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COLUMN RIGHT/ TOM BETHELL : Reality Check for Another Movie Myth : In 'JFK,' Oliver Stone's imagination trashes the truth.

December 01, 1991|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is Washington correspondent of the American Spectator

Oliver Stone's new movie about the Kennedy assassination, "JFK," scheduled for pre-Christmas release, has already received plenty of attention. It is bound to be controversial, as I can attest from my knowledge of some of the events described.

The hero is Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. The real Jim Garrison conducted a weird investigation of the assassination 25 years ago, when he was district attorney of New Orleans. I was employed by Garrison as a researcher on the case. Mort Sahl, the satirist, also had credentials issued by the D.A.'s office. A funny movie could truthfully be made about Garrison's investigation, but that would hardly be Stone's style. By all accounts, he has transposed Garrison into a familiar stereotype much admired in Hollywood: the solitary official who heroically pursues the truth against powerful, shadowy forces.

Garrison's investigation might have been harmless enough if only he had not charged an innocent man, Clay Shaw, with conspiring to kill the President. Shaw was acquitted by a jury that deliberated for less than an hour, but his reputation was not enhanced by the ordeal of being charged with the crime of the century. D.A.s have a lot of power, of the nonshadowy sort.

One of the main witnesses against Shaw was a normal-seeming accountant who said that, at a party in New Orleans, he heard Shaw and Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, discussing shooting the President. The accountant, it turned out, had also fingerprinted his own children (just in case the government had substituted dead-ringers in the middle of the night), and he believed that he had been repeatedly hypnotized against his will. Before the trial, I took it upon myself to give one of Shaw's lawyers a memo listing the names and addresses of the witnesses who were to testify against Shaw. This enabled the defense to discover (just in time) the accountant's odd background and to bring it out at the trial.

As a result of Stone's movie, more people than ever are likely to disbelieve the Warren Commission's "lone gunman" conclusion. This doesn't bother me. There are valid reasons to suspect that there may have been another gunman. Oswald was behind the President, but an amateur movie made at the scene shows that Kennedy was flung violently backward by the shot that killed him. I am told that this film has been incorporated into Stone's, and that the Dealey Plaza scene in Dallas has been brilliantly reconstructed.

Still, it's important that a distinction be drawn between doubting the Warren Commission (incidentally, Garrison plays Chief Justice Earl Warren ) and believing the scriptwriter's Garrison. Many students of the assassination are concerned that glamorizing someone as reckless as Garrison might undermine legitimate skepticism about the official findings.

Stone seems nonchalant about all this. In a recent Esquire article, Robert Sam Anson quotes him as saying that Garrison's attempt to "force a break in the case" was "worth the sacrifice of one man (Clay Shaw)." Stone added: "When they went onto the shores of Omaha Beach, they said, 'We're going to lose five, ten, fifteen thousand people to reach our objective.' I think Jim was in that kind of situation."

It's curious, incidentally, that Stone should identify with military commanders willing to sacrifice their soldiers' lives. Such figures tend to be villains in his movies. Stone actually admires power in the abstract. He told Penthouse that he had no hope for politics because by the time you get elected, you have "made so many bargains that you don't have any power."

At the same time, Stone is immensely suspicious of government power. And rightly so. In particular he is right to be suspicious of the kind of power exercised over citizens when governments appeal to patriotic sentiments when going to war. But, like so many on the left, he seems incapable of understanding that the only antidote to such power is a steadfast and principled resistance to its encroachment, not admiration for its expansion when exercised (as by Garrison against Shaw) in order to promote noble-seeming goals.

Stone's position seems to be that good ends do justify dubious means--provided those ends are defined by a high-minded elite. I knew Garrison quite well, and I'm sure he was, like almost everyone else one has ever met, well-intentioned. No doubt he had persuaded himself that Clay Shaw was guilty as charged. But meaning well is no defense. Garrison, when I knew him was, amusing, charming and well-read, but also dangerous, because he had a cavalier and completely irresponsible attitude toward power. I hate to end up sounding like a liberal, but it's a good thing the media kept an eye on him as they did.

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