Not every filmmaker can boast to inspiring an official act of Congress. But that's what Oliver Stone accomplished 30 years ago when JFK premiered in movie theaters on Dec. 20, 1991. Cowritten and directed by the Oscar-winning Platoon helmer and starring Kevin Costner as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, the movie offered an alternative explanation for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Drawing from Garrison's own real-life investigation, JFK moves the spotlight off of lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald and points it in the direction of a larger conspiracy that reached into the highest levels of the U.S. government and intelligence agencies.
Skillfully blending fact and fiction, Stone crafted a film that made moviegoers question the historical record — and those moviegoers included members of Congress. The year following JFK's release, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, which moved up the date when government files related to the assassination would be released publicly from 2029 to Oct. 26, 2017. The act also created the JFK Assassination Records Review Board, an independent agency that had the power to re-examine the unreleased assassination-related files.
"What happened as a result of the film was a new investigation," Stone tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "[The board] had the power to declassify files and they had the power to call people back. From 1994 to 1998, a lot of people came back and gave testimony that didn't match what was said earlier. And also they called new witnesses. They couldn't get very far ... [because] they were blocked by the CIA and the Secret Service. It was not the cooperation you'd want; they didn't really want to know who killed him." (Watch our video interview above.)
Former President Donald Trump was in the Oval Office when the October 2017 deadline rolled around, and while he did approve the release of thousands of documents, he was reportedly pressured by the FBI and CIA to withhold additional files. The following year Trump gave the greenlight for the release of nearly 20,000 more documents, and imposed a new deadline of Oct. 26, 2021 for the remaining records.
In October, President Joe Biden once again delayed the release of those files until December 2022, citing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Biden did make almost 1,500 new documents available to the public, but experts found little new information of note among them.
Stone has his own theories about why the government has been slow to release the remaining 10,000 files related to the assassination. "I think they were shocked that we were able to piece together [a lot] from these files that they released, 60,000 pages or so," the director says. "People like [former Assassination Records Review Board member] Doug Horne really went through the material and understood its implications."
"In fact, that's maybe the reason they slowed down the process," Stone continues. "Trump said he was going to release them ... and then he backed down. And now Biden — who's an Irish Catholic for Chrissake, you'd think he'd like Kennedy — he didn't release them ... because of COVID. They realize maybe that there is a huge community of researchers and people who care and they actually read [the documents] and study them."
Stone himself poured through the recently declassified files in the process of making his recent Showtime documentary, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. But he declines to speculate on what information might be in the documents that remained sealed. "I'll leave that to the specialists," he says. "You have to be Sherlock Holmes on this case. You have to put it altogether, because it's an accretion of evidence as we showed in our film."
In a wide-ranging conversation marking the 30th anniversary of JFK, Stone reflects on Kennedy's legacy, how the JFK case "nearly broke" the real Jim Garrison, and why he thinks America is a "dumb country" when it comes to how we're educated about our history.
Yahoo Entertainment: I think it's safe to say you touched a raw nerve in this country when you made JFK in 1991. Were you aware of the ruckus you were about to raise?
Oliver Stone: No, I thought it would get by! I thought it was a high-tension thriller with a political angle. I didn't realize the emotions that the Kennedy character would bring out. I guess there was a bigger change in the country going on than I even knew. I was a teenager in the 1960s, so I remember it was turbulent, but at the same time time I didn't realize the implications of the situations John F. Kennedy was getting into and changing. He was beginning to change many things, and you can't do that in this country.
As a result, I saw a bigger picture with all the ruckus: People really had an objection to him and what he was doing, and that's the reason they would kill him. Because he was changing too much. He was like Franklin Roosevelt, and Roosevelt was a very controversial president. People hated him and loved him, and the same thing was true for Kennedy. He was starting to make big moves with Cuba and Vietnam and Civil Rights, and the rest of the world, too. He was very much an anti-colonialist ... and a man who was loved by ordinary people. They saw something special in his eyes when he spoke, and he spoke beautifully.
Kevin Costner's closing speech still holds up so well. How many times did you rewrite it? It's your summation of the film's case in a lot of ways.
