Oliver Stone's
Radical Films

By Michelle Mairesse


"It goes without saying that those who strive to maintain the status quo are the most immoral of all. To them the great sin is to question the prevailing order. Yet every great thinker, every great artist, every great religious teacher did just that."

Henry Miller, "The Immorality of Morality"


    Oliver Stone has no reverence for the status quo. He asks embarrassing questions about the prevailing order. He despises official lies. He is a serious patriot. These qualities alone are enough to irritate the complacent cynics who report and comment on national events, so Stone is accustomed to caustic attacks on his work and character. But in December 1991, he was taken aback by the critical fusillade aimed at JFK when he opened his complex, technically dazzling, consummately directed film in the nation's capital. Instead of welcoming Stone's investigation of a national scandal, a majority of the media savaged the film wherever it was exhibited in the United States.

The press accused Stone of misrepresenting the historical record. Stone patiently explained that JFK was not a documentary, but a drama, a drama employing dramatic devices, including composite characters. (If the press considered the Warren Report history, then they had missed the point of JFK.)

Instancing the twenty-six volumes comprising the Warren Report, and confusing its sheer bulk with substance, the press charged Stone with sensationalism and superficiality. On the contrary, Stone's film is packed with more relevant information than is contained in all twenty-six volumes of the Warren Report, for as Mark North points out in Act of Treason: The Role of J. Edgar Hoover in the Assassination of President Kennedy, the director of the FBI withheld vital evidence (including Oswald's status as an FBI informant) and blitzed the commission with reams of irrelevant information. Oliver Stone had doubtless researched the characters, events, and background of the assassination more intensively than had any member of the commission or, for that matter, any member of the press. He purchased Jim Marrs's outstanding Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy as well as Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins. He hired a researcher who turned up significant new evidence. Zachary Sklar, who edited Garrison's book, co-authored the screenplay with Stone. 'Mr. X,' who the press presumed was a figment of Stone's imagination, was largely based on retired U.S. air force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, who served as the chief of special operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and acted as an advisor on the film. His articles about the assassination were included in his book JFK: The CIA, Vietnam And The Plot To Assassinate John F. Kennedy.

The press complained that JFK was really the story of Jim Garrison, and an idealized Jim Garrison at that. In James Riordan's A Biography of Oliver Stone: the controversies, excesses, and exploits of a radical filmmaker, Stone agrees that he omitted Garrison's failings. "The film was already going to run over three hours because I was not just dealing with Jim Garrison. It was like four movies. I was doing the Lee Harvey Oswald history, I was doing Dealey Plaza. Garrison was never there, but I was showing it again and again. And I was doing this Mr. 'X' story in Washington."

The film does precisely that--and a good deal more. It captures the ambiance of the decade. In clubs, in offices, in restaurants, in homes, the omnipresent television set intrudes with its catalogue of insouciance, mendacity, and brutality. The film's participants see, as do we, live events and news bulletins--President Eisenhower delivering his farewell address warning us of the military-industrial complex; the CIA's secret war on Castro; the Bay of Pigs debacle; the Soviet missile crisis; Kennedy's determination to limit the Vietnamese conflict; Walter Cronkite announcing that of the three shots fired at the president, one bullet entered at the base of the president's throat, and, with a weak voice, that President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time. We view, on television screens, the president's funeral; Lyndon Johnson being sworn in; Ruby blasting away on camera, mortally wounding Lee Harvey Oswald; the formation of the Warren Commission; a Vietnamese war zone; troops firing on anti-war demonstrators; Garrison accused of bribing and drugging witnesses and of concealed mob ties; news of the Martin Luther King assassination; Attorney General Robert Kennedy assassinated on camera.

