of Racketeering Charges brought by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (This last fact is not presented by Stone.)
Spurred by the unreliable ramblings of Ferrie, and other leads, Garrison goes to Louisiana's Angola State Prison, one of the largest in America, to interview Right Winger Willie O'Keefe (Kevin Bacon, a composite character, closest to aforementioned Perry Russo). O'Keefe tells him of gay parties with Lee Oswald, David Ferrie and a wealthy patron Clay Shaw, at which Ferrie described a triangulation shooting plan to kill the President. Imprisoned for morals offences, O'Keefe is also an unreliable witness in a court of law.
One of Jack Ruby's Showgirls tells Garrison (off the record) of cocktails with Oswald, Ferry and Jack, but the girl Beverly (played unbilled by Lolita Davidovich) fears too many have died for talking about what they know. Garrison appreciates her reticence and later actually excuses Julianne Mercer, a very reliable witness, who deposed that she had seen Jack Ruby deliver what looked like weapons to Dealy Plaza on November 22nd, and that, immediately after the Assassination, she had been browbeaten, threatened, and her name forged on a false deposition by FBI Agents.
We see other unreliable witnesses from afar (friendly Government witnesses) such as Russian-born Wife Marina Oswald, who was raised by her uncle, a colonel in the MVD. [According to Biographer Patricia McMillan (in Marina and Lee), herself a former intelligence agent who befriended Oswald in Russia, the couple strangely escaped suspicion when the only known attempt on the life of Russian Premier Nikita Khrushev occurred in Minsk while they lived there. Stone does not present this fact.]
We see "The Williams," who befriended the Oswalds in Dallas. They are actually Michael and Ruth Paine. Michael was an inventor at Bell Aircraft (which we later learn became Bell Helicopter, important in pressing the Vietnam War). Michael Paine had reason to be cooperative. His father was George Lyman Paine, former president of the widely infiltrated American Trotskyite Party. Long time Espionage Agent for several governments and major oil companies, George de Morenschildt, who also befriended the impoverished refugee Oswalds, is given but an unidentified glimpse.
Garrison and his most trustworthy Investigator Lou Bresson (Michael Rooker) do their own reenactment at the Dallas Book Depository. Garrison wonders, as must we, why Oswald did not fire at the Presidential Limousine as it approached him, rather than wait until it was going away. Garrison concludes that it was because such a shot was not called for in a triangulation shooting plan.
Garrison also ponders photos of tramps arrested on the day of the Assassination. He gives the photos credence as evidence of Government Agents being taken away in protective custody. (Thanks to Stone, subsequently released evidence proves they were indeed just tramps, but similar documents about others arrested that day also revealed the most startling new evidence of a conspiracy in 20 years, which I'll discuss briefly when I finish.)
Garrison, his family falling apart, ignores Easter Dinner to bring Clay Shaw in for questioning about complicity in a criminal conspiracy. Shaw, a poet, playwright, former military officer serving in Italy, Ezra Pound expert, successful developer of International Trademarts across the Country (including New Orleans and Dallas), was the biggest fish Garrison could squeeze. (Shaw wrote a famous one act play in the 1930's, performed by thousands of American High School Students. Entitled "Submerged," it concerned a crew in a crippled submarine. Ironically, one individual, an unpleasant coward, is made the fall guy when the crew escapes through the torpedo tubes.)
As the Stone's film points out, years later, Richard Helms, former Director for CIA Covert Operations, admitted under oath (in 1979) that Clay Shaw, despite his denials, had indeed been a CIA Agent as Garrison would claim.
Newpapers and Media begin to attack DA Garrison's investigation. Ferry, released from protective custody because Garrison's funds have dried up, is found dead. Requests for the extradition of Federal and State material witnesses are refused. His Investigative Team, infiltrated, full of disagreement, frustrated, begins to unravel. Later, it is discovered their offices are bugged.
Garrison again goes to Washington, where he meets X (Donald Sutherland, actually based on Colonel Fletcher Prouty, a former Pentagon Liaison Officer to the CIA). X presents a fourth scenario, in what is the most effective dramatic scene in JFK. Sutherland, always a skilled actor, gives us the most interesting and sensational recitation of events and motives behind the Assassination Conspiracy. He reviews ample evidence that, since World War II, the U.S. has cooperated with Fascist and old Nazi elements around the World, mainly through the CIA and other covert agencies.
