‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part Five): ‘JFK’ and the Verdict of History

Movie poster for Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ (1991)

Prosecution vs. Persecution

We come now to the final phase of the movie JFK, which involves the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (aka Clay Bertrand) vs. the State of Louisiana. The charge: the plotting and assassination of the United States of America’s 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In this corner, representing the state of Louisiana, we have Parish of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

During the preceding two hours (in the director’s cut of the film), the stage has been set for a courtroom showdown between the very “good” (Garrison and his team of Kennedy loyalists) and the very “bad” (Shaw and his nefarious band of cross-dressers). The “ugly” side of the equation is represented by various participants missing from the proceedings, including the actual perpetrator of the crime, Lee Harvey Oswald; his murderer, nightclub owner Jack Ruby; and a diminishing cast of colorful characters, among them the overexcited David Ferrie, the nervous Jack Martin, the quarrelsome Guy Banister, the mysterious ex-military man known as X, and others.

Before we get into the particulars of the trial itself, let me say a few words about two of the terms used in association with court proceedings of this nature. The terms are “prosecution” and “persecution.” A district attorney such as Garrison, or any attorney who represents the state, county, or municipality, is known as a “prosecutor.” The person (or persons) accused of committing a crime is known as the “defendant” — that is, the individual who is defending him- or herself against an alleged charge. This individual, according to our system of jurisprudence, is allowed another individual to act as defense counsel before, during and after said proceedings.

Although the terms in question sound suspiciously alike — and some people may find them confusing — most individuals have no problem distinguishing prosecution from persecution. The ordinary citizen has a fairly clear idea when he or she is being persecuted. Similarly, and thanks to such television series as Law & Order, Boston Legal, LA Law, CSI and others, one can tell when one is being prosecuted for a crime.

The prosecutor, DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), with wife Lizzie (Sissy Spacek) being grilled by reporters in ‘JFK’

Still, it behooves us to differentiate between these two terms of art for purposes of clarity. Let’s begin with the word “prosecute.” To prosecute someone, in the argot of everyday usage, means “to continue with a course of action with a view to its completion.” Conversely, in legal terminology it can mean “to institute legal proceedings against a person or organization.” According to Black’s Law Dictionary, to prosecute means “To follow up; to carry on an action or other judicial proceeding; to proceed against a person criminally.”

From the verb form “to prosecute,” we move on to its noun configuration: a “prosecution,” then, is “a criminal action; a proceeding instituted and carried on by due course of law, before a competent tribunal, for the purpose of determining the guilt or innocence of a person charged with [a] crime.” Black’s Law Dictionary goes on to explain that “[b]y an easy extension of its meaning ‘prosecution’ is sometimes used to designate the state as the party proceeding in a criminal action, or the prosecutor, or counsel; as when we speak of the ‘the evidence adduced by the prosecution.’”

On the other hand, to “persecute” someone implies a state of mind, or (more sinisterly) the mind of the state. To “persecute” means “to treat someone extremely badly or to refuse them equal rights, especially because of race, religion, or political beliefs” (the Macmillan Dictionary meaning). Merriam-Webster defines the term as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.”

“Persecution,” or the act of persecuting a person, can be defined as “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs.” In our time, the term has been extended to include one’s sexual orientation, place of origin, nationality, or any number of defamatory insinuations based solely on aspects of the individual (or individuals) or an entire race of individuals.

We, the viewer, will be privy to both persecution and prosecution during the remainder of Oliver Stone’s picture.

Mistrial of the Century

DA Garrison (Kevin Costner) demonstrates what occurred at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on the day of JFK’s assassination

Basically, the last 50 minutes or so of the 3 hour and 25 minute director’s cut of JFK devotes itself to the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald — done in absentia, of course, since Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby. Witnesses are called and give testimony, many of who are laughably disreputable (a heroin addict, for instance), and some are actual real-life eye-witnesses who were, according to Stone in his director’s commentary, “natural actors.”