That's the way it was. Somehow Stone manages to weave all of these bizarre happenings into a gripping, beautifully acted, finely-wrought narrative that depicts the assassination and the cover-up in astonishing detail:
An anonymous woman is heaved from a speeding car onto a bleak stretch of highway. Torn and bleeding, she lies here sobbing. President Kennedy banquets. The anonymous woman is in a hospital bed babbling about Jack Ruby and an underworld plot to kill Kennedy in Dallas. The Kennedys emerge from Airforce One in Dallas. At the parade in Dealey Plaza, a bystander appears to have an epileptic seizure. Blackout. A flight of pigeons lifts off the roof of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building. Walter Cronkite announces the president's death on television. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and his staff are stunned by the announcement. The anonymous woman was Rose Cheramie. Her story, confirmed by a Louisiana State Police lieutenant and doctors who declared she was not psychotic, appears in the House Select Committee's report but not in the Warren Report. Her prediction occurred two days before the assassination. On the day of the assassination, the Louisiana police officer contacted Dallas police captain Will Fritz, who was in charge of the assassination investigation. Fritz wasn't interested.

November 22, 1963. It was a warm, sunny day, fine parade weather. Despite the rumblings of the rich troglodytes who considered Dallas their private fief, ordinary citizens lining the motorcade route smiled, cheered, and waved at President Kennedy and his wife as they wended slowly through Dealey Plaza in their open limousine. Immediately after the presidential car made a sharp slow turn from Houston to Elm Street, shots rang out, and horrified onlookers saw the president's exploded head spew out brain tissues and blood. Stone withholds the Zapruder film until Garrison displays it to the jury. Until Garrison subpoenaed the film, the general public had not been allowed to view it.

Bystanders describe their stunned reactions. They have heard a volley of shots, more than three. Some of the shots came from the grassy knoll near the railroad tracks.

Bulletin: Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit is shot and Oswald is arrested in the Texas Theater as a suspect in the Tippit killing. Immediately, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover telephoned Attorney General Robert Kennedy with a biography of Oswald before the Dallas police had even connected him to the president's assassination. The Dallas police interrogated Lee Harvey Oswald without benefit of counsel. Claiming they had made no transcript of the interrogation, the police confidently informed the press that Oswald had murdered President Kennedy. Two days later, Jack Ruby a gambler, nightclub owner, and Mafia bagman with ties to the Dallas police, the FBI, and the CIA gunned down Oswald in front of television cameras and sixty Dallas policemen.

For reasons never adequately explained, the Secret Service and the Dallas police had neglected the most rudimentary security precautions. The Secret Service and the Dallas police utterly failed to explain the egregious security lapses that exposed both the president and his suspected assassin to ambush, but those who were most derelict in their duties received promotions. The vice president (violating another routine security measure) had traveled with the presidential party to Dallas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who would legally assume the presidency in the event of the president's death, insisted on taking the oath of office in Texas before flying back to Washington.

Garrison was troubled. Oswald had some strange associates in New Orleans who might be able to throw some light on the investigation. On a tip, the district attorney interviewed David Ferrie, and when Ferrie gave a lame explanation for his whereabouts on the day of the assassination and denied knowing Oswald, Garrison turned him over to the FBI for questioning. The FBI cleared and released him immediately. Oswald was a member of David Ferrie's Louisiana Civil Air Patrol Unit in the mid-fifties. Six witnesses, considered credible by the House Select Committee, testified to seeing Ferrie and Oswald together less than three months before President Kennedy was assassinated. Egregious errors and distortions were discovered in the autopsy report. British acoustics experts determined that indeed four shots had been fired. The evidence of malfeasance is overwhelming.

Hoping to squelch the rumors of conspiracy bruited at home and abroad, President Johnson authorized a special commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination. The Warren Commission spent ten months sifting through information and interviewing witnesses funneled exclusively through the FBI and the CIA. We know today that the FBI lied to the commission, intimidated witnesses, and altered transcripts of their testimony. The bureau lost and destroyed files, lost evidence--the many seized photographs of the motorcade and Dealey Plaza were never seen again--suppressed and tampered with evidence, and had input and output from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's cronies on the Warren Commission (and later on the House Select Committee). We know now that the FBI and the CIA withheld significant information about Clay Shaw and Lee Harvey Oswald that is surfacing in files released under the Freedom of Information Act. We know today that the CIA, pleading national security, failed to release significant information about the principals in the investigation. We know today that there was a cover-up at the highest levels of government.