He explains how the Bay of Pigs fiasco enraged Right Wing Cubans, and embittered the CIA officers who were fired (like General Charles Cabell, brother of the Mayor of Dallas).
The Bay of Pigs failure caused Kennedy to see that, unless he reversed the ruthless plans of the Dulles/Eisenhower Administration, pulled back his own Cowboy Adventurers, the World, as we knew it, might be destroyed. This reversal meant that billions in oil and defense contracts would be lost. (At the same time, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was cracking down on Organized Crime, already wounded, after Castro's takeover, by the loss of their Cuban gambling and prostitution businesses.)
Eventually, John F. Kennedy made so many enemies that when the word went out that he had to go, not enough people in power were diligent in ensuring his safety.
X describes Operation Mongoose, developed after a relaxation which followed the Assassination. Headquartered on the South Campus of Miami University, spending hundreds of millions, employing 300 agents, 7000 selected Cubans, and 50 fake business fronts, Operation Mongoose carried out illegal raids, industrial sabotage, crop burnings, against Castro's Cuba. It led to Watergate, Nicaragua, Iran-Contra, Panama, (probably) Whitewater, and who knows *what next?
[March 12, 2001: We have recently seen the still potent rage of Anti-Castro Cubans in Florida, and witnessed a peculiar Presidential Election scenario there which makes may make assassinations in the future unnecessary.]
X points out that (Crime owned) General Dynamics (formerly Aerojet General) purchased bankrupt Bell Aircraft (now Bell Helicopter), which sold 3000 helicopters to the army in the first years of Vietnam. (The tendril connecting this fact with Michael and Ruth Paine [mentioned above] is not developed.)
But X, too, says essentially, I'm not reliable. It's too risky for me. You're the Man.
"I don't have much of a case," Garrison confesses.
X urges him, "Come up with something. Make arrests. Stir up the (bleep) storm, start a [political] chain reaction, etc. Thus, X sets Garrison off on a Christlike mission, in which he will be damned if the does, and damned if he doesn't.
The Assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 make Garrison resolve, no matter what, to carry out his Conspiracy Case against Clay Shaw; as a "Show Trial," if necessary. In other words, he will try to make the ends justify the means.
In truth, Jim Garrison's Trial of Clay Shaw, and the last twenty minutes of JFK, are something of a mess. Garrison, in two further versions of the event, shows the entire Zapruder Film (for the first time in public, at that trial); also the nearly pristine "magic bullet" which [now U.S. Senator] Arlen Spector for the Warren Commission alleged caused six wounds in Kennedy and Governor John Connally; and the unlikely actions of Oswald before, during and after the Assassination.
However, as the movie had shown, before the trial began, key witnesses died or were unavailable; trusted allies betrayed Garrison; State and Federal Agencies, normally cooperative, refused to give up witnesses and evidence. His case was sabotaged before his opening argument. Yet Garrison claimed in the Press that he could prove Shaw guilty of Conspiracy in the Death of JFK "beyond a reasonable doubt," when he knew he could not. Garrison was aptly criticized for turning his case into a Soviet-type "show trial."
As a matter of fact, in real life, Garrison stayed home with a sore back in the final days of the Trial, and let his assistants make the convincing summation Stone's Garrison delivers in the movie. Garrison knew he was beaten.
The Trial, although pertinent legal evidence was denied to Garrison, did not give Due Process to Clay Shaw. As an Officer of the Court, Garrison should not have brought his case forward.
Nevertheless, the evidence Garrison gathered and presented at the trial pointed strongly to the involvement of others, if not specifically Shaw, in the Assassination. The jury, while acquitting the defendant, stipulated that a Conspiracy to Assassinate the President had been proven, a finding that was supported by the House Assassination Committee's Investigation in 1979. The Trial (and the film) is a compendium of evidence, much of it solid, counter to the Warren Commission Conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald murdered JFK all by himself.