One individual in particular, Charles Spiegel, an accountant from New York, is particularly outlandish. He claims to have attended a 1963 party where Ferrie, Shaw and Oswald discussed plans to assassinate a sitting president. Under cross-examination, Spiegel reveals that his shrink as well as the police conspired to interfere with his thought process, and that he fingerprinted his daughter every time she returned from school to determine if she was really his daughter. Hmm….. There are many such sloppy moments throughout the trial. DA Garrison delivers the opening statement and summation at the end, along with intermittent appearances off and on during the entirety of the proceedings.

There’s also that “dramatic” scene where Garrison’s wife Liz enters the courtroom with their eldest son at the moment when the prosecutor discusses Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film (“Locked away in a vault for the last five years,” he stresses). Garrison had to subpoena TIME-LIFE magazine to release the disturbing footage. Despite the subpoena, it was not the complete version that was shown, however (it was still missing the notorious frame 313, kept secret from the public’s view for twelve years after the assassination). TIME-LIFE had withheld the frame for all that time. Is this a clear case of artistic license? Absolutely!

Garrison explains that Kennedy’s head motion was a neurovascular reaction to the shot fired by Oswald from the Texas Book Depository Building across Dealey Plaza. He goes on to elaborate on the intricacies of the case and the “three bullets involved in the actual shooting.” It is here that the so-called “magic bullet” theory is divulged. Garrison challenges the viewer to follow the bullet’s trajectory, down and over to the right, then up and over to the left. “That’s some bullet!” he muses.

Director Stone inserts a scene between Garrison’s narrative (shot in black-and-white) wherein Jack Ruby places the “magic bullet” on a stretcher. However, no explanation is given for his presence since Ruby was nowhere near the Parkland Hospital in Dallas where Kennedy’s body was taken for analysis. This is pure speculation on the filmmaker’s part. The outcome is that there must have been a fourth shot fired by a second marksman — and, by definition, a veritable conspiracy afoot.

The “magic bullet” theory explained in ‘JFK’

Moving the narrative forward, people claim they heard shots from the infamous grassy knoll; others heard shots (highlighted by a puff of smoke) from behind a picket fence. Concurrently, there was much confusion over the autopsy of JFK’s corpse. Gruesome, shocking photos of the body are intercut with testimony from the doctors who attended or performed the autopsy. In fact, it’s hinted that another autopsy was done in Bethesda, Maryland, and that the CIA (or was it the FBI?) had purposely interfered. It’s been argued, too, for years whether JFK’s throat shot was an exit wound or an entrance wound. It may have been an incision made to allow Kennedy to breathe, but the president was already dead at the time. Garrison states that when they issued a court order to examine Kennedy’s brain in the National Archives, they were told that it had “disappeared”— another “WTF” moment.

Next, Garrison tries to recreate the scene of the crime — with people going about their business. One man went into an epileptic seizure. There was speculation about what was going on, admitted to by Stone himself, which weakens his, and by association, Garrison’s argument immeasurably for his case. If one is driven to speculate about what actually happened, then the facts are being ignored. Could these be “alternative facts”? In other words, one is going from the known variables to the unknown variables, with little to support them outside of those cockamamie ideas.

When It Rains, It Pours: The “Umbrella Man” Theory

We now move into the area of additional shooters and spotters. But this line of reasoning neglects the most basic assumption of the case, which is the press did not release Kennedy’s exact motorcade route until the day before his arrival in Dallas. Travel being what it was in the early 1960s, there was simply not enough time for ALL of the alleged participants (except for Oswald) to be in place to commit their dastardly deeds, as hypothesized by Stone. To further undermine his assertions, there’s a phony shot of the iniquitous “umbrella man,” debunked in its entirety by the documentarian Errol Morris’ six-minute Umbrella Man, with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, one of the earliest critics of the Warren Commission Report on the president’s assassination.

So what was a man in a business suit doing with an umbrella on a warm and sunny November day in Texas? A beloved emblem for conspiracy theorists, the belief is that Umbrella Man may have raised his parasol as a signal to fellow conspirators, or as a covert weapon, i.e., the much talked-about flechette or dart, a “little arrow” shot from the umbrella itself. Ridiculous you say? James Bond spy stuff? Not to those pesky conspiracy theorists. A cottage industry has sprouted as a result of this specious premise.

