When you think reliable narrator, Oliver Stone doesn’t exactly come to mind. Since his start as a director in the 1970s, the lightning-rod filmmaker, now 74, has leaned into fiction narratives with political points of view, from “Salvador,” “Wall Street,” and “W.” to Best Director Oscar-winners “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” His last Oscar nomination came in 1996, for “Nixon,” arguably his peak of high regard in Hollywood. It’s hard to recall that in 1992, controversial global smash “JFK” earned three Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
Times change, and Stone’s complex historic and global point of view is far more layered and nuanced than current American partisanship will accept. That’s why the Yale-grad-turned-Vietnam-vet has managed to alienate folks on every side of the political spectrum, including accusations of promulgating violence with “Natural Born Killers,” promoting a whistleblower in “Snowden,” and conducting friendly documentary interviews with dictators, Cuba’s Fidel Castro in “Comandante” (2003) and more recently Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Showtime’s four-part “The Putin Interviews”).
“Many people are scared and touchy,” said Stone’s long-term backer, Argentinian producer Fernando Sulichin (“Alexander,” “Savages”), “because he goes to talk openly to big powerful people who are not liked in the West and gets their point of view. He does that as an exploration. If you have a chance to speak to these people, they will be judged by history. For example, Nelson Mandela and the NSA were declared a terrorist organization, then 20 years later he’s the savior Nelson Mandela. It’s an overview of the geopolitical system, [Stone] is not affiliated. And everything is coherent within a historical time frame; it’s a historical approach to modern reality that is not made by the people in the political world of the newspapers.”
So when it comes to setting the record straight on who killed President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in that motorcade in Dallas, Texas, Stone might not seem the most objective documentarian to tell that story. After all, isn’t he just trying to prove the same conspiracy theories he put forward in “JFK” almost 30 years ago, that got him in hot water at the time? “Of course,” he told me at Cannes, where he world-premiered and launched world sales on documentary “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,” which he finished during the pandemic. “To make this documentary is to prove our case. We proved it as far as possible. There is no absolute proof.”
When producer Rob Wilson proposed the idea of returning to the shooting of JFK, Stone decided it was important to bring multi-generations up to speed on what really happened back in 1963. At first, Stone pitched four one-hour episodes for television, but no sale. So he fashioned a two-hour movie instead, completed, along with his recent memoir, during the pandemic. “The 1991 movie was a dramatization, nothing wrong with it,” he said “I got nailed by people, literalists, saying Stone made up this and that, like, Kevin Bacon was an amalgam of five homosexual characters in New Orleans.”
For “JFK Revisited,” Stone leaned on a screenplay based on facts, culled by indefatigable Kennedy researcher and autodidact James DiEugenio, who deconstructed two assassination tomes published after the release of “JFK” — Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK” (1993), and Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” (2007). Stone also wanted to assemble all the primary evidence that has been declassified and revealed in the last decades, from the initial Warren Commission Report to subsequent government investigations that undermine many of the Warren Commission’s findings.
“When the 50th anniversary rolled around,” said Stone, “I was depressed that even the networks and print outlets were ignoring alternate theories on the Warren Commission. You’d have thought it was the Bible. It was a cover-up whitewash.”
DiEugenio had read every text about the assassination, Stone said: “He went after everything. The script was wonkish. Rob and I simplified it.” While one could argue with Stone’s choice to add to his own narration the familiar voices of Whoopi Goldberg and Donald Sutherland (who starred in “JFK”), nonetheless the movie makes a persuasive argument against the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory, which had Lee Harvey Oswald fire a “magic bullet” that passed through Kennedy’s body in multiple unlikely locations, and was mysteriously found in an untarnished state. “JFK Revisited” persuasively argues for a conspiracy theory involving multiple players and makes a cohesive case that two rogue arms of government, the FBI and the CIA, both contributed misleading evidence to the Warren Commission, which overlooked evidence that was subsequently unveiled.
And the movie is unabashedly pro-Kennedy. “Kennedy was a true true warrior for peace, he did not want proliferation,” said Stone at the Cannes press conference, “a great American leader. Had he succeeded we would be in a whole different place.” And if the assassination had happened in an age of mobile cameras, the investigation would have gone very differently, too. “But what is the absolute truth? We don’t have it. History itself is up for grabs.”
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Stone sees Kennedy as the last president to question the power of the entrenched and well-funded military industrial complex, the FBI and the CIA — which may explain why he often seems sympathetic to Donald Trump. As far as Stone is concerned, George W. Bush was a much worse president. “He led us into the war on terror,” he said. “The Liberal movement changed after September 11, 2001, became super-patriotic, identifying America as an oppressed nation, because it was attacked by terrorists — as if we hadn’t committed acts of terrorism abroad ourselves. 2001 was a payback for a lot of stuff we’d done.”
Next up: “Starpower,” a clean energy eco-documentary. “I’m looking to global interests,” said Stone. “We have to realize energy is an international issue. A lot of businessmen are progressive when it comes to energy. It’s not political, it’s beyond that. With energy and climate change, we’re looking at the danger of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. It’s crucial we solve that problem by 2050. The Russians and Chinese are doing a lot of work with new energy, and the U.S. is doing it at a smaller level with less government support. I believe that a world of peace and coexistence is more crucial than anything.”
And Stone worries that Netflix algorithms that predict what moviegoers want to see preclude greenlighting the kind of movies that made his career. “I always believe that if you build it they will come,” he said. “I struggled to make my first films, like ‘Salvador.’ I don’t think anyone could question military strategy today like I could in ‘Platoon.’ An algorithm couldn’t predict who would come to ‘Platoon’ or ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ which both took 10 years to make. The film dictates the audience. If it’s good, it brings the audience. Algorithms don’t work that way.”
The director also fears that Americans aren’t getting the full story via their news media, with censorship on the rise. He sees himself being funded by more international outlets than domestic ones. While “JFK Revisited” scored favorable early reviews and strong international sales, North American distribution is still up for grabs. “If this movie is not shown in America,” said Stone, “something is wrong with our system.”