There's a lot of me in that, but I also used parts of Garrison's real final speech. It's a good wrap-up: I love speeches like that. I always have a speech in my films, even my first movie, Salvador. James Woods lectures the CIA guys on how what they're trying to do in El Salvador is another Vietnam. You have to make your point. On Salvador, I didn't think I'd make another film, because I'd been up and down in my career and I'd been labeled a terrorist or a rebel. So I said, "If I'm not going make another film, I want do it right." And it worked! But then I kept doing it, and JFK was the biggest gamble of all. I wasn't sure that I would be accepted after the film.
I understand that you considered Marlon Brando for the role of Mr. X, which Donald Sutherland plays in the movie. Did you actually meet with him?
Oh yeah. It was a strange meeting: [Brando] was far, far along in his eccentricity at that point. I enjoyed the meeting very much; he was a wonderful man. But he was not right for the role, and he knew it when he read it. He doesn't talk like that — you have to have a pile driver like Donald Sutherland, who is very bright and a man who can chew up long dialogue scenes and spit them out and make them work. Sutherland is a serious guy: He's the kind of guy you'd want in an intelligence agency. Brando would have been looking at cue cards the whole time!
The late John Candy gives one of my favorite performances in JFK. Did he ever express the desire to do more dramatic roles as opposed to the comedies he was better known for?
Not really, no. He was so f****** nervous to make the movie. He was sweating! You had to love John, but he had never done something like this, so he was really nervous. He thought he'd f*** it up for me. But we got through it, and he did a great job.
One of the things I really like about the film is the way you depict how Garrison loses track of his family in his single-minded dedication to the Kennedy case. Do you see his story as an example of the dangers of conspiratorial thinking?
Listen, it almost broke him. Jim was a very strong man, and they characterize him as a buffoon working for glory. But he was a really serious man who was a fighter pilot in World War II and was also a judge and the district attorney of New Orleans. The CIA took on the Jim Garrison file and went after him, and they're pretty good when they go after somebody. We say very clearly in the movie that he doesn't have much to go on because his witnesses are being killed. David Ferrie dies and Guy Bannister dies, and these were key guys that were around Oswald in the summer of 1963 in New Orleans.
Jim knew something was going on, but he had to reach. When he brought the case against Clay Shaw, who was a real contract agent. We proved that with the declassified file we finally found. When he went up against Clay Shaw, the upper class of New Orleans society really came down on him. But the truth is that Shaw lied his way through the trial. The judge in the trial later told me, "I never believed a word he said." He was a smooth operator, but also the key to the case.
Jim lost the trial and I showed all that in the film. I didn't mince words — he failed. You see him walking out feeling like he's failed, but he's going to go on searching for the truth. So there's no manipulation there of the Garrison story. He gave us an opening into the autopsy and also gave us the Zapruder film. Without those, you can't build a case.
In the thirty years since JFK, it's fair to say we're in a time where mistrust of the government is potentially higher than it's ever been. What do you think it's going to take to restore trust in government?
That's a very good question. You know, John Kennedy was the last American president who took on the military industrial complex and he took on the intelligence agencies. That you have to realize: No one has been able to cross that line — they've all stayed way. What annoys me the most in our national dialogue is that we don't have a president who is eloquent about peace and what it means. We need peace in the world. America's devoted to enemies ... but frankly it's a very dangerous way to exist as a government.
We have to change policy 180 degrees. We have to get along with people and coexist on Earth. We have a huge battle on climate change ahead of us, and if we could get the Russians and the Chinese to cooperate, together we can really clean up a lot of the carbon dioxide on the planet. That's what my next documentary is about. It's a shame that we're narrow-minded and we still exist in this World War II ideology of good guy and bad guy. It's really a dumb country, and we're dumb about education.
We don't even have our history right. I did a series called The Untold History of the United States trying to set right some of those myths. It's hard to get through: You see, the textbook business is controlled by two big publishers states, Texas and California, so they control what you learn. And then on TV, it's sanitized. So the long term solution is education.
You've made movies about JFK, Nixon and George W. Bush. Do you think you'll make the Trump movie or an Obama movie?
I think three is enough! [Laughs] I did three Vietnam movies, three president movies and three crime movies. So I don't know. I do want to make another movie. I can't tell you what it is, but I'm working on it!
JFK is currently streaming on HBO Max.
— Video produced by Olivia Schneider and edited by Luis Saenz