At the time, critics of the Warren Report saw an investigative pattern emerge: the commissioners preferred witnesses who confirmed the theory that Oswald was a lone assassin. They did not interview many dissenters. They did not call on independent experts to evaluate conflicting evidence. The Warren Commission was intent on establishing Oswald's guilt. If more than three bullets had been fired, Oswald could not have acted alone. Therefore, the commission brushed aside the mountain of evidence that more than three bullets were fired and accepted the FBI's contrived explanation that a single bullet had inflicted seven wounds on Governor Connally and the president.

Serious researchers expressed their dismay at the commission's findings. On their own, they had uncovered substantial evidence that supported a conspiracy theory, but the bureaucracy was keeping a tight grip on documents. Government agencies, pleading national security, blocked freelance investigators at every turn. Other organizations kept mum. Clearly, Oswald's association with the intelligence community began when he served in the Marine Corps, yet the documentation was withheld for decades. The "official" history of the Kennedy assassination contained in the Warren Commission report looked more and more like an official lie.

New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison wanted to change all that. On March 1, 1967 Garrison filed stunning charges against prominent businessman Clay Shaw, to wit: conspiring to assassinate President Kennedy. Although he had quietly begun to investigate some of Oswald's associates in New Orleans--Ferrie, Banister, Shaw, and anti-Castro Cuban exiles--the news of his investigation leaked, and the press hampered and harassed Garrison, while government agencies continued to stonewall. He went to trial with a case that the press, the FBI, and the CIA had literally sabotaged from within. All of his major witnesses died before trial, some under mysterious circumstances.

Two years later, the case went to court. Although Garrison was ill during much of the trial, and the assistant district attorney delivered the summation, Stone wrote the climactic scene with Kevin Costner (as Garrison) addressing the jury. Looking directly into the camera, the district attorney tells the jury and the audience that history is in our hands. On February 28, 1969, the jury found Shaw not guilty.

The jury did believe that there had been a conspiracy to kill the president, and assassination researchers redoubled their demands for information and documents.

And Garrison was absolutely right about Clay Shaw. He lied about his identity, beginning with the CIA affiliation he denied under oath. An agency document released in 1977 shows that Shaw was a CIA informant. Three former intelligence agents have fingered Shaw as an agent who worked with Guy Bannister and David Ferrie. In 1979 former director Richard Helms testified that Shaw had worked for the Domestic Contact Division of the CIA. In 1993 a declassified CIA document refers to Shaw's covert clearance for a top CIA project. As for Oswald's acting alone, Stone's film allows us to view Dealey Plaza from the sixth-floor through the tree-obstructed window where Oswald allegedly took aim. Oswald's service records reveal that he was a poor shot, yet he would have had to fire three rounds from a cheap, mail-order 6.5 Italian carbine in under six seconds. Not one of the sharpshooters who attempted that feat succeeded. Although the "magic bullet" which supposedly inflicted seven wounds on the president and Governor Connally came from the Italian carbine, tests proved that it was not the bullet that wounded Connally. No one could explain why the bullet was in pristine condition after traveling through flesh and bone, or how it came to rest on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital.

Sadly, the official lie lives on. As late as 1993, Gerald Posner, in Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, maintains that Oswald was a lone assassin and that Jim Garrison's case was totally fabricated. In Hasty Judgment: A Reply to Gerald Posner, Michael T. Griffith dismantles Posner's book.

Serious researchers have amassed extensive evidence concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, enough to vindicate Garrison, enough to expose the conspiracy to cover up the conspiracy.

But it's all too easy to get caught up in the details of the assassination. A few Americans transcend the national appetite for mere scandal. They have made a solemn commitment to restoring democratic freedoms and to shining floodlights into the dark corners of our hidden government. Prouty did that. Marrs did that. Garrison did that. Not only did Oliver Stone do that, but he gave us a masterpiece into the bargain.

