Factual Errors in Oliver Stone's JFK?

More About Oliver Stone’s Controversial Film

This is a continuation of the previous article, How Accurate is Oliver Stone’s JFK?, which discusses the film’s treatment of the main issues in the JFK assassination, including the single–bullet theory.

The film attracted a remarkable amount of criticism in the media. Some of the criticism was valid, and pointed to factual errors of one type or another. Some criticism dealt with evidence that could reasonably be interpreted in more than one way, and some criticism was unfounded. In several cases, what were alleged to be factual errors were merely examples of dramatic licence.

References to Scenes in the Film

When a scene is identified in the following text, a reference is given to the page number in the version of the screenplay included in Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film, Applause Books, 1992. Because several versions of the film exist, it is not feasible to identify scenes by timings or scene numbers. Stone and Sklar’s book contains many examples of the criticism directed at the film.

JFK’s Use of Unreliable Witnesses

Some of the strongest criticisms of the film pointed to its use of three supposedly unreliable witnesses:

Julia Ann Mercer

Julia Ann Mercer (pp.117f; played by Jo Anderson) describes seeing a man who matched Jack Ruby’s description helping to deliver a rifle to the grassy knoll shortly before the assassination. This is contrary to Mercer’s original statements, in which she is unable to identify the man. Mercer herself claimed in a later interview that those statements did not reflect her actual evidence, and that the man was indeed Ruby.

For details of Julia Ann Mercer’s evidence and credibility, see Was Jack Ruby Involved in the JFK Assassination?.

Beverly Oliver

A character named Beverly (pp.119ff; played by Lolita Davidovich) describes being introduced to Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Gary Oldman) by Jack Ruby (played by Brian Doyle–Murray) in a Dallas night club. Although several other people have claimed that Ruby and Oswald had known each other (see Jim Marrs, Crossfire: the Plot that Killed Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp.402–414), there is no corroboration for the episode in the film, which is based on a remarkably implausible account by a woman named Beverly Oliver, who claimed that the incident occurred in Ruby’s Carousel Club, and that Ruby described Oswald to her as a member of the CIA. Even if the incident in the night club occurred, and even if Oswald was a member of the CIA, and even if Ruby had known this fact, it is hardly likely that he would have mentioned it to a seventeen–year–old singer in a night club.

Beverly Oliver also claimed to have been the unidentified woman in a headscarf who is visible in several photographs, apparently filming President Kennedy as he was shot in the head a short distance away. Unfortunately, the camera that Beverly Oliver claimed to have used did not become available until more than three years after the assassination. For more about her claims and her dubious credibility, see http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/oliver.htm.

Jean Hill

Jean Hill (pp.122ff; played by Ellen McElduff) was even closer than the woman in the headscarf to JFK at the moment of the fatal shot. In the film, she claims that she heard between four and six shots, and saw a man running away from the fence on the grassy knoll, which reflects her Warren Commission testimony (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.6, p.218). In her statement on the day of the assassination, she mentioned “the first two shots … and three or four more shots” and that she “saw a man running toward the monument” rather than away from the fence (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.212 [Commission Exhibit 2003, p.31]).

Jean Hill’s story of the running man is supported by another witness, J.C. Price (ibid., p.222 [Commission Exhibit 2003, p.52]). Arnold Rowland reported the same story second–hand (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.181). Paul Landis, a Secret Service agent in the car behind President Kennedy, described what Jean Hill had probably seen: a man running up the steps to the top of the grassy knoll (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.18, p.755). Of the three men who had been standing on the steps during the assassination, only one, Emmett Hudson, was identified. Photographs show that the unknown man who ran up the steps was merely a spectator. In the film, Jean Hill identifies the man as Jack Ruby, for which there is no credible corroboration.

The film also dramatises her allegation that she was threatened both by unidentified agents immediately after the assassination and by the attorney who interviewed her on behalf of the Warren Commission. She was not the only witness who claimed that official investigators were unsympathetic to evidence that contradicted the lone–nut hypothesis. Perhaps Jean Hill’s account was utilised to represent such experiences. The specific incidents she described do provide entertaining cinema, but they have no independent corroboration.

