Why They Hate Oliver Stone
by Sam Smith
Progressive Review online, February
In a hysterical stampede unusual even
for the media herd, scores of journalists have taken time off
from their regular occupations -- such as boosting the Democrats'
most conservative presidential candidate, extolling free trade
or judging other countries by their progress towards American-style
oligopoly -- to launch an offensive against what is clearly perceived
to be the major internal threat to the Republic: a movie-maker
named Oliver Stone.
Stone, whose alleged crime was the production
of a film called JFK, has been compared to Hitler and Goebbels
and to David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. The movie's thesis has
been declared akin to alleged conspiracies by the Freemasons,
the Bavarian Illuminati, the League of Just Men and the Elders
The film has been described as a "three
hour lie from an intellectual sociopath." Newsweek ran a
cover story headlined: "Why Oliver Stone's New Movie Can't
Be Trusted." Another critic accused Stone of "contemptible
citizenship," which is about as close to an accusation of
treason as the libel laws will permit. Meanwhile, Leslie Gelb,
with best New York Times pomposity, settled for declaring that
the "torments" of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson over
Vietnam "are not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone."
The attack began months before the movie
even appeared, with the leaking of a first draft of the film.
By last June, the film had been excoriated by the Chicago Tribune,
Washington Post, and Time magazine. These critics, at least,
had at least seen something; following the release of the film,
NPR's Cokie Roberts took the remarkable journalistic stance of
refusing to screen it at all because it was so awful.
Well, maybe not so remarkable, because
the overwhelming sense one gets from the critical diatribes is
one of denial, of defense of non-knowledge, of fierce clinging
to a story that even some of the Stone's most vehement antagonists
have to confess, deep in their articles, may not be correct.
Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post,
for example, states seven paragraphs into his commentary:
That the assassination probably encompassed
more than a lone gunman now seems beyond cavil.
If there was more than one gunman, it
follows that there was a conspiracy of some sort and it follows
that the Warren Commission was incorrect. It should follow also
that journalists writing about the Kennedy assassination should
be more interested in what actually did happen than in dismissing
every Warren Commission critic as a paranoid. Yet, from the start,
the media has been a consistent promoter of the thesis that Rosenfeld
now says is wrong beyond cavil.
In fact, not one of the journalistic attacks
on the film that I have seen makes any effort to explain convincingly
what did happen in Dallas that day. They either explicitly or
implicitly defend the Warren Commission or dismiss its inaccuracy
as a mere historic curiosity.
Of course, it is anything but. Americans,
if not the Washington Post, want to know what happened. And after
nearly thirty years of journalistic nonfeasance concerning one
of the major stories of our era, a filmmaker has come forth with
an alternative thesis and the country's establishment has gone
Right or wrong, you've got to hand it
to the guy. Since the 1960s, those trying to stem the evil that
has increasingly seeped into our political system have been not
suppressed so much as ignored. Gary Sick's important new book
on events surrounding the October Surprise, for example, has
not been reviewed by many major publications. The dozens of books
on the subject of the Kennedy assassination, in toto, have received
nowhere near the attention of Stone's effort. For the first time
in two decades, someone has finally caught the establishment's
attention, with a movie that grossed $40 million in the first
three or four weeks and will probably be seen by 50 million Americans
by the time the videotape sales subside.
Further, by early January, Jim Garrison's
own account of the case was at the top of the paperback bestseller
list and Mark Lane's Plausible Denial had made it to number seven
on the hard cover tally. Many of Stone's critics have accused
him of an act of malicious propaganda. In fact, it is part of
the sordid reality of our times that Hollywood is about the only
institution left in our country big and powerful enough to challenge
the influence of state propaganda that controls our lives with
hardly a murmur from the same journalists so incensed by Stone.
Where were these seekers of truth, for example, during the Gulf
Massacre? Even if Stone's depiction were totally false, it would
pale in comparison with the brutal consequences of the government's
easy manipulation of the media during the Iraqi affair.
And, if movies are to be held to the standards
set for JFK, where are the parallel critiques of Gone With the
Wind and a horde of other cinemagraphic myths that are part of
the American consciousness?
No, Stone's crime was not that his movie
presents a myth, but that he had the audacity and power to challenge
the myths of his critics. It is, in the critics' view, the job
of the news media to determine the country's paradigm, to define
our perceptions, to give broad interpretations to major events,
to create the myths which guide our thought and action. It is,
for example, Tom Brokaw and Cokie Roberts who are ordained to
test Democratic candidates on their catechism, not mere members
of the public or even the candidates themselves. It is for the
media to determine which practitioners of violence, such as Henry
Kissinger and Richard Helms, are to be statesmen and which, like
Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, are mere assassins. It
is their privilege to determine which of our politicians have
vision and which are fools, and which illegal or corrupt actions
have been taken in the national interest and which to subvert
that interest. And this right, as Leslie Gelb might put it, is
not to be trifled with by Oliver Stone or anyone else.
