Why they hate Oliver Stone

By Sam Smith

From the Progressive Review, February 1992

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 of Zion.

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 berserk.

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 conditions.

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 that.

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.

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