Few accept movie's all-pervasive conspiracy theory

December 23, 1991|By Michael Specter | Michael Specter,New York Times

IN DALLAS, they never doubted the conspiracy. From Harvard Square and Berkeley to the frozen streets of Minneapolis there have always been the buffs, people with models of Dealey Plaza and leather-bound copies of the Warren Commission Report parked in their basements, certain that the full story of who killed President John F. Kennedy has never been -- and maybe never will be -- told.

But for a generation far more likely to connect the words "Single-Bullet Theory" to a mediocre rock band than to the distant death of a president, Oliver Stone's polemical new film "JFK" seems to have unleashed a surprising rage about that November day and all the investigations that followed.

"I guess that hippie guy was right," said Sarah Borenstein, ..TC 29-year-old lawyer from Hartford, Conn., as she left the film on Saturday, the day after it opened. "Never trust anybody over 30. To me, Kennedy was just a drinker and a fraud. I never even knew what he might have done, what they stopped. Why has this been ignored?"

After hundreds of books, dozens of documentaries and thousands of pages of congressional testimony, it would be hard to argue that what many people consider the defining event of mid-20th-century America has been ignored. But to the millions raised after Watergate, whose verities have largely been cinematic, the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone seems too shocking to accept.

Instead, many appear to have succumbed to Stone's Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory -- a gaudy, frenetic fiction about a man who was prevented from delivering peace to the world by a bloodthirsty military-industrial complex that could not stand to yield power.

The CIA, the FBI, Army intelligence, the Mafia, the Dallas police, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Cuba -- all the images linked neatly in a dark celluloid chain. Whatever the merits of "JFK" as a film, it seems to have clearly hit a mark with an audience too young to remember where it was on Nov. 22, 1963.

In discussions over the weekend about the movie and the world view that underlies it, dozens who saw it called it "courageous" and "disturbing."

And whether they regarded John F. Kennedy as the last American nobleman or an overrated icon from a faltering dynasty, many of those under 40 who sat through the three-hour film agreed that it portrayed a crucial moment in history in a way few had considered.

"He was the only shining star that ever crossed the American political sky," said Joe Savino, 36, a Los Angeles screenwriter who was a Catholic school third-grader in New York the day Kennedy was shot. "I think his assassination robbed us of a political opportunity. I was taught that it was Lee Harvey Oswald that did it. Then a lot of people in my generation began to ask questions, first with the Vietnam war, then with Watergate.

"My own common sense tells me something was wrong," he continued, expressing a sentiment shared widely among those who saw the film. "And we know after Watergate and after the past 20 years that our government lies."

Polls have long shown that few Americans of any age readily accept the idea that Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. The film portrays the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison, whose bizarre investigation of the assassination has been widely discredited, as a modern-day Mr. Smith, battling against all odds for a truth that dare not be told.

But the film's vocal critics say that even if a conspiracy existed, Stone's suggestion that the murder was a coup d'etat conducted by generals and perhaps even by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, is ridiculous.

"I don't rule out a conspiracy, but not on that level," said Michael Fleming, a 24-year-old graduate student at Harvard University who was disturbed by Stone's cinematic techniques, which weave often imperceptibly between fact, documentary, fiction and the large gray vistas in the middle.

Many who saw the movie, and acknowledged that they accepted some notion of a conspiracy, said they felt uncomfortable with the scope portrayed.

"How could something so vast and disabling be covered up so completely and for so long?" said Susan Kreuger, 29, as she emerged from a Manhattan theater. "I really think he captured the politics of the time. I feel certain we don't know the full story. But I just don't know how much of his story we can possibly believe."

Part of the problem the film creates for its younger audience is that by presenting fact and fiction as if they were one, it becomes impossible to tell the difference.

The film asserts that Kennedy was "soft on communism," that he would certainly have cut short America's escalating involvement in Vietnam, and it implies that he was killed -- at least in part -- for that.

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