by Bob Cesca
Oliver Stone’s 1992 film about Jim Garrison’s doomed-to-fail prosecution of Clay Shaw for conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy might be one of the most pulse-pounding, most masterful true crime dramas in modern history. I don’t mind telling you that JFK not only scared the living piss out of me, but it triggered the curiosity and imaginations of millions of moviegoers who, like me, desperately want to know the why and how.
Why did this movie scare me so much? Stone and score composer John Williams, along with editors John Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, established a such an eminently creepy, dreamlike tone with the film — making us feel as though we’re being surveilled as we watch — but they were zealous in describing how no one is safe from the bastardization of governmental power, on top of the idea that, ultimately, anyone can take a shot at anyone and we’re never really safe. Part of that fear, admittedly, was a holdover from the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan in 1981. I was nine at the time and I remember thinking, “They can shoot Reagan. They can easily shoot me, too.” Indeed, several characters in the movie suggest the exact same universal fear: it can happen to anyone.
To this day, JFK holds up as a modern masterpiece. Its frenetic pace and relentless jump-cuts combined with its epic runtime can sometimes come off like your coked-up buddy describing a series of conspiracy theories at lightspeed until you have to kick him out of the room. But digging into the files and publications about the assassination can feel a little bit cocaine-ish anyway. There’s so much to dig into and so many insane theories about what happened, it’s impossible not to be hyperactive about it. Kid in a (very dark) candy store, etc. I was that kid.
The movie came out while I was still in college — I had Summers off, allowing me to fill my spare time devouring everything that mentioned November 22, 1963. I read all the books. I read Garrison’s book. I read High Treason and its sequel. I read Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. I even spent way too much time at the National Archives in Washington, DC, scrolling through microfilm earnestly believing I’d stumble onto a heretofore unknown bit of evidence. I never really did, though I found a photo of the inside windshield of Kennedy’s presidential limo where there’s a bullet impact in the chrome frame along the top edge of the window. Where’d that bullet come from? I thought they accounted for all the bullets? What’s the deal with this one? Anyway, I found myself imagining all kinds of scenarios in which multiple people were involved. I was convinced there was a conspiracy to kill the president, but I was never satisfied with the veracity of the evidence from the stack of volumes that slowly began to fill my shelves.
This week, an all new tranche of documents from the assassination were finally released to the public and, so far, there’s nothing really earth-shattering. Though how would we know? The redactions are ridiculously pervasive and, apparently, Donald Trump withheld the release of a series of the documents despite his pledge to not block the release of all 3,000 documents. I don’t suspect we’ll ever see the smoking gun here, and I don’t think we’ll ever know what really happened. But it was Stone’s JFK that ultimately influenced the release of countless documents, including the October, 2017 files. This is the film’s greatest achievement, and it’ll become known as Stone’s legacy.
Nevertheless, for a while, I thought for sure I knew what happened. I believed the president’s throat wound was the only frontal shot, meaning the bullet that hit Kennedy in the neck came from the grassy knoll or from the triple overpass — maybe even an open storm sewer along Elm Street. (The neck wound was expanded by doctors at Parkland Hospital for inserting a trach tube.) The shockingly grotesque head wound probably didn’t come from the front, as Garrison/Stone suggest in the movie, sending Kennedy “back and to the left — back… and to the left.” The spray of blood and brains seen in the Zapruder film clearly looks like an exit wound. But since it was on the right side of Kennedy’s head, I was sure the shot came from someplace on the far side of the knoll, and not from above and behind the motorcade. So far, neither of these wounds, I thought, came from Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the book depository. There’s also the back wound, which might’ve been Oswald or someone else. There’s the shot that hit Governor John Connally. There’s the shot that hit James Tague on the street. That’s what? Five bullets?
The Warren Report only specified three bullets. Could the Warren Report be wrong? Oh sure. Does anyone have definitive proof of more shots? Nah. Each theory is as good as the next — that is, each plausible theory.
Of course there’s a number of insane theories, too. A few of these crazy ideas made sense at the time, but looking back, yikes! There’s one book hypothesizing that a Secret Service agent in the car behind Kennedy’s limo fired the deadly head shot. Another book suggested an elaborate plot to steal and alter the president’s body to disguise the trajectory of the wounds, a theory based on a specious bit of photographic evidence apparently showing a weird clamp inside Kennedy’s gaping head wound. There’s a weird shape in the photo, but is it a metal clamp? Who the fuck knows. (But I noticed some odd crop marks on one of the gruesome autopsy photos. That was weird.)
It was also a surreal experience to see photos of the dead president — eyes wide open — staring at nothing. But it began to occur to me how unhealthy it was to stare at those death pictures repeatedly over the course of months. Likewise, knowing more about something that happened eight years before I was born, knowing more about one day in 1963 than I knew about yesterday wasn’t healthy either. Combined with the futility of the research, I had to walk away from it. I had to break my obsession before I became one of those guys. I was on the verge of becoming Rustin Cohle, hair down my back, locked in an old self-storage unit surrounded by corkboards lined with autopsy photos linked by strands of red yarn. I didn’t want that. I was willing to give up before it consumed me, and I was really close to being consumed.
So I walked away from it. I was convinced I knew what happened. At least some of it. I knew that the CIA probably used Corsican assassins connected to the Mafia to execute the president. It was all an extension of Operation Mongoose, which was the plot to kill Fidel Castro in Cuba, pivoted against Kennedy because: 1) he wanted to end the Vietnam War; and 2) he was sleeping with an array of spies, compromising national security. There’s part of me who still believes these things, but there’s a part of me, in my middle age, who prefers Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation that Oswald did the shooting and the Warren Commission was mostly on the money.
I’m still open to new ideas. The process of merely writing this article has sparked that conspiratorial tickle again in the back of my brain. What I’ve learned, however, is that nothing will change history. Vietnam still happened. So did the election of Nixon and the turmoil of Watergate. So did the cynicism that arose as a consequence of the assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the alternative history. The what if? What’s more important, though, is that we remember who Kennedy was in life — real life — for better or worse, rather than knowing every grotesque detail about his death. What’s more important to me personally is that we learn from the vast array of political and societal mistakes of the 1960s.
No one really knows who killed Jack Kennedy, and we’ll probably never find out in our lifetimes. After so many years, I’m fine with that.