JFK’s use of Jean Hill’s evidence illustrates one of the ways in which the film undermined its own credibility. Media commentators pointed to this episode as a specific example of the film’s lack of concern for historical accuracy. An audience without specialist knowledge of the assassination might be tempted to wonder how much else was untrustworthy.

Witnesses to Shots from the Grassy Knoll

Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) claims that “fifty–one witnesses, gentlemen of the jury, thought they heard shots coming from the Grassy Knoll” (p.153). Critics claim the number is far less. The numbers vary because some witnesses were vague and others were inconsistent. See JFK Assassinaton Grassy Knoll Witnesses for a list of about 40 incontrovertible accounts, with another dozen or so that could be taken as evidence of shots from that area.

If anything, the highest number may well be an underestimate. Many of those who gave official statements appear not to have been asked about the direction of the shots. A large majority of the witnesses in Dealey Plaza were never identified, let alone interviewed.

The Smoke on the Grassy Knoll

Critics pointed out that in the scene with smoke rising from behind the grassy knoll (p.30), the smoke was produced by a special effects team, not by a rifle. This objection is intended to provoke doubt in the several grassy knoll witnesses who testified that they had seen smoke or smelled gunpowder on the grassy knoll during the assassination.

Lee Bowers

The film shows Lee Bowers (played by Pruitt Taylor Vince) testifying before the Warren Commission that he saw “a flash of light or smoke” close to the fence on the grassy knoll (p.30). He actually said this in a filmed interview with Mark Lane.

Bowers’ account is less informative than it is often made out to be, but this is partly due to the way he was questioned. Like a large majority of the witnesses who gave evidence before the Warren Commission, Lee Bowers was interviewed by one staff attorney, in his case Joseph Ball, in the presence of a stenographer. None of the Warren Commissioners themselves attended. Bowers was not the only witness who probably could have shed light on important aspects of the assassination, but whose questioning was at the mercy of one attorney’s lack of interest in what he had to say.

For a discussion of Lee Bowers’ evidence, see JFK Assassinaton Grassy Knoll Witnesses.

Oliver Stone’s JFK and the Zapruder Film

Garrison alleges that the Zapruder film “has been kept locked in a vault in the Time–Life building in New York City for the last five years” (p.151). Critics objected, claiming that Life magazine had published most of the relevant frames as still images, and had made them available for inclusion in the Warren Report. The reproductions, however, were of a relatively poor quality. More importantly, the film had never been viewed in public as a movie. Time–Life, which dealt only in magazines, refused several lucrative offers to allow the film to be shown.

Time–Life and the Zapruder Film

Time–Life’s reluctance to exploit its commercial rights to the Zapruder film can only plausibly be explained as an attempt to conceal from the public the evidence contained within the film, in particular the fatal shot that sent President Kennedy’s head “back and to the left”, in Jim Garrison’s famous phrase (p.165), which provides prima facie evidence of a shot from the front. The decision to purchase all rights to the film was made by C.D. Jackson, Life’s publisher. For more about Jackson, see Carl Bernstein, ‘CIA and the Media,’ Rolling Stone, 20 October 1977, p.63.

For a history of the Zapruder film and an account of Time–Life’s denial of access to it, as well as other issues raised by the film, see David Wrone, The Zapruder Film: Reframing JFK’s Assassination, University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Effects of the Zapruder Film Evidence

As a result of Jim Garrison’s subpoena of the Zapruder film for the Clay Shaw trial, bootleg copies began to circulate. One of these bootlegs was shown by Robert Groden on a national television program, and helped to generate the popular pressure that resulted in the creation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. The showing of the Zapruder film in JFK in turn helped to create the Assassination Records Review Board. Robert Groden, incidentally, played the projectionist who shows the Zapruder film in the courtroom scene, as well as a couple of other non–speaking roles.

Nitrate Tests on Oswald’s Hands and Face

The film takes just two sentences to deal with the question of the paraffin tests carried out on Oswald by the Dallas police: “Maybe Oswald didn’t even pull the trigger, Bill. The nitrate tests indicate he didn’t even fire a rifle on November 22nd” (p.57).