The mysterious Umbrella Man in Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’

Incidentally, the REAL Umbrella Man was eventually found. He even had a name (which happens to be Louie Steven Witt), when he appeared before the House Assassinations Committee. Witt brought his umbrella to Dealey Plaza, he insisted, in order to protest Kennedy’s visit. The object symbolized the umbrella-carrying British ex-prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, before the outbreak of World War II. Chamberlain was known for his policy of appeasement toward the Nazis in allowing Hitler to take whatever territory he pleased prior to the outbreak of hostilities. All this can be found in Smithsonian’s October 2013 article, “Seeing Zapruder,” by Ron Rosenbaum — enlightening reading, I might add, and a real eye-opener in its meticulous deconstruction of so many loony theories about the Kennedy assassination.

Back to the court: three teams, 10 to 12 men each, and a triangulation of shots from different vantage points. And you think Lee Harvey Oswald was one of these “lone gunmen”? Highly unlikely! So many participants — and they all kept their mouths’ shut for all these years? To the director’s credit, he destroys the theory that the Mob, i.e., the Mafia, had orchestrated a hit on Kennedy. “Nonsense,” Stone stressed in his commentary. “They had no known hits likes this.” It would take an organizational ability the Mob had no way of conducting to pull off a stunt such as a presidential assassination.

Finally, we come to the reconstruction of Kennedy’s killing, masterfully executed (please excuse the unintended pun) and a magnificent piece of cinematic story-telling. It’s totally bogus, of course, and useless as factual history. The juxtaposition of grainy black-and-white film stock (found footage?) with colorful shots of the motorcade are scrupulously edited but add next to nothing to our knowledge of what transpired on November 22, 1963, a date we commemorate today, Thanksgiving Day, with the publishing of this post.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie in the motorcade in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963

Garrison repeats the exact moment that Kennedy’s head is shattered: “Back and to the left, back and to the left.” This is where frame 313 comes in, which, as we stated above, was never shown in public, and certainly not at the Clay Shaw trial. If the frame was released twelve years after the fact, that would make it 1975. Shaw’s trial ended in acquittal: he was arrested on March 1, 1967, went to trial on January 21, 1969, which ended a month later with his “not guilty” verdict. So this spurious frame, while occupying a strategic spot in Stone’s visual conception, was never seen as part of the Zapruder film. Six years after Shaw’s trial, the TIME-LIFE company reluctantly released it. Nice try, Ollie!

But wait! It gets worse! Stone, through Garrison’s voice and figure, takes the audience through the aftermath of JFK’s murder. The various teams (or “hit squads”) quickly disassemble their weapons and flee the scene of the crime, leaving only strategic evidence to “implicate” their patsy Oswald. This left “a mess,” Stone admits, between the Dallas police , the undercover folks, the umbrella man, individuals taken into custody (a roundup of the “usual suspects,” one supposes), phony tramps and hobos, and so on. People at street level claim to have seen two men on the second floor of the Texas Book Depository Building. Inmates on the sixth floor of the Dallas County Jail were all hollering and yelling that they, too, had seen “something.” What that “something” was is never divulged.

Meanwhile, Oswald, according to Garrison, was “nonchalant” about where he was at the time of the shooting. The conjecture regarding Oswald is astounding. It’s tantamount to Stone exonerating the man because he — Stone — has a hard time accepting the fact that Oswald (a man in his early 30s) was capable of running down six flights of stairs, was accosted by a policeman on the first floor, went out the front exit and calmly walked down to the street and into broad daylight, a street teeming with bewildered bystanders at the horrific events of the day.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is mobbed by press and the police

Oswald then goes back to the boarding house where he and his Russian wife Marina were staying. Next, Oswald walks a short distance to the movie theater, where he subsequently shoots Police Officer Tippett dead. Oswald enters the theater (with footage shot in the actual theater) and is arrested. The patsy is apprehended and booked for murder. A few days later, Jack Ruby is allowed access to the police station where during a routine prisoner transfer Ruby shoots Oswald dead in front of the Dallas police and shocked newspaper reporters.

