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Oliver Stone on why the U.S. government has been slow to release the JFK assassination files

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Not every filmmaker can boast to inspiring an official act of Congress. But that's what Oliver Stone accomplished thirty years ago when JFK premiered in movie theaters on Dec. 20, 1991. Co-written and directed by the Oscar-winning Platoon helmer and starring Kevin Costner as New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, the movie offered a different explanation for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Drawing on the real life Garrison's own investigation, JFK moves the spotlight off of lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald and points it in the direction of bigger onspiracy that reached into highest levels of the U.S. government and intelligence agencies.

Video transcript

- Y'all got to start thinking on a different level, like the CIA does. Now, we're through the looking glass here, people. White is Black. And Black is white. Just maybe Oswald is exactly what he said he was-- a patsy.

ETHAN ALTER: I think it's safe to say you touched a raw nerve in this country when you made "JFK" in 1991. Were you aware of the ruckus you were about to raise?

OLIVER STONE: No. I thought it would get by. I thought it was a high-tension thriller with a political angle. I didn't realize the turbulence and the emotions that the Kennedy character would bring out. I guess it was a much bigger change in the country going on than I even knew.

I remember the '60s, and it was turbulent. But at the same time, I didn't realize the gravitas, the implications of all the situations he was getting into. He was beginning to change many things. And you can't do that in this country.

And as a result, I saw a bigger picture with all the ruckus, that people really have an objection to him and have an objection to what he was doing. And that's what the reason was.

- So what really happened that day? Let's just for a moment speculate, shall we?

ETHAN ALTER: I think the dialogue of the film holds up so well-- more than anything the Kevin Costner magic bullet speech, which still plays so well now. How many times did you rewrite that and write that? It's your summation, essentially.

OLIVER STONE: It's a good wrap-up. I love speeches like that. You have to make your point because I didn't think I'd make another film. I was just-- because I'd been up and down in my career. And I'd been labeled a terrorist or a rebel. If I'm not going to make another film, I want to get it on one film I want to do right. And it worked.

ETHAN ALTER: It's so interesting to hear Costner as Garrison talk about, when the JFK files come out, I won't be alive to see it. But my son will. And obviously now we're starting to see some of these documents come out. But others-- like President Biden has recently delayed the release of certain documents. Do you expect to see those at any point? What do you think will be in them?

OLIVER STONE: I hope so because what happened as a result of the film was it was a new investigation. They had the power to declassify files. And they had the power to call people back. And that was very important.

From '94 to '98, a lot of people came back and gave testimony that didn't match what was said earlier. And also they called new witnesses. They couldn't get very far. They were academics. And they were blocked by the CIA. And they were blocked by the Secret Service.

It was not the cooperation you'd want. They didn't really want to know who killed him. The CIA never really released anything. They had a lot of files. But they didn't really give it to them. Or else they destroyed them.

I think they're shocked that we were able to piece together from these files that they released-- 60,000 pages or so. I think in fact that's maybe the reason they slowed down the process because Trump said he was going to release them, right? He said, oh, yeah, for sure. And then he backed down.

And now Biden, who's an Irish Catholic for Christ's sake, you'd think he liked Kennedy. He didn't release them. Called it because of COVID, because they realize maybe that there is a serious community, a huge community of researchers and people who care. And they can read documents. And they actually read them and study them.

- You would have felt an army presence in the streets that day. None of this happened. It was a violation of the most basic protection codes we have. And it is the best indication of a massive plot in Dallas.

ETHAN ALTER: I understand that Marlon Brando at one point, you considered him for the Donald Sutherland role, as Mr. X in the film. Did you ever actually meet with him?

OLIVER STONE: Oh, yeah. It was a strange meeting. He was far along in his eccentricity in that. He always was. I enjoyed the meeting very much.

He's a wonderful man. But he was not right for the role because he knew it when he read the material. He just-- he doesn't talk like that. You have to have a pile driver like Donald Sutherland. He's a man who can chew up long dialogues and get them out, spit them out, and make them work.

ETHAN ALTER: In the 30 years since "JFK" came out, it's fair to say that we're in a time where mistrust of the government is potentially higher than it's ever been in this country. What do you think it's going to take to restore trust in government? What steps have to be taken if we can?

OLIVER STONE: It's a very good question. You know, John Kennedy was the last American president who took on the military industrial complex. And he took on the intelligence agencies. That you have to realize. No one has been able to cross that line.

And what annoys me the most is in our dialogue in the air, you don't have anybody, no president who's eloquent about peace and what it means. And we need peace in the world. We don't have-- America is devoted to enemies. But frankly, it's very dangerous, a very dangerous way to exist as a government.

We have to change policy, like, 180 degrees. We have to get along with people. We have a huge battle on climate change ahead of us. And if we could get the Russians and the Chinese to cooperate together, we can really clean up a lot of the carbon dioxide on the planet.

It's a shame that we're narrow minded and we still exist in this World War II ideology-- good guy, bad guy. It's really a dumb country. We're dumb about education. And we don't even have our history right.

You know, I did a series called "The Untold History of the United States" trying to set right some of those myths. The textbook business is controlled by two big publisher states-- Texas and California. They control what you learn. And then on TV, it's sanitized. And on TV's a lot of violence, too. Long-term solutions are education.

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