Paraffin Tests on Oswald’s Hands and Cheek

Lee Harvey Oswald’s paraffin tests showed that nitrates were present on Oswald’s hands, but not on his right cheek. These chemicals are present in gunpowder residues, but are also present in several common substances, such as printing ink. Oswald had spent about four hours handling books that morning. If the test results were accurate, the absence of nitrates on his cheek would strongly suggest that he had not fired a rifle.

Critics correctly pointed out that the spectrographic tests carried out by the Dallas police laboratory were unreliable. Not only does a positive result not necessarily indicate the presence of gunpowder residues, but a negative result may simply mean that the test is insufficiently incisive to detect the presence of such residues.

Neutron Activation Analysis

The results of the tests were, however, confirmed by the results of a much more precise test, neutron activation analysis:

  • Oswald’s hands again showed the presence of barium and antimony, which are found in gunpowder residues and other substances.
  • Oswald’s right cheek showed no incriminating quantities of barium or antimony, which proved that there were no gunpowder residues on his cheek.
  • A controlled test showed that the type of rifle Oswald was supposed to have used would certainly have left such traces on a gunman’s cheek.

Neutron activation analysis proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald had not fired a rifle on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. This information was available at the time Oliver Stone made JFK, but had not been widely publicised.

The Mannlicher Carcano Rifle

Objections were raised to the apparently sinister fact that the Dallas police had not tested the rifle to see whether it had been fired recently:

Jim :
Maybe Oswald didn’t even pull the trigger, Bill. The nitrate test indicates he didn’t even fire a rifle on November 22nd. And on top of that, they didn’t even bother to check if the rifle had been fired that day.
Bill :
He had his palm print on the weapon.
Jim :
It went to the goddamn FBI and they didn’t find a goddamn thing. It comes back a week later and one guy in the Dallas police department suddenly finds a palm print which for all I know they could have taken off Oswald in the morgue.


The objection is that in 1963 no test existed that could determine whether or not a rifle had recently been fired. Robert Frazier, the FBI’s weapons expert, implies that such a test did exist, even though “I did not examine it for that” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.395).

The FBI did visit Oswald’s body in the mortuary, and they did bring the rifle with them, but there is no evidence that anything untoward occurred. For more about Oswald’s prints, see Did Oswald Leave Any Fingerprints?.

Records of Oswald’s Interrogation

Garrison claims that Oswald was “interrogated for twelve hours after the assassination, with no lawyer present, and nobody recorded a word of it” (p.26). Critics correctly point out that reports were written by several of the 25 or more people who questioned Oswald, but usually fail to deal with the more important issues:

  • no official transcripts or recordings appear to have been made;
  • the surviving records describe only a small part of Oswald’s twelve hours of interrogation.

A plan of the third floor of the Dallas police headquarters shows a room labelled as ‘Recording Room’, just across the corridor from the room in which Oswald was first questioned (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.24, p.848 [Commission Exhibit 2175]). The lack of public trust in the completeness and truthfulness of the official record is due in part to the Dallas Police Department’s apparent inability, in a crime as serious as the murder of a president, to obtain either a tape recorder or the services of a shorthand secretary during the two days between Oswald’s arrest and his murder while in police custody.

The Men Laying the Floor

Garrison states that “they were refurbishing the floors in the Depository that week, which allowed unknown workmen in and out of the building” (p.162). The film includes a speculative scene in which Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby and several Cubans discuss getting access to the Texas School Book Depository (pp.134f). Oswald offers to smuggle a group up to the sixth floor, and Ruby suggests they disguise themselves as “a floor refurbishing group”. In fact, all the men who were replacing the boards on the sixth floor on the morning of the assassination were employees of the TSBD.

It is, however, not impossible that one or more conspirators could have entered the building unnoticed shortly before the assassination: it was common for non–employees to come and go within the building; there were several rear entrances, all unlocked and unguarded; and the majority of the employees had started to leave the building from about mid–day onwards.