The film's greatest weakness is not its evidence nor certainly its presentation but in the characterization of Jim Garrison, and in Kevin Costner's performance. Garrison was a driven, hard living New Orleans politician, and anyone who has seen news clips of the real Garrison in his prime will agree. He was also an idealist who eventually lost his family (as Stone has lost his) to his over-indulgences. The complexity of his character is only hinted at in the screenplay by Stone and Zachary Sklar, and in Costner's portrayal. Powers Booth, who played Alexander Haig in Stone's NIXON (1995), would have been perfect to convey the brooding, defiant energy of Garrison. Costner seemed too slight and far too tentative. (But he was a Star, and Booth is not.)
Stone's film, however is credited with the gradual release by the Clinton Administration of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, sequestered for decades by the Warren Commission and the House Committee on Assassinations. New evidence is reported piecemeal almost weekly.
Robert Richardson's photography (for which he won an Oscar) and the complex editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, as well a John Williams' Musical Themes (which have become standards), deserve praise. In the end, of course, it was Oliver Stone who took on the case. His script was stolen during production and attacked in the Media before the film was finished. Since the film came out, Stone has become synonymous on talk shows with an irresponsible, out of control artist, who makes things up out of whole cloth to please paranoid, uninformed Americans, who don't really know the facts. His career has clearly suffered.
For a simpler, easier to follow movie on the subject, let me suggest EXECUTIVE ACTION (Miller, 1973). It straightforwardly has a bunch of powerful guys sit down and work out the details of Kennedy's Murder. Courageous for its time, and technically interesting in its visuals, it starred Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Will Geer. (Lancaster along with Donald Sutherland saw to it the film was made.)
Let me finish by recommending three books that have benefited from Stone's efforts: The Death of a President by Robert Groden (an excellent photographic record by a pioneer in the field, a consultant on JFK); Not in Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers (a 1998 update of his groundbreaking Conspiracy); and Oswald Talked by Ray and Mary La Fontaine.
The La Fontaines' 1998 book takes evidence, which lay in the basement of the Dallas Police Station for over 30 years, to show that Oswald was involved with Jack Ruby and Army officers at Fort Sam Houston in a gunrunning scheme for a covert Anti-Castro Cuban Guerilla. The La Fontaines' thesis is that, as a double, perhaps triple agent, Oswald stumbled onto a plot to kill John F. Kennedy. His attempt to inform authorities who might stop it, while at the same time maintaining his cover, made him the fall guy everyone needed. A very balanced presentation of the old and the new evidence. Buy it!
I mean, buy it, if like some of us, you wonder whether or not you have been living in a Banana Republic for 40 years! I know, coincidences are part of life. At a given moment, if we could take a cosmic view of our lives, we would observe a dozen or more what we call coincidences in play. In JFK's Death, however, there are many hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Oliver Stone presents a few hundred in JFK.
UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE: May 25, 2000: The June, 2000 Issue of WIDESCREEN REVIEW contains an interview with DVD/Laserdisc Producer Charles Kiselyak, who reports that a boxed set of augmented Oliver Stone films will be issued by Warner Brothers later this year. The JFK DVD may feature an unprecedented optional subtitle stream of documented facts and citations supporting the various allegations in the film, as we have incidently discussed them here.
Look for it.
March 13, 2001: The above boxed set of Stone films has now been issued.
* June 18, 2004: JFK is "the movie which keeps giving." Every passing day brings new matters germane to the questions Stone raised in his sprawling film: Questions concerning Houston-based Enron CEO Ken Lay's manufactured energy crisis and his political relationship to President George W. Bush; questions about the business dealings of the Bush Family with the family of Osama Bin Laden; questions about 9-11, especially why President Bush allowed NORAD Chief, General Richard Myers, to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after his abominable failure on September 11, 2001; questions about why the President kept CIA Chief George Tenet on for two and a half years.
Then, there are questions about President Bush possibly authorizing the totalitarian torture methods his Grandfather, Prescott Bush, supported when he was titular CEO of the Union Munitions Factory at Auschwitz, in World War II. The outrageous intimations of JFK do not look so outrageous anymore.
If there was a Corporatist (cartel/fascist) conspiracy which caused World War II, and championed the triumph of the Corporate State in the years since, which countenanced methods of assassination and torture -- coincidences to one side -- the vice of that conspiracy (or more likely conspiracies) is closing upon all of us at this very moment.
WAKE UP, AMERICA! It is very late now for the Republic.
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