Because he dared to step on the mythic
turf of the news media, Stone has accomplished something truly
remarkable that goes far beyond the specific facts of the Kennedy
killing. For whatever errors in his recounting of that tale,
his underlying story tells a grim truth. Stone has not only presented
a detailed, if debatable, thesis for what happened in Dallas
on one day, but a parable of the subsequent thirty years of America's
democratic disintegration. For in these decades one finds repeated
and indisputable evidence -- Watergate, Iran-Contra, BCCI, the
war on drugs, to name just a few -- of major politicians and
intelligence services working in unholy alliance with criminals
and foreign partisans to malevolently affect national policy.
And as late as the 1980s, we have documentation from the Continuity
in Government program that at least some in the Reagan administration
were preparing for a coup d'état under the most ill-defined
It is one of contemporary journalism's
most disastrous conceits that truth can not exist in the absence
of revealed evidence. By accepting the tyranny of the known,
the media inevitably relies on the official version of the truth,
seldom asking the government to prove its case, while demanding
of critics of that official version the most exacting tests of
evidence. Some of this, as in the case, say, of George Will,
is simply ideological disingenuousness. Other is the unconscious
influence of one's caste, well exemplified by Stone critic Chuck
Freund, a onetime alternative journalist whose perceptions changed
almost immediately upon landing a job with the Washington Post,
and who now writes as though he was up for membership in the
Metropolitan Club. But for many journalists it is simply a matter
of a childish faith in known facts as the delimiter of our understanding.
If intelligence means anything, it means
not only the collection of facts, but arranging them into some
sort of pattern of probability so we can understand more than
we actually know.
Thus the elementary school child is inundated
with facts because that is considered all that can be handled
at that point. Facts at this level are neatly arranged and function
as rules to describe a comfortable, reliable world.
Beginning in high school, however, one
starts to take these facts and interpret them and put them together
in new orders and to consider what lots of facts, some of them
contradictory, might mean. In school this is not called paranoia,
nor conspiracy theory, but thought.
Along the way, it is discovered that some
of the facts, a.k.a. rules, that we learned in elementary school
weren't facts. I learned, for example, that despite what Mrs.
Dunn said in 5th grade, Arkansas was not pronounced R-Kansas.
Finally, those who go to college learn
that facts aren't anywhere as much help as we even thought in
high school, for example when we attempt a major paper on what
caused the Civil War.
To deny writers, ordinary citizens or
even filmmakers the right to think beyond the perimeter of the
known and verifiable is to send us back intellectually into a
5th grade world, precise but inaccurate, and -- when applied
to a democracy -- highly dangerous. We have to vote, after all,
without all the facts.
As Benjamin Franklin noted, one need not
understand the law of gravity to know that if a plate falls on
the floor it will break. Similarly, none of us have to know the
full story of the JFK assassination to understand that the official
story simply isn't true.
Oliver Stone has done nothing worse than
to take the available knowledge and assemble it in a way that
seems logical to him. Inevitably, because so many facts are unknown,
the movie must be to some degree myth.
Thus, we are presented with two myths:
Stone's and the official version so assiduously guarded by the
media. One says Kennedy was the victim of forces that constituted
a shadow government; the other says it was just a random event
by an lone individual.
We need not accept either, but of the
two, the Stone version clearly has the edge. The lone gunman
theory, (the brainstorm of Arlen Specter, whose ethical standards
were well displayed during the Thomas hearings) is so weak that
even some of Stone's worst critics won't defend it in the face
of facts such as the nature of the weapon allegedly used (so
unreliable the Italians called it the humanitarian rifle), the
exotic supposed path of the bullet, and Oswald's inexplicably
easy return to the US after defecting to the Soviet Union.
In the end, David Ferrie in the movie
probably said it right: "The fucking shooters don't even
know" who killed JFK. In a well-planned operation it's like
I tend to believe that Stone is right
about the involvement of the right-wing Cubans and the mobs,
that intelligence officials participated at some level, that
Jim Garrison was on to something but that his case failed primarily
because several of his witnesses mysteriously ended up dead,
and that a substantial cover-up took place. I suspect, however,
that the primary motive for the killing was revenge -- either
for a perceived détente with Castro or for JFK's anti-Mafia
moves, and that Stone's Vietnam thesis is overblown. The top
level conspiracy depicted is possible but, at this point, only
that because the case rests on too little -- some strange troop
movements, a telephone network failure and the account of Mr.
X -- who turns out albeit to be Fletcher Prouty, chief of special
operations for the Joint Chiefs at the time.
But we should not begrudge Stone if he
is wrong on any of these points, because he has shown us something
even more important than the Kennedy assassination: an insight
into repeated organized efforts by the few to manipulate for
their own benefit a democracy made too trusting of its invulnerability
by a media that refuses to see and tell what has been going on.
Just as the Soviets needed to confront
the lies of their own history in order to build a new society,
so America must confront the lies of the past thirty years to
move ahead, Stone -- to the fear of those who have participated
in those lies and to the opportunity of all those who suffered
because of them - has helped to make this possible.
Sam Smith page