     Critics who complain of school children's learning innacurate history from Oliver Stone's JFK may as well admit that an accurate history has not yet been written.

    " History may be servitude, History may be freedom. See, now they vanish, The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them, to become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern."

    T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
Each of Oliver Stone's cinematic creations embodies at least one of the dramatic themes that have obsessed the writer-director throughout his career. Even the exciting visual effects--the moody lighting; wild camera angles; mixed film stock; color, black-and-white, and sepia blends; videos; computer graphics and morphing; animation and cartoons; grainy old newsreels, flashing, flickering, and lingering on the screen--illuminate the mystery and paradox of character confronting destiny, of will imposed on fate. Salvador (1985 ), his first major film, marks off the territory Stone will explore over and over again: an unlikely hero is transformed in his struggle to comprehend and expose illusion, institutional deception, the consensual lie, the official lie.

Based on journalist Richard Boyle's autobiographical manuscript, the film begins with the breakup of Boyle's marriage and his capricious decision to drive from California to war-torn El Salvador searching for action and cheap highs. Accompanied by a stoned disc jockey who provides comic relief, the jaded, unemployed newsman cons his way into the battle zones and back into the good graces of an old girlfriend. At first, Boyle is detached as he scratches for a story, but his indignation mounts as he follows a blood-soaked trail of smoking villages and mass graves, for he knows that his own government supplies the military junta's bullets, bombs, tanks, and aircraft. A press photographer who helps Boyle document American covert support is killed in a bombing raid, while the docile press corps continues to accept the U.S. embassy version of the conflict, even when American nuns are ambushed and murdered. Boyle breaks the story and focuses the world's attention on the ruinous regime.

James Woods's flawless performance depicts Boyle as a shifty rogue who gradually revives conscience and commitment as he argues policy with American authorities, sabotages government raids, marries his Salvadoran girlfriend, and makes a hairbreadth escape from El Salvador primed to reveal the truth about the CIA in Central America. Although immigration authorities apprehend his bride, Boyle has redeemed himself. He has the will to fight for both Maria and his convictions.

In Platoon (1986), once again Stone shows us an American trying to make sense of a senseless war. Chris Taylor is an innocent, middle-class youth who waives his draft exemption and, in a burst of patriotic fervor, volunteers for service as an infantryman in Vietnam. The director-screenwriter, himself a wounded and decorated veteran of that war, recreates the grunt's lot in every war--weariness, ache, grime, and gut-wrenching fear relieved only by brief instinctive surges of survivalist adrenaline. Attacks can come at any time from any quarter--from a magnesium-lit jungle clearing to a dirt-floored lean-to packed with peasants--and Chris experiences each encounter with the Vietcong as tumult and confusion.

Chris's feelings towards the Vietnamese villagers range from rage to pity, for each one of them is a potential assassin or potential victim. Within the platoon itself there is tension between the two veteran leaders, the cold killer Barnes and the compassionate Elias. When Barnes betrays and abandons Elias to die, Chris feels that the virtue has departed from the platoon, and he avenges the good soldier's death. As he grows battle-hardened and almost inured to the war's futility, the young infantryman finds reserves of strength and courage he didn't know he possessed. Now when his breast swells, it is not with reflex patriotism but with outrage that the poorest and least privileged men of his generation are being fed to Moloch, for he has discovered a bond with his comrades in arms and a new sensitivity to injustice. Chris Taylor restructures his soul while searching for truth in the valley of the shadow of death. Platoon is a great war film, devoid of callousness, sentimentality, or false theatrics. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, which exposed the murderous futility of World War I, Stone's Platoon will endure as a classic of filmmaking.