When the Facts Become Legend

As Garrison begins to wrap up his findings, director Stone reveals that he took some of the District Attorney’s speech from the actual court transcripts and from the book, On the Trail of the Assassins, on which the film is based. “National security” is cited as the reason for refusing to release the records in the National Archives regarding the Kennedy assassination. Garrison submits that what took place that day in Dallas was a coup d’état. The warnings of the mysterious “X” have come back to haunt us. “War is the biggest business America has,” Garrison poses. It sure as hell is! And, as Hyman Roth admitted to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, organized crime is “bigger than US Steel,” a dubious honor at best.

Now get ready for this, folks: here comes the conspiracy angle! Garrison blatantly accuses Clay Shaw of being the culprit behind it all. Cold-blooded ex-CIA types, military men, expert sharpshooters, disgruntled Cubans, etc., etc., and so on. They were all in on the plot. Garrison’s gaze is fixed on Shaw who looks forlornly at his accuser with a good deal of skepticism.

Garrison allows his emotions to run away with him. Compare this scene with that of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Except here, we’re not in Washington, D.C., but in “Big Easy” New Orleans. Garrison speaks a line from Tennyson: “Do not forget your king,” meaning “Let not your leader die in vain. Do something to avenge him.” With that, Garrison rests his case. He slumps into his prosecutor’s chair. The judge slams his gavel down on the bench, the verdict is rendered. The judge asks the defendant, Shaw, to rise and the clerk reads the jury’s verdict: “Not guilty.”

Was Clay Shaw prosecuted or persecuted? Was justice served or not by his trial? And was Garrison a hero or a goat for trying Shaw as a conspirator (along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as accessories after the fact)?

From behind, Lizzie Garrison places her right hand on hubby Garrison’s right shoulder (the hands of the “righteous” are extended to one another). Garrison takes it and kisses it. When asked if he will resign his position, Garrison quickly replies, “Hell no. I’m going to run again. And I’m gonna win,” which, in fact, he did.

Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in a scene from the film ‘JFK’, 1991. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Garrison walks down the great hall of the court house. With briefcase in hand, his left arm around his loving wife and their eight-year-old son holding mom’s hand, the camera pulls back and the lights fade on an end scroll:

“In 1979, the director of Covert Operations Richard Helm admitted that Clay Shaw had worked for the CIA. Clay Shaw died in 1974 of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker).

“In 1978, Garrison was elected Judge of the Louisiana State Court of Appeals in New Orleans. He was re-elected in 1988.

“Two million Asians and 58,000 Americans died in Southeast Asia; $220 billion spent, 10 million Americans air-lifted by commercial aircraft, more than 5,000 helicopters lost, six-and-a-half million tons of bombs dropped.”

Congressional investigations from 1976-77 found a “probable conspiracy” in the assassination of JFK. The files of the House Select Committee on Assassinations are locked away “until the year 2029.”

The film JFK ends with a final scroll:

WHAT IS PAST IS PROLOGUE

DEDICATED TO THE YOUNG IN WHOSE SPIRIT

THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH MARCHES ON

An additional blurb also appears (added for the director’s cut):

“As a result of this film, Congress in 1992 passed legislation to appoint a panel to review all files and determine which ones would be made available to the American public.”

The date was set to 25 years later. Finally, on October 26, 2017, the Trump Administration announced the release of classified and unclassified documents in the Kennedy assassination. Unfortunately, the timing was a wee bit premature. Some of the documents still needed to be redacted, so Americans had to wait another six months for the names of informants to be edited out, mostly for fear of reprisals after the fact.

“The Truth,” as we all know, “will set you free.” And, according to Oliver Stone’s JFK, it might even get you killed. On another cinematic occasion, “When the legend becomes fact,” as claimed by the newspaper journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “print the legend.” But when the facts become legend, which of them do you print, the facts or the legend?

On this, the 55th anniversary of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death, Americans are still trying to figure that out.

(To be continued….)      

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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