RARELY does a motion picture ignite the kind of controversy that has blazed around "JFK," director Oliver Stone's interpretation of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
The commotion began months before the film was even completed, when the press got hold of the script. Since the movie was released last month, the furor has raged in the media.
With the intensity and pyrotechnical imagery that characterized his earlier movies like "Platoon,Born on the Fourth of July," and "Wall Street," Mr. Stone assays to debunk the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering Kennedy. The film succeeds in mapping the deficiencies, inconsistencies, and unanswered questions of the Warren Commission's report, and in reviving reasonable concerns that the full truth about the assassination remains hidden.
Stone doesn't stop there, however. He hypothesizes the existence of a massive conspiracy involving the CIA, the FBI, the American military, arms merchants, and perhaps even Lyndon Johnson to kill Kennedy. Why? Because Kennedy ostensibly was "soft on communism" and planned to withdraw from Vietnam. (Stone's earlier movies manifested a '60s political sensibility, but in this film he does everything but spell America with a "k.")
Stone has been roundly criticized from many quarters, both for the audacity of his speculation, for which little hard evidence exists, and for the loose - though cinematically dazzling - way in which he weaves together real and dramatized film footage, factoids, suppositions, and outright fabrications without disclaimers. Many other makers of "docudramas" have been more conscientious than Stone in acknowledging that their works contained fictional elements.
Journalists and scholars will go on debating the plausibility of Stone's thesis and the truth of his underlying premise that John Kennedy had become a "dangerous" crusader for peace.
Beyond the factual debate, Stone's ambitious movie also raises important questions about his methodology and the historical process. Among them: Is film - especially commercial, mass-market movies like "JFK a proper medium for exploring complex historical issues? Doubters have noted that movies, with their visual impact, affect audiences on a more visceral level than do printed works; that canny image wielders can manipulate facts in ways that few viewers are trained to detect; and that the absence of id entified sources and footnotes makes it hard to hold filmmakers accountable for their versions of "truth."
Certainly these are legitimate concerns. Yet some of the condemnation of Stone's methodology seems a bit patronizing, especially the suggestion that younger viewers, lacking historical perspective, are putty in the hands of wily filmmakers. Most young movie-goers are too intelligent and discriminating to be readily manipulated.
Moreover, the very reaction to "JFK" demonstrates that movies don't beam forth into an intellectual and cultural vacuum. Oliver Stone stirred up a hornets' nest, and is indeed being held accountable for his views and tactics.
Movies have strengths as well as weaknesses. Their contribution to the search for historical truth should be evaluated individually, not according to blanket theories about intellectual merit.