Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Kevin Costner in JFK (Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Oliver Stone's JFK made me a creepy kid, and now a disappointed adult

Kevin Costner in JFK (Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Thursday night saw the release of the nigh-mythical JFK Assassination Records, a collection of nearly 3,000 documents related to the president’s 1963 murder that Donald Trump—once more taking credit for something that already existed—ordered released, fulfilling a Congressional mandate made way back in 1992. That mandate, odd as it may sound now, exists because of a movie: The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act was signed in the wake of Oliver Stone’s JFK, crediting the film with having so broadly popularized suspicion of a conspiracy, it was decreed that transparency was in the national interest. Not right away, of course; the Act only moved up the planned release date to 2017 from 2029.

But even this small gesture reflected the grumbling, anti-government sentiment the film had revived—particularly in its closing, Frank Capra-esque courtroom scene where Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison, voice warbling with emotion, says he’d instructed his young son to “keep himself physically fit” so that he might live to see the truth revealed at last. Stone’s JFK is the reason why these files are being released. It’s also why I, and anyone else who got caught up in the conspiracy-a-go-go it kicked off, am bound to be completely disappointed in them.

When JFK was released on December 20, 1991, I was right there on opening night. I was 13 at the time, and had you asked me then what my interests were, I would have rattled off, in no particular order, soccer, The Simpsons, Star Wars, INXS, and—with as much scholarly aplomb as my pubescent frame could muster—“the Kennedy assassination.” I’d been salivating over JFK for nearly a year, watching the nightly news reports from my Arlington, Texas home on the film’s production in nearby Dallas, where Stone had closed the streets around Dealey Plaza and spent millions to restore it to 1963 conditions. Despite my haranguing, my mom did not allow me to miss school to go be an extra in the motorcade scene. But I felt a certain amount of ownership over it anyway—and not just some weird, civic pride for living near The City That Killed Kennedy. It was the sort of investment that fans of book series tend to have whenever they’re adapted, the excitement of seeing “characters” that had kicked around in my imagination (The Umbrella Man! The Babushka Lady!) finally brought to life on screen. In a very morbid way, JFK was my Harry Potter. And it stoked a nascent fascination into an all-consuming obsession.

It had begun the way all passions do, with a sixth-grade essay assignment. Tasked with writing about literally anything from America’s history, I chose JFK’s murder pretty much at random. And after entire weeks of library study of this 30-year-old mystery, I concluded in my bombshell, two-page report that “there was, without a doubt, a government conspiracy.” But I hadn’t just blown the doors off The Warren Commission, or the minds of my classmates. In doing that paper, I’d also established my own, deeply personal connection to this momentous American tragedy by interviewing my grandfather, who was one of the many Fort Worth police officers who’d been tasked with safeguarding Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave from vandals. “Not much happened,” he told me. “It was pretty quiet.” And thus did the voices of history speak once more through me... Anyway,  I got an “A.” In my mind, I had been officially coronated as a JFK assassination expert.

I had a loosely personal connection to JFK, the movie, as well: Stone’s film was partly based on the conspiracy theory compendium Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by local assassination researcher Jim Marrs—who just so happened to be a friend of my mom’s from her newspaper days. He taught a class on the subject at the local university, and my mother, God bless her, nurtured her son’s eminently creepy hobby by taking him along to sit in on one. Marrs (who died earlier this year) was nothing but gracious toward me, even giving me a copy of his book that he signed, “Sean—Question Authority!” It was easily the coolest thing an adult had ever told me.

It also explains a lot about why JFK, both the film and the event, resonated so deeply with me, as well as with so many who saw it that year. As a work of deliberate historical record, JFK is a paranoid coke rant—a sweaty Joe Pesci pacing a hotel room, whirling his arms about while choking out vague omens about mysteries wrapped in riddles inside enigmas. It’s as filled with inaccuracies and utter fabrications as the official version it’s rebuking. Whenever Stone found something inconvenient—like a key witness who said they’d been drugged and hypnotized, or the fact that its protagonist, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, was an unscrupulous grandstander, he simply replaced them with a neo-Nazi who had no reason to lie, or cast the milk-fed Kevin Costner to play them. In this, he was not unlike Garrison himself, who drew some pretty wild and unsubstantiated connections to make a compelling case that relied heavily on just feeling like there was something there, and that ultimately, a jury rejected in less than an hour.