Oswald’s Debate with Carlos Bringuier

The film claims that “Oswald appears on a local TV debate” in New Orleans with an anti–Castro activist, Carlos Bringuier (p.36; played by Tony Plana). Critics point out correctly that the debate was actually on the radio, not the television. The debate is noteworthy for two reasons:

  • it enabled Oswald to build a public image of himself as a communist, which, together with Oswald’s impersonation in Mexico City, helped to incriminate him after the assassination;
  • and Oswald appears to let slip that he had been working undercover while in the Soviet Union.

For Oswald’s pro– and anti–Castro activities in New Orleans, see The Career of Lee Harvey Oswald. Recordings of Oswald’s radio appearances survive, and can be found at http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Audio_-_Other.

Oswald’s ‘Hands Off Cuba!’ Leaflets

Oswald got into an argument with Bringuier on the streets of New Orleans when handing out pro–Castro ‘Hands Off Cuba!’ leaflets (p.35). In JFK, Oswald is seen printing the leaflets. In fact, the leaflets were produced by the Jones Printing Company of 422 Girod Street, New Orleans, situated opposite the side entrance to the William B. Reily Coffee Company in Magazine Street, where Oswald was working at the time (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.25, p.773 [Commission Exhibit 2548]).

Interestingly, one fact that does not appear in the film and is not mentioned by its critics is that the leaflets were ordered and collected by someone using the name Lee Osborne, who did not look like Lee Harvey Oswald, according to two members of the printing company:

Dr Pierre Finck

The film shows Jim Garrison questioning Dr Pierre Finck (played by Peter Maloney), one of the pathologists who had participated in President Kennedy’s autopsy, during the Clay Shaw trial in New Orleans (pp.158f). The questioning was actually done by Alvin Oser.

Although the episode is a trivial example of dramatic licence, it serves to illustrate one of the most informative parts of the Clay Shaw trial: Dr Finck’s admission that the high–ranking military officers who controlled President Kennedy’s autopsy had forbidden the pathologists to dissect JFK’s back and throat wounds, a basic procedure that almost certainly would have determined whether or not both wounds had been caused by one bullet.

Parkland Hospital Doctors in New Orleans

Two of the doctors who had treated President Kennedy at Parkland Hospital are shown testifying at the Clay Shaw trial (pp.155f). In fact, none of the Parkland doctors appeared in New Orleans.

The film uses the words of Dr Paul Peters (played by I.D. Brickman) and Dr Robert McClelland (played by Joseph Nadell) from interviews by David Lifton and Robert Groden, respectively. The words attributed to the doctors appear to be genuine, and are consistent with their written statements on the afternoon of the assassination, which can be found at Warren Commission Hearings, vol.17, pp.1–22 (Commission Exhibit 392).

The Umbrella Man in Dealey Plaza

One of the earliest conspiracy theories had claimed that the man who is seen raising and lowering an open umbrella during the shooting was in fact using the device to fire a missile of some kind at President Kennedy. As implausible as it sounds, such a device had been developed by the CIA for use against Fidel Castro, and in the film JFK it is mentioned in that context by David Ferrie (p.69; played by Joe Pesci).

Was the Umbrella a Signal?

The film includes an implausible piece of speculation about the ‘umbrella man’. Jim Garrison explains that “the umbrella man is signalling ‘He’s not dead. Keep shooting’” (p.165). Waving an umbrella in the air would be an unnecessary and impractical way to communicate with a gunman who is presumably looking at his target through a telescopic sight.

Louie Steven Witt, the Umbrella Man

The House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 1970s put out a call for the ‘umbrella man’ to come forward. Louie Steven Witt claimed to be the man. His explanation was marginally more credible than the James Bond–like poisoned dart theory. Mr Witt was using his umbrella to signal not to a gunman, but to JFK:

