November 29, 2021   8 mins

In the spring of 1991, George Lardner Jr, the Washington Post’s national security correspondent, received a leaked draft of the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. Intrigued, he visited the set in Dallas, where he was told that Kevin Costner, who was starring as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, had told him flatly: “Nobody in America believes Oswald did it.”

Costner was exaggerating but not by much. Around that time, 77% of Americans told pollsters that they believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was not solely responsible for the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Phrases from the case had long ago entered the national vocabulary: magic bullet, lone gunman, Zapruder film, grassy knoll, patsy.

Stone’s movie did not actually do much to shift the numbers. What it did do, in generating $205m, eight Oscar nominations and an almighty debate, was introduce a mainstream audience to the mindset of conspiracy theories: the obsessive accumulation of data, wild deductive leaps and spinning of yarns.

I know because I was one of them. JFK was my gateway drug into the thrillingly murky world of post-war dirty tricks and black ops, where I was often unable to distinguish between actual conspiracies such as Watergate and MK-ULTRA and fanciful speculation. As a reformed conspiracy theorist, I’m familiar with the seductive power of that adventure into an underworld where there are no coincidences, only connections. “My eyes have opened,” says Costner’s Garrison, “and once they’re open, believe me, what used to look normal seems insane.” And vice versa, of course.

JFK coloured a decade which, though remembered as relatively stable, was riddled with paranoia, from The X-Files to the fantastical Right-wing conspiracy theories swirling around the Clintons. Yet today, as Stone releases a 30th anniversary documentary, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, JFK’s legacy is even more complicated.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “modern American conspiracy theory begins with the Warren Commission”. In fact, the first counter-narrative was published within a month of the assassination. An article in the National Guardian by Mark Lane, a young lawyer hired by Oswald’s mother, caused a sensation in the UK as well as the US. Worthies including Labour MP Michael Foot, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper promptly formed the Who Killed Kennedy Committee.

The Warren Commission, under pressure to reach a unanimous conclusion before the 1964 election, left many inconsistencies unaddressed and alternative perpetrators unexplored; ironically, its critics largely relied on the commission’s own published evidence, which ran to 27 volumes and 10.4 million words. Two years later, when Lane’s massive bestseller Rush to Judgment led a pack of anti-Warren books including Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash and Richard H Popkin’s The Second Oswald, half of Americans said that they disbelieved the commission’s lone-gunman theory.

Lane’s theories later inspired the 1973 movie Executive Action, a weirdly boring dramatisation of a hypothetical plot to kill Kennedy. By then, an an assassination completist would have amassed around 2,000 volumes of speculation about the accuracy of Carcano model 91 rifles, doppelganger Oswalds, Cuban exiles, mobsters and spooks. It was already, as Stone says in JFK Revisited, “the most thoroughly documented crime in American history”. By 1979, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that there was probably a conspiracy and (based on later discredited acoustical evidence) probably a fourth shot from the grassy knoll, Kennedy conspiracy theories were thoroughly mainstream. “Next thing you know they’ll be blaming World War II on Hitler,” joked talk-show host Johnny Carson.

The 25th anniversary of the assassination, 1988, was a busy year. Don DeLillo, American literature’s great scholar of conspiracy and paranoia, fictionalised the story of Oswald and “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” in his bestselling novel Libra. In the UK, ITV broadcast The Men Who Killed Kennedy, a two-part documentary so tenuous that director Nigel Turner was censured by regulators.

This was also the year that Stone met a publisher and former Garrison staffer named Ellen Ray, who gave him a copy of Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. Until then, Stone told Esquire, “I thought that people like Mark Lane were crazy. I thought Lee Oswald had shot the president.” No longer. After giving Garrison a three-hour grilling, he optioned the book and plunged down the rabbit hole.

Garrison, as fans of the film will know, is still the only person to bring a criminal prosecution in relation to Kennedy’s murder, identifying a CIA-connected New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw as a key conspirator. He failed. Newsweek called the 1969 trial “a merry kind of parody of conspiracy theories, a can-you-top-this of arbitrarily conjoined improbabilities”. Yet this patriotic military veteran who came to believe that his country had been betrayed at the highest level was to Stone the ideal protagonist for an “outlaw history or counter-myth” about the crime that marked the end of America’s innocence.

That’s why Stone cast the Republican Costner as an all-American truth-seeker in the mould of James Stewart or Gary Cooper and commissioned a John Williams score that sounded like a Fourth of July parade passing through a horror movie. A Vietnam veteran, Stone believed that Kennedy would have averted the conflict, broken up the CIA and ended the Cold War, thus making the assassination nothing less than a coup d’etat. As Costner says in the movie: “The ghost of John F Kennedy confronts us with the secret murder at the heart of the American dream.”

Stone wanted to tell the story not just of Garrison’s investigation but of Oswald, Dealey Plaza and military escalation in Vietnam, to which end his research team consulted around 200 books of assassination lore. He pitched JFK to Warner Brothers’s Terry Semel (who had produced All the President’s Men and The Parallax View) as a Rashomon-style tapestry of conflicting perspectives rather than a coherent thesis. But that’s not the film he made.

In purely cinematic terms, JFK is a masterpiece of casting, editing, cinematography and storytelling. For a film which runs to 188 minutes (206 in the director’s cut currently available on Amazon Prime) and consists mostly of not just dialogue but lectures, it is both comprehensible and exhilaratingly watchable: part pseudo-documentary, part star-studded paranoid thriller. The ultimate effect is overwhelming, phantasmagorical, a bad dream.

