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How a 1991 movie resulted in JFK’s assassination files being released in 2017

Oliver Stone’s movie led in part to congressional action.

Kevin Costner in JFK
Kevin Costner in JFK.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for October 28 through Novemb 3 is JFK (1991), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

When President Donald Trump tweeted that he would “be allowing” the release of the “long blocked and classified JFK FILES,” he was presumably alluding to the fact that the release date for the government’s never-before-seen files on the 34th president’s assassination is finally here. (Legally, Trump was allowed to block their release; on the recommendation of the intelligence community, he did end up doing so for some of the records, then changed his mind.)

Why the scheduled release date? In 1992, Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, declaring that the National Archives would release the files by October 26, 2017.

Before the law was passed, the files were actually slated to be kept under seal until 2029. But the Act, which George H.W. Bush signed into law, moved that date up substantially. Why? One big reason: America saw a movie.

Oliver Stone kicked up a huge furor in 1991 with the release of JFK, a compelling and conspiracy-fueled movie about what really happened that day in Dallas. JFK feels more like a docudrama than anything else, with Kevin Costner in the lead as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney whose investigation into the assassination all but reveals a conspiracy.

The film leans on a lot of dicey facts and fabrications to craft its narrative, and was attacked in the press, though Stone maintained that it was based on lots of research and since then has continued to defend the idea that something is fishy about the whole case.

Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in JFK
Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland in JFK.

But people saw the movie. It won two Oscars and was nominated for six more, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It had left its mark.

Images and well-crafted stories are more powerful shapers of public imagination than official government accounts and documents, though. And in the face of Stone’s film, the assertions that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — and that there was no conspiracy — paled. The JFK Assassination Records Collection Act was passed partly in response; as the Assassination Records Review Board wrote in 1998:

While the movie was largely fictional, the information that Stone conveyed in the movie's closing trailer was true: the HSCA had reinvestigated the murder and issued a provocative report, but their records were sealed until the year 2029. Stone suggested at the end of JFK that Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret. Congress passed legislation — the JFK Act — that released the secret records that prior investigations gathered and created.

In 2017, everything old is new again. Though the number of Americans who believe there was a conspiracy against Kennedy has dropped over the years, in 2013 — half a century after the assassination — a majority of Americans still counted themselves among that group.

And of course, Donald Trump weirdly accused Ted Cruz’s father of being involved in that conspiracy while both men were on the campaign trail last year. Now, as president, he was reportedly helped along in his decision to allow the release of the records by his friend and informal adviser Roger Stone, who told fellow conspiracy theorist Alex Jones that he had encouraged the president to do so. On his Facebook page, Oliver Stone himself wrote that the president should “stay true to his word. Declassify everything.”

JFK scholars, on the other hand, aren’t expecting much from the files’ release. But it’s still wild to think that one movie and a lot of whispering about it is still having real-life ripple effect more than half a century later — and says a lot about the enduring power of “alternative facts.”

Watch the trailer for JFK:

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