In Wall Street (1987), Stone instructs his audience in the workings of American high finance without slowing the action--no mean feat, considering his complex subject. Charlie Sheen plays the innocent hero whose goals and outlook mirror America in the eighties. An airline mechanic's son who cold-calls from a brokerage firm's phone bank, Bud Fox admires the legendary trader and corporate marauder Gordon Gekko, the embodiment of Reagan Revolution greed. Bud ingratiates himself with Gekko, (played with reptilian magnetism by Michael Douglas) who uses the insider tip Bud heard from his father to make a big score.

The in-your-face camera work charges everything in Gekko's orbit with danger, but Bud sees only the glittering trophies. He discards his father's old-fashioned values so he can swim with the barracudas. Bud's intrigues for and with Gekko soon win plaudits and prizes. He gets the long-legged girl, the big-windowed apartment, the power office in the firm, and more money than his father will earn in a lifetime of honest toil. Yet Stone's takes of the narcissistic girl, the impersonal apartment, the affected dinners, and the politics of the brokerage house depict how joyless Bud's victory is.

Unlike Gekko, Bud has not developed a taste for raw meat, either as steak tartare or life-destroying takeovers. When he learns that Gekko is about to scoop up the airline's assets, including his father's pension fund, Bud foils Gekko's raid and reaps a whirlwind of vengeance, paying with everything but his soul for his compact with Gordon Gekko. At film's end, Bud is about to stand trial. He knows he will be convicted and imprisoned, but he has the satisfaction of exposing Gekko's criminal empire.

Everyone who hated this film was deeply invested in the official fable of eternally benevolent laissez faire capitalism, even though Stone, with an uncanny sense of timing, premiered Wall Street shortly after several Gekko-like figures were being dragged away in handcuffs. The same media pundits who sat through the infamous savings and loan debacle without uttering a peep declared that Stone had hit an anomaly, not a vein. What Stone had really hit was a nerve.

In Talk Radio (1988) Stone introduces a hero who does not redeem himself, a hero whose hubris destroys him. Barry Champlain broadcasts his gab fest from a Houston radio station, where most of the film's action occurs. Sepia flashbacks take us out of the studio and into Champlain's bleak private life. His waspish disposition has alienated everyone--wife, colleagues, and the unseen call-in audience that fills the airwaves with ranting, blustering, and whining. Champlain, wittier, more articulate, more perceptive than anyone in his audience, goads them, insults them, and enrages them. He tells the self-pitiers that their suffering is not noble, but rather unattractive. He tells the fanatics that they are fools and liars. He tells the egomaniacs that they are sniveling nonentities. He reminds them all that his show is the biggest thing in their insignificant lives.

The corollary, of course, is that his callers, pathetic, vacuous, vicious though they be, are the biggest thing in his life, and he despises himself for catering to them. Champlain dumps a load of sarcasm and invective on the hotheads who threaten him with bombs and bullets, finally inciting one to murder him in the station parking lot. Stone sustains our interest in this uncomplicated plot by focusing on the complicated psyche of Champlain, who begins as an innocent clown and ends as a misanthrope without a scintilla of compassion for himself or anyone else.

The comedy of humiliation is an ancient genre. Greek and Roman comedies abound in reprobates who get their comeuppance. But how severely should coxcombs and louts be punished or humiliated? Champlain amuses us but makes us uneasy, too. After the talk show host is gunned down, we must conclude that Champlain's show is entertainment only if we think Russian roulette is entertainment.

Talk Radio is first class entertainment, a textbook demonstration of what a master can do with a tiny cast, a tiny set, a tiny budget, a significant theme, and an unfettered imagination.

In Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Stone again exposes the liars in high places who orchestrated the Vietnam War. Based on veteran Ron Kovic's poignant autobiography, the film lays bare the official lies that duped idealistic young Americans into enlisting, the official lies that interpreted the conflict to those at home, and the official lies about America's appreciation and concern for veterans.