Roger Ebert, a Warren sceptic and bullish supporter of the movie, argued that this eerie mood made JFK’s myriad historical inaccuracies and fabrications beside the point. “I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares,” he wrote in a retrospective piece. “As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact.”

But did Stone agree? There are gestures towards ambiguity in JFK — Costner’s Garrison often signposts a theory with “Let’s suppose”, “My guess is” or “What if” — but we are obviously meant to believe that he is on the right track. “My own conclusions go harder and further than the film,” Stone admitted to Ebert.

Elsewhere, the director insisted: “We clearly differentiate between fact and theory in the film. Any person familiar with film techniques knows that when we cut to something like [Jack] Ruby picking up the bullet in the hospital in black and white, it’s a hypothetical image.” But this is disingenuous. Even if you assume that the average cinema-goer is au fait with the semiotics of film stock, JFK is too sense-alteringly fast and dense for cool-headed scrutiny. And some realistic-looking scenes, such as the manic hotel-room confession of Joe Pesci’s David Ferrie, are completely imagined. Compare it to David Fincher’s Zodiac, which evokes obsession and paranoia without cooking the historical books or pretending that its hero is not somewhat of a crank.

Still, it is hard not to feel sorry for Stone over the backlash against JFK, which began with Lardner’s article two months before the movie had finished shooting and rolled on throughout 1991. He was attacked in almost every major newspaper and magazine, and mocked on Saturday Night Live. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, went so far as to compare him to Leni Riefenstahl. “Saddam Hussein did not receive half the vituperation the op-ed crowd has aimed at JFK,” Ebert protested.

Stone went on the counterattack, firing off a fusillade of angry letters to publications to defend his movie’s veracity, all of which were reprinted in JFK: The Book of the Film, a heavily annotated screenplay followed by 400 pages of press clippings. One recipient, the New York Times veteran Tom Wicker, had a pithy response: “The director of JFK is not, as he claims, an artist. He is a polemicist.”

I’d suggest he is (or was) both. Let’s suppose, in Garrisonian style, that just as conspiracy theorists claim there were two Lee Harvey Oswalds, there were two Oliver Stones: the artist who made the movie and the polemicist who defended it. My guess is that what seemed like a concerted effort to pre-emptively discredit JFK led him to identify too strongly with Garrison, a man of “lone-wolf integrity” who was “accused, pandered, ridiculed and humiliated”. So he doubled down on the movie’s claims and rejected the licence of fiction. He has been stuck in that defensive posture ever since. “There’s nothing in the movie that I would go back on,” he said in 2013.

With the release of JFK Revisited, the polemicist has decisively defeated the artist. More like the book of the film than the film itself, this investigative essay is earnestly insistent on backing up JFK’s claims with evidence declassified since 1991. “Conspiracy theory,” Stone declares, “has become conspiracy fact”. He promises to “piece together what really happened that day”.

Those are bold statements. In a way, JFK succeeded too well. As Stone had hoped, it led the creation of the Assassination Records Review Board, which has since released almost every piece of evidence gathered by the Warren Commission and the HSC; the process is due to conclude by December 2022. Yet to this day the only smoking gun is Oswald’s Mannlicher. There have been no decisive revelations, no incriminating leaks, no deathbed confessions to wrap things up. On the contrary, books such as Gerald Posner’s Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History have methodically debunked many of the claims in JFK.

And so JFK Revisited feels like an old rock band on tour, mixing classic hits with underwhelming new material. Minus the artistry and stardust of the first movie, it resembles a high-end version of one of those YouTube documentaries which promises to tell you the truth about 9/11 or Covid-19. The assassination buffs interviewed by Stone are still effectively in the same position they occupied in 1966: capable of casting enormous doubt on the Warren Commission’s flawed account but unable to replace it with a convincing narrative of their own. They remind me of the researcher in Libra: “He knows he can’t get out. This case will haunt him to the end.” No wonder that the percentage of Americans who believe in a conspiracy has slipped from a high of 81% in 2001 to 61% now, or that the last major film about the assassination, Jackie, concentrated on grief rather than guilt. A theory cannot thrive on scraps forever.

But there is a darker context. Rewatching JFK made me nostalgic for a time when conspiracy theories seemed titillating, exotic and largely well-intentioned. These days, Stone’s once-reasonable request that viewers do their own research is the mantra of every crank. The anti-imperialist Left and authoritarian Right come together to smear the White Helmets and deny President Assad’s use of chemical weapons (Stone himself has praised Putin as a “stabilising force” in Syria). Donald Trump convinces tens of millions of his followers that the last election was stolen. A pandemic breeds theories about a “plandemic”. Alex Jones is sued for claiming that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax and the grieving families and survivors merely “crisis actors”. On and on. This mindset has poisoned the world.

The Kennedys are infected, too. Last month, QAnon believers gathered in Dallas to await the return of John F Kennedy Jr to become Donald Trump’s 2024 running mate. (Generally believed to have died in 1999, he did not show up.) Robert F Kennedy Jr, who appears in JFK Revisited, is America’s most influential anti-vaxxer.

“Conspiracy theory thus becomes an ailment of democracy,” Christopher Hitchens wrote sympathetically in 1991. “It is the white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version.” But we can see now that conspiracy theories spring up even when the official version is much more solid than the Warren report. Which authority is to blame for the obscene fantasies of Alex Jones? What space are QAnon or Pizzagate moving into except a zone of epistemological chaos — the ruins of our shared reality?

Thirty years on, it is clear that JFK is not remotely a good movie about the assassination but it is a peerless dramatisation of how it feels to be a conspiracy theorist. Perhaps that makes it more valuable than ever.

Dorian Lynskey is an author, journalist and UnHerd columnist.