Mr Fauntroy :
I wonder if you would care to tell us a little more about your understanding of the significance of the umbrella, and why you felt that it would heckle the President to raise the umbrella?
Mr Witt :
I know the generalities of the thing. It had something to do with the — when the senior Mr Kennedy was Ambassador to England, and the Prime Minister, some activity they had had in appeasing Hitler. The umbrella that the Prime Minister of England came back with got to be a symbol in some manner of the British people. By association, it got transferred to the Kennedy family, and, as I understood, it was a sore spot with the Kennedy family. …
Mr Fauntroy :
Is it true that what you felt was that Mr Kennedy would be sensitive because of the appeasement image of the umbrella as related to his father?
Mr Witt :
Not the appeasement thing. It was just — excuse me — I just understood that it was sort of a sore spot with them. …
Mr Fauntroy :
I see. And it had no relationship in your own thinking between Mr Kennedy’s posture with, say, the Russians?
Mr Witt :
No. No. No. That was not it at all.

(HSCA Report, appendix vol.4, p.439)

The Route of the Motorcade

Two accusations are that the film suggests that Earle Cabell, the mayor of Dallas and brother of the deputy director of the CIA, changed the route of the motorcade in order to enable the conspiracy to take place, and that the route was changed at the last minute. The film does claim that “they changed the route” (p.128), but does not claim that the change was done at the last minute. Earle Cabell is mentioned in passing, along with the Secret Service, the organisation which did in fact play the largest part in deciding the route.

The Three Tramps in Dealey Plaza

Garrison’s assistant, Lou Ivon (played by Jay O. Sanders) implies something sinister in the fact that three men were led by police past the Texas School Book Depository at a little after 2pm on the day of the assassination (p.44; repeated by Garrison in the courtroom scene, p.167). He points out that the men had been described as tramps, but looked relatively clean and well–presented, and that no records existed of their arrest.

The unstated assumption was that the men had been involved in the assassination, and that perhaps the Dallas police were helping them to flee the scene of the crime. Critics of the film pointed out that the sinister interpretation was merely supposition.

Shortly after JFK was released, the tramps’ police records turned up. The men were indeed tramps, and there was nothing suspicious about their presence in Dealey Plaza. For more information, see Who Were the Three Tramps in Dealey Plaza?.

Oswald’s Note to the FBI

Garrison discusses the note that Oswald delivered to the FBI a couple of weeks before the assassination: “this is just speculation, people, but what if the note was describing the assassination attempt on JFK?” (p.133). Critics have pointed out that there is no justification for this speculation, which is true. The incident refers to the rumour that Oswald was an FBI agent or informer.

‘Susie Cox’, Assistant District Attorney

In the film, one of the assistant district attorneys is a woman, ‘Susie Cox’ (played by Laurie Metcalf). In reality, Garrison’s assistants were all men. Criticising the film for this obvious piece of dramatic licence is rather like finding fault with Hamlet because the characters are speaking English rather than Danish.

Clay Shaw’s Role in the JFK Assassination

The main plot device in the film is the investigation and trial of the New Orleans businessman, Clay Shaw (played by Tommy Lee Jones). Shaw had a relatively minor connection to the CIA (see this CIA document [NARA RIF no. 1993.08.20.14:24:25:620028]), and may have known individuals such as Guy Banister (played by Ed Asner), with whom Oswald appears to have worked in New Orleans. JFK was criticised for repeating Garrison’s charges against a man who was found not guilty.

Although the film raises the possibility that Shaw had played a significant role in the assassination, it does also quote the foreman (played by Loys Bergoron) of the jury that acquitted Shaw: “We believe there was a conspiracy, but whether Clay Shaw was a part of it is another kettle of fish” (p.179).

Willie O’Keefe

It was correctly alleged that the character Willie O’Keefe (played by Kevin Bacon) did not exist. He is a composite of four witnesses to Clay Shaw’s life in New Orleans: Raymond Broshears, David Logan, William Morris and Perry Russo. Like several others whose characters appear in JFK, Russo played a minor role in the film, in his case as an angry man in a bar (p.14).

Mr X and the New Zealand Newspaper

The Mr X character (played by Donald Sutherland) alleges that a New Zealand newspaper, the Christchurch Star, published a biography and photograph of Oswald four hours before Oswald had been charged with President Kennedy’s murder (p.107). This is correct, but is not as sinister as the film claims. Oswald was not charged with JFK’s murder until around midnight, ten hours or so after he had been arrested for Officer Tippit’s murder. Stories naming and describing Oswald had already been broadcast, and in any case many newspapers possessed Oswald’s details in their files from his defection to the Soviet Union in 1959.