Tom Cruise vividly depicts every stage of Kovic's journey. The popular athlete has never questioned the values inculcated at home, in church, or in school. When Marine Corps recruiters come to Kovic's high school, he volunteers, eager to show his mettle fighting America's enemies abroad. In Vietnam, he quickly learns that the enemy is hard to identify, hard to find. The neat distinctions of American football matches do not obtain here. We are still recoiling from the shocks inflicted on guileless recruits being reprogrammed for their new profession when we, the audience, are suddenly plunged into a chaotic fire-fight. We lose our bearings and understand how easy it is for Kovic to lose his bearings and accidentally shoot a comrade. But Kovic does not forgive himself, and he is slow to blame anyone else for his second tour of hell, even after a bullet shatters his spinal cord and leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.

Stateside, he tastes bitterness for the first time when he enters the next circle of hell, the under-funded, over-crowded Veterans Hospital. Back in his home town, Kovic enjoys the applause when he is wheeled onto the VIP's platform during an Independence Day celebration, but jeering anti-war demonstrators darken his moment in the sun. We watch Kovic's disillusionment gnaw him day by day.

Kovic's visit to the family of the Marine he accidentally shot is futile because they will not absolve him of blame. They would have been happier believing that the dead marine made the supreme sacrifice for his country, not that he was a victim of friendly fire. Americans, Kovic realizes, prefer to slap another coat of whitewash over the sepulcher of Vietnam than to admit it contains a hecatomb of rotting corpses. Only in the company of other veterans can he communicate his feelings, but increasingly he clashes with friends and family, who subscribe to the entire menu of official lies. Kovic's growing frustration and rage erupt in family quarrels and barroom brawls. His parents find his opinions and conduct so shocking that they ask him to leave the household.

Kovic descends into an even lower ring of hell in Mexico, consorting with whores, drunks, and drug-addicts in an enclave of disabled American veterans. In one horrifying scene, Kovic and another veteran, alone in the desert, fight each other until they are both unhorsed (thrown from their wheelchairs) and lie helpless on the ground. Clearly, Kovic will not find solace for his troubled spirit here.

So he returns to the United States and bravely admits that he sacrificed his body for an illusion, a chimera. When Kovic lends his powerful voice and his clear vision to the anti-war movement, we see him undergoing a spiritual transformation. He has joined that elite portion of humankind that will always prefer painful truth to soothing lies. Because Oliver Stone belongs to that elite corps of light-bringers, he created this finely-wrought, moving film--and another masterpiece.


Updates: 8/29/2014: The CIA Double-Dip: Drugs, Fraud, & the JFK Assassination

A quote from this article:

Finally, there is a little more possibly pertinent information to pass on  about Alina Hill Wickert’s famous  grandfather. 

h-l-hunt-1In 1963, Dallas billionaire H.L. Hunt poured millions into a ceaseless anti-Kennedy radio campaign; it was the dawn of extremist radio in the nation. Hunt’s program, “Life Line,” reached 10 million listeners a day with scorching attacks against Kennedy.

Hunt also controlled a vast private intelligence network, that included the John Birch Society.

Hunt’s son purchased a full-page ad in the Dallas newspaper the day JFK arrived, accusing the President of betraying the Constitution. A leaflet appeared all over town that accused JFK of treason.

Immediately after the JFK assassination H. L. Hunt was rushed to the airport and taken out of the country by the FBI. Supposedly, they’d received notice of a plot to kill him. But instead of protective custody, they moved Hunt to a secret destination in Mexico.

Lyndon Johnson’s former mistress, Madeleine Duncan Brown, told author Robert Gaylon Ross prior to her death in 2002 that Johnson was involved in the murder of JFK. The plot that had its origins in the 1960 Democratic Convention.

Johnson, according to Brown, colluded with oil tycoon H. L. Hunt to have Kennedy eliminated.

johnson-kennedy-37“It was a total political crime and H.L. Hunt really controlled what actually happened to John Kennedy — he and Lyndon Johnson,” said Brown. “It was a political crime for political power.”

On the night before the assassination Johnson allegedly said, “Those SOBs will never embarrass me again.”

The top Russian newspaper, Pravda, (which, for what its worth, means truth) announced that Texas oil man H.L. Hunt arranged JFK assassination.

Maybe it was just a lucky guess.