Fact, Truth, and 'JFK'

IDID not go to Dallas earlier this month to write about the Kennedy assassination. I was there for a newspaper editors' convention, and my Dallas was going to be the one of freeways and a self-contained convention hotel and the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, rather than of downtown streets, the school book depository building, and Love Field. But the Kennedy issue hangs in the air anyway.

President Clinton flew in to address the group, and as we were waiting at our luncheon tables for him to arrive, one of the visiting editors turned to a Dallas colleague and asked, ''When a president comes to Dallas, isn't it always kind of in the back of your mind ...?'' He didn't need to go on.

''No,'' the Dallas man answered. ''It's in the front of your mind.''

The Kennedy issue was very much on people's minds later that day, when filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Richard Reeves considered the question, ''When Journalism, History, and Art Collide, Where Is Truth?'' Both have treated the life of President Kennedy, Reeves in a biography and Stone in his controversial 1991 film ''JFK.''

What is the responsibility of creative writers to treat historical subjects with a historian's sense of documentary accuracy? However you answer, it would be hard to come up with a more challenging test case than a treatment of the Kennedy story, still very much in living memory of the American people, a majority of whom, we are told, do not believe the Warren Commission report finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Stone's film tells the story of how New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, picking up Oswald's trail in New Orleans, investigated what he came to believe was an assassination conspiracy. Anti-Castro Cubans, infuriated that Kennedy had withdrawn support for them after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, did the actual shooting. The Central Intelligence Agency provided logistical support. And Lyndon Johnson was behind it all. His motive? He wanted to reverse Kennedy's apparent decision to withdraw from Vietnam.

Such is the story Stone tells. It makes for gripping cinema. And sordid though it is, it provides an explanation for countless mysteries in the record.

But is it true? And isn't it a ''blood libel,'' as one of the editors put it to Stone, against President Johnson? Stone responded that he thought LBJ was guilty of a coverup, of bad faith regarding the Warren Commission.

The movie goes further, explicitly identifying Johnson as the one who stood to gain most from Kennedy's death. The editor mentioned some high schoolers who had seen the movie and felt that it left no doubt Johnson was responsible for Kennedy's death.

Stone defends his historical research, but maybe he needs to be more clearly on the side of fact or fiction. Questions of truth vs. fact seem to come up in films far more often than in, say, historical novels. This has to do partly with the size and nature of the audience for a movie rather than a book, but also with the nature of word vs. image. A wordsmith can report others' words within quotation marks, at arms' length. There are no quote marks for pictures. The way to show something that might have happened is simply to show it happening.

Moreover, ''JFK'' is a sometimes confusing melange of Stone's footage intercut with historic footage, in color and in black and white, as well as black-and-white internal flashbacks. Although I am professionally in Reeves's camp, arguing to get the facts as straight as we can get them, I also want to allow creative writers the opportunity to explore possibilities, to seek out psychological truths rather than historical facts. It troubles me that frankly fictionalized entertainments, especially films, are being expected to do the work of serious histories and documentaries.

But then I think of those high schoolers who believe that Lyndon Johnson murdered his predecessor.

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