The Washington Telephone System Blackout

Mr X goes on to allege (p.109) that the telephone system in Washington, DC, was out of action shortly after the assassination, presumably to hinder a co–ordinated response from Kennedy loyalists. The blackout did not affect the whole city, and seems to have been caused by people making an excessive number of calls.

The Mr X character was based partly on L. Fletcher Prouty, who had been a senior officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the JFK assassination. For those members of the audience who were not normally attracted to conspiratorial thinking, the least credible parts of JFK were perhaps those in which Mr X explained the details of what is presumably Oliver Stone’s favoured conspiracy theory, in which a shadowy association of military officers, businessmen and others derail Kennedy’s plan to reduce the power and the budget of the military, and to withdraw from Vietnam. The film’s credibility among some members of its potential audience was not helped when it emerged that Prouty was on the board of the Liberty Lobby, an organisation associated with the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups.

President Johnson and the Vietnam War

The final scene of the film shows Lyndon Johnson (played by Tom Howard) signing what is presumably National Security Action Memorandum no.273 in the company of assorted dignitaries. He tells them: “You just get me elected, and I’ll give you your damned war” (p.183).

NSAM 273, which is usually interpreted as the first stage in the escalation of the war in Vietnam, was signed on 26 November 1963; Johnson actually made his promise some time later. Stone’s intention is to show that the warmongering LBJ was radically different to the peace–loving JFK. In fact, the difference is not as great as he claims; see The Political Context of the JFK Assassination.

JFK’s Confusing Dramatisations

Several real or imagined events were dramatised in the film, often in a monochromatic vérité style. Critics of JFK alleged that the technique causes the audience to confuse the dramatisations with original news footage. The criticism was weak:

  • The scenes of witnesses in Dealey Plaza immediately after the assassination (pp.9f) might be mistaken for original footage, but do not contain material that affects any interpretation of the assassination.
  • The scene at President Kennedy’s autopsy (p.157) is likely to confuse only those who believe that news camera crews are allowed to wander around inside secure Naval hospitals, filming presidential autopsies.
  • In practice, the only dramatisation that might attract reasonable objections is the one which showed Lee Oswald firing three shots from the sixth–floor window (p.169), on the basis that the event depicted is almost certainly fictitious.

Criticism of Oliver Stone’s Movie, JFK

The Effect of the Criticism

Almost every film that deals with historical subjects will contain errors of fact. Few such films attract any criticism at all from newspaper or television pundits.

It was obvious to most readers and viewers that the allegations against Oliver Stone’s JFK were not the result of the media’s devotion to the cause of historical truth, even though some of those allegations were justified. None of the film’s most vociferous opponents showed any interest in applying the same critical attitude to any of the official reports, even to the Warren Report, a far more error–strewn, speculative and misleading work than JFK.

The attacks on the film, and especially the hostility of those attacks, were probably counter–productive. They appear to have dissuaded few open–minded people from watching the film, and may have encouraged waverers to go and see what all the fuss was about. Many of those who did watch the film would have been made aware for the first time of the weakness of the case against Lee Harvey Oswald, and would have realised also that the media are not disinterested spectators in matters that affect institutional power.

For more about the media, the JFK assassination and the Garrison investigation, see Jim Garrison: Interview with Playboy Magazine, October 1967. For a description of JFK’s place in the assassination narrative, and of the media’s attacks on the film, see Fiction, Propaganda and the Media and The Media and the JFK Assassination.

Reviewing the Criticism

Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film, Applause Books, 1992, includes many contemporary newspaper and magazine articles critical of the film, along with responses by Stone, Sklar, and others supportive of the film.

There is an interesting discussion of some of the articles in the book at Stone Duels with His Critics: A Mini–Symposium on JFK.

For online critiques of the factual basis of JFK, see:

For more reasonable overviews of the film as cinema and as history, see: