Oliver Stone’s JFK Assassination Documentary Shouldn’t Be Dismissed

Oliver Stone’s new JFK assassination documentary struggled to reach US screens, only to meet with media ridicule when it did. But if there’s nothing to see here, why is the government still blocking the release of records 60 years later?

The US government continues to keep classified files related to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy under wraps. (Corbis via Getty Images)

Nine years ago, independent journalist Luke Rudkowski was at the second presidential debate of 2012 when he got the chance to ask then Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz about President Barack Obama’s “kill list.” The New York Times had revealed its existence just five months earlier, drawing on the testimony of dozens of the president’s current and former advisors who described the process by which he and his national security team decided whom they would mark for assassination via drone. Rudkowski wanted to know if she was comfortable with Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican opponent, inheriting and using such a radical power.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Wasserman Schultz replied, looking at him with a mix of concern and pity.

“Obama has a secret kill list,” he began explaining, “which he has used to assassinate people all over the world —”

“I’m happy to answer any serious questions you have,” said Wasserman Schultz, now smiling and nodding as if talking to someone in the middle of a psychotic break.

“Why is that not serious?” he asked.

“Because I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, abruptly walking away, an incredulous young staffer following after her.

I thought a lot about that exchange as I watched Oliver Stone’s new documentary, JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, and especially as I pored over the media reaction to the film, an update to Stone’s celebrated 1991 fictionalized account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The existence of Obama’s kill list had been broken by the paper of record and via the accounts of the president’s own staff, eager to burnish his credentials as a tough terrorist killer as reelection approached. But in the eyes of Wasserman Schultz and her staffer, uninformed about the news, the idea was obviously absurd and laughable — the conspiratorial ravings of a paranoid nut.

It comes to mind as the US government continues to keep classified files related to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy under wraps, ironically providing fertile ground for actually outlandish speculation and conspiracizing. The Biden administration’s declassification of nearly 1,500 documents last Wednesday was met with much disappointment, with most of the documents duplicates of those already released, and one scholar calling the new redactions “minimal and worthless.” This follows Biden’s earlier postponement of a records release two months ago, in October, after Donald Trump decided to delay them back in 2017, pointing to national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns.

Somehow, nearly six decades after it happened, discussion of the Kennedy assassination and the unknowns surrounding it still makes liberal journalists and commentators squirm — and now, in the Trump era, fuels their ongoing panic over misinformation.

Lost in Silence

While the original 1991 movie was met with a full-on media pushback at the time, the response in 2021 to the documentary has been far more fitting for our era: ignored or waved away as pure conspiracizing and fake news. For months after it came out, the closest thing to a politically minded legacy media outlet in the United States that actually reviewed the film was the Daily Beast; the country’s major establishment news outlets simply pretended it didn’t exist. It has fared better across the Atlantic, where it got positive reviews from the Financial Times and Telegraph, and negative ones from the Irish Times, Guardian, and the London Times.

This has been a pattern for the film, which faced a difficult journey getting to American screens. Stone complained about struggling to find a US distributor as early as February this year, and despite a positive reception at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in July, which saw the movie quickly pick up distribution in Europe, it wouldn’t be until September that he finally announced he was “closing in on a distribution deal for this November.” Producer Rob Wilson thinks its early difficulties owed to the nature of the original four-part version, which he says was “very dense and demanded a lot of the audience.”

“The feedback we got from some of the streaming platforms was that it skewed toward an older audience and ‘wasn’t buzzy enough’ for their target demographic,” he says. (That version is set to be released in February).

At one point, National Geographic was interested, only to pass after the movie failed their internal fact-check. This particularly frustrated James DiEugenio, the author whose 1992 book provides the movie’s basis, and who says he had been contractually required to write a fully referenced script for both versions of the film, also to be released in book form next year, and a sample of which he sent to me for verification. Despite this, the company neither contacted DiEugenio to talk through its concerns or ask for his sourcing — a standard fact-checking practice — nor seemed interested in reading the script that listed his citations.

“We sent them the annotated transcripts, but it seems they had already made their decision and didn’t want to engage,” says Wilson.

Nor was it made clear which sources National Geographic’s fact-checkers had relied on.

“A lot of the references are to the work of the ARRB, and the ARRB was not published in volumes,” says DiEugenio, referring to the JFK Assassination Records Review Board set up by the 1992 law that Stone’s original film helped spur. “If you don’t have the interviews in front of you, you can’t check it.”

DiEugenio says the film’s reception overseas has been a world away from that of the United States. He recalls that in Italy, both versions of the movie played in theaters one mile from each other, while the four-hour version is already available in Australia, where it’s been covered fairly and seriously by major news outlets. Yet in the United States, Stone was unable to even get an op-ed published. Only this week did the Washington Post cover the film and Stone, on the thirty-year anniversary of his original.

The Smug Style

The few pockets of US media that have critiqued the movie have rarely bothered to engage with what it presents. A handful have criticized Stone’s reliance on the recollections of eyewitnesses years after the fact, or charged that he overstates the case of Kennedy’s anti-militarist bona fides — both reasonable matters of debate.

But these have been the exception. For the most part, reviewers have opted for a style of smug disdain that takes as an obvious given that anything other than the official story is unserious and laughable. One mockingly describes Stone’s goal of going over the new evidence released by the ARRB as “the new shit that has come to light” (a reference to The Big Lebowski and its hapless, semi-incoherent Dude). Another dismisses the experts interviewed in the film as “a procession of white, male authors and experts in boring shirts hectoring you with their theories and old books.”

The Kennedy assassination has been the subject of work by serious historians, scholars, and journalists, some of whom, like John K. Galbraith, Jefferson Morley, and David Talbot, find their way into the movie. But the Daily Beast’s Caspar Salmon simply waves this away, arguing that while those interviewed “have certainly written books about the assassination,” it’s a subject “which isn’t exactly lacking in crackpots.”

A range of pundits have tried to blame Stone and his 1991 film for the rash of conspiracism and political delusions of our era — “toxic fantasies,” as one correctly terms them. Stone’s original film “feels like a progenitor of our current fake news-addled reality,” wrote the Daily Beast’s Nick Schager. A few months earlier, in August, the Washington Post likened the movie to Spike Lee’s belief in 9/11 trutherism. “Does the world really need to hear any more from Stone about this epochal rupture in American history, especially in an era already drowning in post-truth conspiracies?” asked the Hollywood Reporter.

“As we approach the assassination’s sixtieth anniversary, let’s look to the historical record rather than the silver screen for satisfying and nuanced answers to still-important questions,” urges historian Alecia P. Long in the pages of the Washington Post. “We can disenthrall ourselves from the debates conspiracy advocates seek to make inviolable,” she writes, and instead investigate “how events that fertilized citizen cynicism about the government more than a half-century ago . . . help explain the troubling conspiracy theories of today.”

The trouble, as last Wednesday’s delay reminds us, is that those archives remain closed, in violation of the very 1992 law that Stone’s original film led to. And it’s two different presidents from both major parties — one of them after having explicitly promised to finally release all the records — who have kept them closed, claiming that nearly half a century later, it could harm national security.

Nothing to See Here

The critics’ certainty that there’s nothing to see here and that the case is closed is belied by even a non-exhaustive look at the historical record.

For example, even historians who doubt that US intelligence officials were complicit in the murder have documented the way the CIA and other government entities stonewalled, misdirected, and flat-out lied to Warren Commission investigators, with even the CIA’s in-house historian admitting a few years ago that the agency took part in a “benign cover-up” to keep the commission’s eyes on “what the agency believed at the time was the ‘best truth’” — namely, that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone for his own unknowable reasons.

Nor was this the last time it did this. As Stone alludes to in his film, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) began reexamining the case in the 1970s, the CIA appointed as its liaison George Joannides, a former officer who had directed anti–Fidel Castro activities from 1962 to 1964, some of it while living in New Orleans, overseeing the very anti-Castro front group that Lee Harvey Oswald had famously interacted with during his time in the city, and which would try to link Oswald to Castro in the press after his arrest.

The CIA never disclosed this crucial fact, and Joannides blocked investagators’ requests for files on the anti-Castro front group they didn’t know he had directed. Documents about Joannides are among those the government still won’t release, because, according to John Tunheim, the federal judge who chaired the ARRB, the board was “relying on inaccurate representations made by the CIA” and decided the records “were not relevant to the assassination.” Tunheim concluded that “we were probably misled by the agency.”

Then there are the connections between Oswald and the CIA, like the anti-communist Dallas oilman who befriended the avowed Marxist Oswald, and who would kill himself the day an HSCA investigator later came calling. The oilman told a journalist he had “on occasion done favors” for the CIA, one of which was to learn about Oswald’s activities in Minsk.

Indeed, we now know for a fact the CIA lied to both the Warren Commission and the HSCA when it claimed it never had much interest in Oswald. There is now hard evidence that at least a dozen senior CIA officials were aware of Oswald, and that the agency was keeping track of his movements and activities right up to the assassination.

In 1994, Morley tracked down and talked to Jane Roman, who worked in the CIA’s counterintelligence office under celebrated agency man James Angleton. She admitted that the documents he brought her were “indicative of a keen interest in Oswald held very closely on the need to know basis”; that they showed the CIA division tasked with overthrowing Castro was hiding information about Oswald from other CIA officials six weeks before the killing; and that it suggested they “thought that somehow . . . they could make some use of Oswald.”

There was an anti-Castro fighter, Antonio Veciana, who offhandedly told HSCA investigator Gaeton Fonzi (without knowing what exactly he was being interviewed about) that he’d been introduced to Oswald in Dallas by his CIA handler, “Maurice Bishop.” Veciana later admitted toward the end of his life that Bishop was David Atlee Phillips, who headed anti-Cuban operations for the CIA. (More than six hundred pages on Phillips are among the records still under lock and key.)

Most recent was the account (albeit uncorroborated) of the son of Ricardo “Monkey” Morales, an anti-Castro militant valued as an asset by the CIA, and whom the FBI considered an “honest and objective” informant. Two months ago, the Miami Herald reported that Morales’s son said he’d told him he saw Oswald at a CIA sniper training camp he ran, and that he and others had been ordered by their CIA handler to go to Dallas two days before the assassination, as a “cleaning crew just in case something bad had to be done,” ultimately returning to Miami without having to get their hands dirty.

Of course, just because a witness says these things doesn’t mean they’re necessarily true. But then why, sixty years later, is Morales’s redacted CIA personnel file among the records continuing to be blocked?

What do all these facts add up to? Perhaps they point to the maximalist case of conspiracy among CIA officials that Stone and others credit, or a plot carried out by rogue figures within or associated with the agency. Or it could point to blowback from an operation gone wrong. Or maybe top officials were unwittingly complicit in what happened in Dallas, and moved to cover it up once they realized that. At minimum, it suggests an intelligence failure of epic proportions, hardly a first for the CIA, and one that its top men worked to hide from the public and their own government ever since.

Ask Not How the Public Failed Its Institutions . . .

All Americans, and especially journalists, should be applying the kind of scrutiny to the official story of the assassination that Stone and others have been applying for decades. At the very least, they should demand their government stop sitting on the records they seem determined to keep secret. Unfortunately, the press right now seems more interested in attacking those who do.

They likely don’t realize they’re doing exactly as the CIA hoped in its 1967 strategy for “Countering Criticism of the Warren Report.” In that document, the agency ordered its people to urge “liaison and friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” to “use their influence to discourage unfounded and irresponsible speculation,” and to “employ propaganda assets to answer and refute the attacks of the critics” through “book reviews and feature articles.” Among the arguments the agency outlined for its media assets to deploy against critics were that they were simply “infatuated with their own theories,” and that “conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States.”

But large-scale wrongdoing does exist, and it can be kept secret. The only reason we know about COINTELPRO and decades of vast, outrageous illegality by the national security state was because a group of activists burglarized an FBI office one night. Most of the documents about MK-Ultra, a CIA program that sounds fantastical on its face, were destroyed, and what we know about it comes largely from an accidental discovery. Jeffrey Epstein operated a sprawling sex-trafficking ring virtually out in the open for decades, protected by the silence of countless individuals who saw or knew what he was doing but were too scared, paid off, or guilty themselves to say anything.

But the CIA talking point absolutely no one can use now is that “no significant new evidence has emerged which the Commission did not consider.” We now know plenty about the commission’s failings, and evidence has emerged in the decades since that 1967 memo, thanks to the public skepticism that helped force the HSCA’s investigation in the 1970s and the declassification of files in the 1990s. Whatever anyone thinks of Stone’s JFK films — and it’s perfectly possible to disagree with parts of Stone’s analysis while agreeing with others — his efforts have been instrumental in getting this evidence into the public’s hands, something that’s supposed to be the job of the press.

Today’s media blames Stone and others doing this work for Americans’ loss of trust in their institutions, and for spreading belief in misinformation and lies. Yet it’s the deceit and secrecy from those very institutions that’s the biggest culprit, in the case of Kennedy’s murder and so many other events. Attacking the messenger isn’t going to fix this. But demanding the government stop blocking the truth, whatever that ends up being, might.