Thirty years after his Oscar-winning political thriller 'JFK,' the director discusses why he’s returning to the subject with documentary 'JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass,' which premieres in Cannes, and why he’s working exclusively in the doc space now.
This article was originally published in "The Hollywood Reporter."
It was 30 years ago this year that Oliver Stone unleashed his epic political thriller JFK to the masses, a film that sparked immediate controversy in response to the director’s thesis that the assassination of the titular president was part of a sprawling, premeditated coup d’etat.
Despite the naysayers, the Warner Bros. film became a surprise hit, earning $205 million worldwide and eight Oscar nominations. More importantly to Stone, it prompted Congress to pass the JFK Records Act, which established that assassination documents be publicly disclosed no later October 26, 2017. Former President Trump vowed to release the remaining documents, but then inexplicably reversed course.
Still, Stone has amassed enough material to return to the the subject with the documentary JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass. The film, which is being sold by Altitude, will make its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
The two-time Oscar-winning best director sat down with THR for a Zoom interview from his home in Los Angeles to talk about a New York dinner with the late JFK Jr. and why he’s working exclusively in the documentary space now.
Why did you decide to revisit this subject? We started this about two to three years ago. And there were a hell of a lot of details that were put out [because of the JFK Records Act], and they were not reported on. There’s a memory hole about Kennedy. And I think, before I quit the scene, I would like to reveal what I know about the case. I can’t put everything I know into this documentary. But I can assemble a lot of the facts that came out after the movie [1991’s JFK] as well as reaffirm some of the facts in that movie because it was attacked on a broad scale. It’s very important for my conscience for the people who care to have this exist. That’s what motivated the documentary. We got the documents out. Not all. Trump was about to release them in 2017. And 12 hours before, he backed off. There’s a lot of documentation that hasn’t been released, and that’s in addition to the Secret Service, which fucked up unusually on that day and [later] destroyed everything.
Why do you think Trump backed down? Who knows what Trump ever thinks. He’s a mystery man. I’m sure he got pressure of some kind. And then they told him, “We can’t do this for security reasons.” He did back off other things, too, when it came to us challenging the intelligence agencies. Remember that quote from [Sen. Chuck] Schumer? “Trump, don’t fuck with the CIA or they will destroy you.”
Why is the assassination still resonant to a new generation? It’s very important to this younger generation because the country seems to be adrift. We’ve lost a sense of what we are as a country, and there’s been a tremendous amount of racial division. You have to equate this to 1963. There was a motive to kill Kennedy. He was changing things too much. He was a reformer. He was going to break up the CIA into a thousand pieces. Kennedy was pulling out of Vietnam and was looking for detente with Russia, making peace with Cuba. These things were denied by many historians. Not all the serious historians are really looking [now] at the documentation. And there’s plenty of it. We don’t have time to go into everything. But we’re going to release a four-hour version of [the documentary] as well.
Did you feel a certain amount of freedom in doing this documentary now that Jackie Kennedy is no longer alive and may have objected to the assassination footage?
No. We never heard from Jackie on this issue. She wrote me a beautiful letter on Platoon. She loved Platoon and thought it was a major piece of work, like an American institution. And she asked me to come visit her and [to reach out] if I ever wanted to write a book. She was working in one of the publishing houses. I think JFK shocked the family. I know that Teddy Kennedy didn’t want to see it. Robert was dead. But according to his son, the moment [JFK] was killed, [Robert] called up the CIA and said, “Did you do it?” They knew that the Russians had not assassinated Kennedy. And then they basically hinted very strongly that it was a right-wing movement in the United States that got him killed. And Robert had no power after [Lyndon] Johnson took over. Johnson cut his balls off.
And did you ever talk to John F. Kennedy Jr. after the film? I met with John and worked with him on George magazine. I wrote a couple of articles. And then I had dinner with him one night in New York, and he was a very nice, charming young man. I saw him at the time as a bit scared of this whole thing because he didn’t have political power. And for him to come out there as a potential presidential candidate and say something [about his father’s assassination] would have been [problematic]. But he had suspicions. Why else would he ask me to dinner and ask me what I thought and this and that. I saw him as a Hamlet. Hamlet feels that something’s wrong, but he can’t act.
Are you working exclusively in documentaries now? Unfortunately, yes. But it’s very satisfying. I’ve been working for almost a year now on a nuclear energy documentary. And the movie business has kind of died. It’s not really alive, is it? I don’t think JFK would be made by a major studio today. But we’re getting a good response on this documentary from Altitude. They’re very keen on it. And that’s the reason I’m going to come to Cannes to show JFK at a Sunday night beach screening. And then we’ll show the documentary.