Oliver Stone didn’t know that “JFK” would define him as it has when the towering political thriller hit theaters on Dec. 20, 1991. But in short order it proved to be at once a source of great pride for the filmmaker — the kind of achievement only possible on a hot streak like the one Stone was enjoying in the late-’80s and early-’90s — and something of an albatross.
“It was a hot potato from the get-go, much hotter than I thought,” Stone says now, reflecting on the film’s 25th anniversary. “I didn’t realize it would hit the central nerve core of the establishment … And it did take its toll. I think it’s changed the perception of me forever. Many now dismiss me as a filmmaker who is political and only into conspiracy theories. It labeled me and I was staggered. I wish, in a way, it had just died off.”
Pity, because what Stone exhibited with the film — which dramatically posits a massive cover-up of president John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination through the eyes of then-New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison — was a staggering command of visual storytelling. An admirer of director Costa-Gavras’ own 1969 political thriller, “Z,” Stone went into “JFK” wanting to make something analogous, a fractured film where “you look at a crime, you accept the first version of it, the official version, then you look at it again,” he says.
The director worked feverishly with screenwriter Zachary Sklar for the better part of 1990 developing the project, much of it conjured while he was finishing post-production on his rock biopic “The Doors.” Spinning off of tomes like Jim Marrs’ meticulously reported “Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy” and Garrison’s own “On the Trail of the Assassins,” with further inspirations like former U.S. Chief of Special Operations L. Fletcher Prouty (who became the basis for Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic “Mr. X” character), Stone cranked out a script so massive he felt it best to pull back on some of the details in the version he submitted to Warner Bros. for backing.