The documentary “JFK Revisited” is coming to the cinemas: Oliver Stone on his research on November 22, 1963, the deep involvement of the secret service and the far-reaching consequences.
Mr. Stone, what was your experience of the day John F. Kennedy died?
I went to high school and boarding school and reacted like everyone else. We were like sheep, we believed what was said on TV. We went through these three days in shock. Some were just surprised, others mourned. I didn’t have an opinion on it, not until 1980 when I started investigating the case.
It has become part of your life’s work. As a result of your 1991 film “JFK – Tatort Dallas”, a law was passed that shortened the confidentiality of the files to 2017 …
At the time, I was inspired by the work of the first generation of researchers, especially Jim Garrison’s book (“Who shot John F. Kennedy?”, 1988, in German 1992, d. Ed.). Then our film came out with its own research and initiated a third wave of research, the Assassination Records Review Board was set up, which by 1998 released 40,000 files. But when the remaining files were due to be released, Trump was in power and literally changed his mind on the cut-off date – under pressure from the FBI and CIA. Then Biden came along and extended the secrecy for three more years because of Covid – that was his excuse.
Is that the standard excuse now?
“The bullet, the trajectory, the shooter, the rifle – nothing is durable anymore.”
You made the film based on the sources available. Which insights were the most important for you personally?
Most importantly, we were able to disprove any original alleged evidence on which the Warren Commission ruled.
In 1964 she had not even considered that Lee Harvey Oswald could have been innocent or at least not a lone perpetrator …
The bullet, the trajectory, the shooter, the rifle – nothing is durable any longer. We were able to make the Commission itself implausible. There is no record of their own disagreement because everything has been fudged. Three members were not at all convinced by the “magic ball”. Then we examined the Oswald files and proved that he was indeed working with the CIA. On the lower level. He drove to the USSR, came back without being questioned at all. He wasn’t on the sixth floor of the building either. Three witnesses testified they did not see him on the stairs during that minute, but the Warren Commission censored that. He was a scapegoat, no doubt about it. And then the autopsy, it was a joke! A farce! Nothing is right about it. Forty witnesses described a huge hole in Kennedy’s skull, but the autopsy photos do not show it. The autopsy photographer John Stringer testified that he did not even take the film with these pictures.
I am sure you have often asked yourself how this formative decade would have gone on with Kennedy. In Germany in particular, he was revered by many as a man of peace.
He was really a fighter for peace. He had been to Vietnam, stressed Third World concerns, was against the Eisenhower Doctrine. After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he developed a strange friendship with Khrushchev. This resulted in an amazing document, the nuclear test ban. It was a great achievement that he was very proud of. Then he achieved a détente policy with Cuba. He contacted Castro several times, which we now know through the release of the files. We also know that he wanted out of Vietnam. In a document released from a conference in Hawaii, Secretary of Defense McNamara makes it very clear that Kennedy intended to withdraw troops from Vietnam. He wanted to be outside by 1964. McNamara later wrote the same thing in his book, Kennedy Wanted Out, whether with a win or a loss. That’s something. All of this shows us that he wanted to make a big difference, but he couldn’t do that until he was re-elected in 1964. Johnson undone everything he achieved, apart from civil rights. I have the sound recording in the film where Johnson says, “I was always against the trigger.” He catapulted the country back into the Cold War.
You yourself registered as a volunteer in Vietnam in 1967. When did your political awareness develop?
That was in and after Vietnam, because things like that take time. I’ve traveled a lot, met a lot of people, made the Vietnam films, and that raised my awareness, my view of other veterans and what happened over there. Then opening up the file on Kennedy and actually reading it was shocking. It led me to believe that something has gone completely wrong in American society. A coup happened then, a coup that completely changed America’s position in the world. By not going in Kennedy’s direction, we were led into a position of conservatism. Our struggle against communism overshadowed everything, and Kennedy had seen through that.
I recently saw your film “Wall Street” again and unfortunately I have to say it has not aged. What can we do to fight social inequality?
I am not an activist. I got into the Wall Street scene because my father worked there for 30 years. Some people attacked me for being too kind to capitalism, but I’m a capitalist. I think it can work. I’m not a socialist, but I wanted to show the excesses of capitalism in the character of Gordon Gekko. And that got worse, not better.
Where does your interest in political leaders come from, whom you portray again and again in your films?
Although my father was conservative, as a broker he was keenly interested in world affairs. I took over and read the New York Times when I was nine. It never changed, it just deepened. I found that most of the American media is lying to us – it’s a shame how complicit they are with the government.