But as a counter-myth to the official story—as a rebuke of what Authority would have you believe—JFK was an undeniably powerful film. Stone’s intoxicating weaving of fictional narrative and archival footage, his nesting of flashbacks within flashbacks, the way he cuts between color footage and reenactments in gravitas-conferring black-and-white, toys with the viewer’s faith in what is and isn’t real, in a method that’s perfectly suited to a story shrouded in so much dissonance. It’s a nonlinear, MTV-influenced, mass-media approach that would very nearly become self-parody as Stone continued to explore it across Natural Born Killers and Nixon, but it captured the fragmented, unreliable history of JFK’s assassination perfectly. And it gave Garrison’s shaky pursuit of the truth the kind of frustrated nobility that allowed Costner to make pronouncements like, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” without sounding completely ridiculous.

To a kid just getting his first taste of “Question Authority!” that kind of thing is absolute catnip. And needless to say, JFK inflamed my interest in the assassination to, what I would call, worrying levels. In junior high, I was the weird kid who carried around paperback copies of Best Evidence and On The Trail Of The Assassins, idly paging through autopsy photos and “Oswald’s Route” maps at lunch. I cajoled my mom into taking me to Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum several times that year, where I would linger thoughtfully over the recreated “sniper’s perch” like a Law & Order detective on the verge of cracking it all wide open. I studied stills from the Zapruder film the way my healthier classmates pored over Michael Jordan dunks and Nintendo Power cheats. And I fell asleep nightly listening to John Williams’ movie score. (Its somber overture, played on a lonely trumpet, is still capable of putting a lump in my throat). I’m just lucky that the internet was barely around back then, which may be the only thing that saved me from turning into that guy in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, hanging out in my Lee Harvey Oswald T-shirt and foisting my theories on anyone who would listen.

That said, there was still plenty of other shit to feed my mania, as the popularity of JFK had suddenly made the assassination a topic of national discussion again—and a Barnes & Noble-fueled hobby on par with being an amateur World War II historian. New books and TV documentaries flooded the marketplace, along with newer and crazier theories about Woody Harrelson’s dad. Suddenly it seemed like the majority of America believed that Oswald did not, in fact, act alone. This made a certain amount of sense, too: As we had passed out of the Reagan/Bush years into the Bill Clinton era, the Cold War already fading into Time-Life memory, there seemed to be this unspoken, vaguely bored longing for when our government was still mysterious and dangerous—when it was secretly run by CIA spooks and shadow governments, not some McDonald’s-loving Arkansas goofball. There’s just something so sexy about being an unwitting pawn in some larger scheme, you know. And as Generation X searched for something to rebel against in the relaxed-fit ’90s, the renewed JFK assassination fervor was there to remind us to, as its spiritual descendant The X-Files soon canonized, “Trust No One.”

But of course, all of that turning of paranoia into a pastime only set us up to be completely let down this week, when those Forbidden Archives of Mystery were finally unlocked, then unceremoniously dumped out in an unsorted, non-chronological mess with muted fanfare. Granted, that’s always been part of the “fun” of being a JFK assassination buff, and of every conspiracy theory. It allows you to believe that—even if you’re a dumb kid armed with a few paperbacks and a Mr. Wizard’s World knowledge of physics—you can solve the mystery yourself by playing along at home! And indeed, tireless journalists and my fellow armchair sleuths have since been poring over them all, pulling out “revelations” that have long been accepted as read by even the most casual of hobbyists, and telling us shocking things we’ve already absorbed via ’70s political thrillers and James Ellroy novels: The CIA’s collusion with the mob against Castro. Oswald’s own Cuban connections and his consorting with KGB agents. The concern, at the highest levels of government, over maintaining the official story. The troubling belief that we have not been told the full story, yet again, more than a half-century later. Yeah, yeah.

Meanwhile, withholding the remaining 300 or so files has only reignited the suspicion that the U.S. intelligence community has something else to hide—but at this point, Jesus, who has the energy for that when our anti-government paranoia gets renewed with every push notification? Even worse, it’s only given the mutant offspring of our JFK-stoked mistrust in the establishment—conspiracy peddlers like Alex Jones, “chaos” agent Roger Stone, and even Donald “Maybe Ted Cruz’s Dad Did It” Trump himself—yet more grist for their rants against the “Deep State,” providing them with more distractions from a far more open form of malfeasance. I definitely never would have guessed all those years ago that, in my “Question Authority!” furor, I would have someday found myself on the side of actual authoritarians, just like I wouldn’t have predicted that Oliver Stone’s moral uncertainty would find him sucking up to murderous dictators.

But as an actor pretending to be a wise man once said, we’re through the looking glass here, people, and it turns out things are equally murky on this side. Keeping the rest of us confused, unsettled, and constantly chasing our tails is just how the powerful stay in power; all that JFK assassination shit I crammed into my young brain taught me that, if nothing else. And it’s why I and Movie Jim Garrison’s son were only destined to be let down this week once we finally took that fateful, predestined peek into the National Archives, long after Kevin Costner told us we would. It’s just more valuable this way. This mystery is too good a story to be solved.


Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.