The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, has arguably spawned more conspiracy theories than any other incident in American history, and no one has hypothesized about the nefarious forces at play in this homicide more publicly, and feverishly, than Oliver Stone. The acclaimed director’s star-studded 1991 thriller JFK turned the tragedy into a national guessing game of motives, culprits and covert machinations carried out in the shadows, pointing fingers in so many directions that, today, it feels like a progenitor of our current fake news-addled reality. Depending on who you ask, JFK cemented Stone’s legacy as either a firebrand willing to speak truth to power, or a crackpot lost in a haze of make-believe.
Now, 30 years later, he’s returned to the scene of the crime.
Based on Destiny Betrayed: JFK, Cuba, and the Garrison Case by James DiEugenio, the doc JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass aims to lay out concrete answers about Kennedy’s murder and, in doing so, to validate Stone’s prior fictionalized take on the subject. Premiering Nov. 19 on Showtime (following its debut at this past July’s Cannes Film Festival), it’s a typical Stone effort, at once comprehensive and overstuffed, compelling and tiresome, sure of its own authoritativeness and yet unwilling (or unable) to provide definitive proof for its claims. Narrated by Stone, Whoopi Goldberg and Donald Sutherland, the last of whom also co-starred in JFK, as well as occasionally featuring Stone himself on camera, it’s a non-fiction inquiry that’s packed to the gills with names, dates, faces, documents, events, conversations, conjecture and talking-head commentary from a variety of authors and academics. If ever a movie was at once exhaustive and exhausting, this is it.
Even though he hasn’t made a memorable fictional feature in 15 years (that would be World Trade Center), JFK Revisited immediately proves that the director has lost none of his montage-y artistry. In the first few minutes, he splices together a cornucopia of archival clips regarding Kennedy’s assassination that provide a comprehensive contextual foundation for the inquiry to follow. The breadth of information that Stone crams into this opening salvo, and the suspense, terror and heartache he captures, is a marvel to behold. It so ably conveys the primary facets of Kennedy’s execution that the filmmaker is then free to pick apart myriad aspects of the official narrative that would subsequently emerge.
The swiftness with which Stone stages his introduction doesn’t dissipate for the remainder of the proceedings, which is at once a blessing and a curse. Having gotten the basics out of the way, Stone dives headfirst into examining various key details that are open to reinterpretation, thanks to revelations that came to light in the weeks, months and years following Kennedy’s death. First up is the “single bullet theory” promoted by the Warren Commission and, in particular, then-staffer Arlen Specter, which contended that one projectile fired by Lee Harvey Oswald struck Kennedy in the back, exited via his throat, and then hit Texas Governor John Connally, who was seated in front of the president during their motorcade through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. A collection of speakers poke holes in different aspects of this premise, from discrepancies regarding chain-of-custody reports, to the lack of damage found on the bullet, to the dubiousness of Oswald owning the rifle that wound up in police custody, to autopsy reports (about the gunshot wound location, and weight of Kennedy’s brain) that may have been altered.
Stone throws all of this up on the screen without allotting a moment for the audience to take a breath and consider what’s being presented, and the effect is akin to being lectured by someone who wants to sway through overwhelming force. Stone may move at this pace so he can fit all of his ideas into a two-hour runtime, but that doesn’t change the fact that JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass strives to persuade through a blitzkrieg-like approach. While Stone’s sheer abundance of data is intended to project a measure of bedrock certainty, the director’s speedy dispensation of his material suggests a lack of absolute confidence, as if he’s afraid that lingering too long on any one item—or allowing contrary voices to be heard—might undercut the entire endeavor.
Thus, the film blazes onward into further realms, including Oswald’s potentially close ties to the CIA, and the CIA’s (and right-wing establishment’s) objection to Kennedy’s progressive ideas and ambitions. The former thread involves rehashing Oswald’s 1959 defection to the Soviet Union, his stint passing out pro-Castro leaflets in New Orleans, and his own slaying on national TV at the hands of Jack Ruby. The latter entails surmising about the CIA’s role in sabotaging the Bay of Pigs, and opposition to Kennedy’s plans to withdraw from Vietnam and his support for civil rights. Much of this has been heard before, from Stone and many others, some of it mildly convincing, some of it… less so.
The overarching argument forwarded by JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass is that the CIA offed Kennedy and then engaged in an elaborate, multi-pronged cover-up via the Warren Commission and multiple operatives who successfully doctored or destroyed records, strong-armed people to lie about what they saw or did, and disseminated falsehoods in order to manipulate public sentiment. Stone’s kitchen-sink investigation does suggest that questions remain about certain elements of this saga, not least of which is Oswald’s relationship with the CIA, since the office of Oswald’s pro-Cuba group was located in the same building as that of a former FBI agent—and, it turns out, was also across the street from the local CIA HQ. Those sorts of coincidences abound, and together, they go some way toward raising suspicions about the Warren Commission’s single-shooter theory.
On the other hand, though, Stone’s tack in making this case—namely, to bombard viewers with “evidence”—frequently sabotages his ultimate point. JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass may contain some truths, but they’re buried beneath so much excitable speculation that it’s impossible to firmly grasp them.