Oliver Stone: Who Killed J.F.K.?

In an electrifying and troubling new film, Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner reheat the controversy about the Kennedy assassination

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J.F.K. blown away,

What else do I have to say?

-- Billy Joel,

We Didn't Start the Fire

On Nov. 22, 1963, somebody blasted the skull of America open. In a few seconds of rifle fire in Dallas' Dealey Plaza, a time warp gaped. Slapped out of a pretty postwar reverie, we screamed bloody murder.

Oliver Stone screams bloody murder for a living. In his screenplays for Midnight Express and Scarface, he drew nightscapes of drug paranoia and police brutality. As writer-director of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, the Vietnam vet exorcised his demons by portraying the war as a rite of passage -- to fratricide. In Talk Radio he suggested that the penalty for a showman's reckless truth telling was to be killed by his audience. Jim Morrison, in The Doors, pays a similar fee for fame; the poet's capricious muse drives him to drugs, madness, death. Oddly enough, Stone's tortured artistic mission -- dispensing downers to a movie public famously addicted to escapism -- has its upside. He pours so much dramatic juice into the hemlock blender that folks go to his films, and official Hollywood has rewarded Stone with three Oscars.

This past was prologue to his most outsize challenge: explaining the Kennedy assassination to his own satisfaction. Or anyone else's. JFK, the electrifying melodrama opening nationwide this week, attracted brickbats months ago when a long article in the Washington Post cataloged historical "errors and absurdities" in Stone and Zachary Sklar's screenplay. Assassination scholars ragged Stone for his naivete, his use of discredited testimony, his reliance on suspect "experts." A TIME critic said that if Stone's film "turns out to distort history, he may wind up doing more harm than homage to the memory of the fallen President." Tom Wicker, a New York Times columnist, has seen the film and believes it does all that and worse. He calls JFK "paranoid and fantastic," full of "wild assertions" and propagating an idea that, "if widely accepted, would be contemptuous of the very constitutional government Mr. Stone's film purports to uphold."

Anybody want to see this movie? Warner Bros. hopes so; the studio (whose parent company also owns TIME) helped foot JFK's $40 million tab. It is also counting on Kevin Costner, America's No. 1 homegrown movie star, to lure audiences to what is at heart a high-voltage civics quiz. Though he doesn't necessarily agree with every notion floated in the film, Costner is happy to play front man for Stone. "Oliver's a patriot," he says. "And I believe with him that the impact of this movie will be liberating. Any part of the truth -- any discussion of what could be the truth -- can only make us freer."

But Costner's coiled heroic presence is one more source of controversy, for the liberal icon of Dances with Wolves and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is playing Jim Garrison, who as New Orleans district attorney in the late '60s prosecuted the only Kennedy assassination case that ever went to trial. And, quickly, out the window. The jury found the defendant, businessman Clay Shaw, not guilty in less time than last week's West Palm Beach jurors took to exonerate William Kennedy Smith. For the past decade, Garrison (who appears in JFK as Chief Justice Earl Warren) has been part of America's conspiracy industry -- saint to some, buffoon to others.

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