Can you explain that to me in more detail?
Nobody sponsors anyone to research the Kennedy murder. That just puts you on the back burner, you’re mistaken for a conspiracy theorist. Investigation has no future, it just unearths painful truths. As a journalist, you know that yourself: newspapers don’t like to pay for research that takes forever. Journalism is a luxury that we absolutely need. At least there is good work done on the internet which offers an alternative to the mainstream publications.
However, it was the Washington Post that uncovered Watergate. Are we better or worse today than then?
Watergate was an interesting time. In 1975 the Church Committee was convened to investigate the role of intelligence in the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. This created a need for truth that frightened many government officials. They say it ended under Reagan, but actually under Jimmy Carter. Today we like to see him as a figure of light, but he wasn’t. When he said the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was the most decisive event since World War II, his anti-communist security advisor, Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, spoke to him. Everything Russian was bad. That was the beginning of the new Cold War. And that’s what the Conservatives wanted. Then under Reagan they got the most massive upgrade since World War II. But you asked me about journalism: It was crushed by the concentration of the market in a few large companies. Research became a luxury. That’s why I see the internet as an alternative.
But aren’t social networks like Facebook also breeding grounds for fake news and propaganda?
Conservatives are talking about this all day today, and censorship is becoming a huge issue. But you can’t censor thoughts. The whole campaign against Facebook was ugly. It smelled of censorship.
In this discussion of truth and journalism, I don’t want to forget your role as an artist. “JFK”, “Natural Born Killers” and the new Kennedy documentary work brilliantly with different visual media and the means of montage. As an artist, do you have more freedom than a journalist?
Yes, but the freedoms we have as filmmakers may not be what you imagine. We need money to do these things. Our film about JFK wasn’t funded in the US, but in England. The same goes for my film “Snowden”, where the money came from France and Germany. That was damn hard to come by.
Oliver Stone, born in New York City in 1946, won three Oscars – for the screenplay for “Midnight Express” and as director of the Vietnam films “Platoon” and “Born on July 4th”. Even a veteran of this war, the filmmaker repeatedly deals critically with US history and politics in his work, most recently in the biopic “Snowden”. His historical drama “JFK” (1991) challenged the official account of the events surrounding the Kennedy assassination and led to new investigations and the release of secret documents.
JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, his new documentary, hits theaters on Thursday.
You have portrayed such controversial figures as Fidel Castro, Jassir Arafat, Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin in interview films. It was often concluded that you sympathized with your protagonists …
I am a playwright. I made films about Nixon and George W. Bush. I couldn’t respect any of them. I didn’t like her, but I wanted to empathize with her. It’s the same thing with Putin. I wanted him to express himself, to explain his position. Precisely because you don’t understand him in the USA. I was accused of touching him with kid gloves. The fact is, I got more out of him than anyone.
Which politician you met impressed you the most?
Everyone existed in the context of their society. I was very impressed by Gorbachev, Putin, Castro and Chavez.
You were particularly attacked for “South of the Border”, the film about the Venezuelan President Chávez at the time.
Yes, because the American empire hated him. He was what they call a socialist here, and they don’t like him at all in the governments of other countries. Chavez led a revolution that turned America to the left, seven countries followed suit. He has achieved a lot. Venezuela got a better education system and a better social system. Public health improved dramatically. Like Castro in Cuba, he brought about changes that were good for the people. Capitalists hated him, but they didn’t give him a chance either. The US imperialists have always had a firm hand over Latin America. It is terrible that Bolsonaro came to power in Brazil through a fake election. Lula (da Silva, his predecessor in office, editor) is a great hero for me. He was about to change a lot for Brazil and will continue to do so.
Would you like Julian Assange?
Yes, very much. I know and adore him. This is another horror show. But I don’t want to just live and make films like that. Of course, if I can do a good one, it would be something else.
Do you have contact? You can hear that he suffers greatly from the conditions in which he was detained.
I hear that too. I pray for him, he did well. He’s an adorable person and made the United States look bad.
Do you see anything positive in the current situation in your country? Is Biden a bearer of hope?
There is hope. Biden is of course an old Cold Warrior, he has always been on the Empire’s side. But he’s gotten older and wiser. I like his calm. He’s been attacked for a lot, but after Trump’s noise it’s good to have a quiet president for a change.
Do you think Trump is coming back?
No. But even if he’s a weirdo, he represented a view that was very common in America.
You can just see him in the starting blocks again …
He tries to do that, but he won’t make it.
Interview: Daniel Kothenschulte