HOLLYWOOD -- Aubrey Rike is a former funeral parlor worker, the man who, in November 1963, put President Kennedy's slain body into the casket at Parkland Hospital. Today, he is a Dallas policeman who was recently hired as a consultant on Oliver Stone's latest project "JFK" -- a dramatic exploration of the assassination, which the director calls "the seminal event of our generation."
At one point, Rike recalls, he pointed out a couple of minor factual errors in the way Stone was setting up a scene: Mrs. Kennedy had not been in the emergency room at a given time; her clothes were less blood-stained.
"This isn't history, this is movie-making," Stone pointed out. "I'm not setting out to make a documentary."
Rike ultimately conceded the director's point, but others have been more judgmental. For halfway through the film's shoot and six months before it is scheduled to be released by Warner Bros., a number of publications have condemned both "JFK" and its director.
The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and Time magazine, basing their stories on a leaked early version of the shooting script, criticized Stone for purported factual inaccuracies, including the implication of an orchestrated coup d'etat and cover-up. And he has been criticized for basing his movie on former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, now a Louisiana Court of Appeals judge. The writers charge that Garrison is self-aggrandizing and unreliable, and that Stone legitimizes his investigation into Kennedy's murder and even glorifies it through the casting of Kevin Costner as Garrison.
The controversy has thrown together believers in the Warren Commission Report and conspiracy theorists who have devoted their lives to challenging it. At issue is not only an artist's responsibility when dealing with a subject in the public domain, but whether these critics -- in the press and elsewhere -- are curtailing creative freedom by prejudging a work-in-progress.
"It's interesting that the Washington Post is applauding the Soviet media for its new openness, its willingness to expose Stalin's mass murders, while impugning my project before the American people can assess it," says Stone, whose edited point-by-point rejoinder ran in the paper early this month. "It's hypocritical, a double standard, ironic at best."
Costner, dismayed at the "body blows" to which Stone is being subjected, agrees: "Oliver is one of our most prolific filmmakers," he says, "and to still his voice because people don't agree with his vision is unfair. There are people in back rooms trying to abort this movie. They're trying to trivialize Oliver and make him look cartoonish. People with the pen always have the first shot -- and often their victims don't get to shoot back."
Washington Post national security issues reporter George Lardner Jr., who covered the Garrison investigation in the '60s, defends his May 19 point-by-point refutation of Stone's thesis. "I'm not denying Stone's right to be heard -- just expressing my thoughts as well in the free marketplace of ideas. This subject is everyone's business. My story is a public service and if Stone were truly interested in accuracy, he should be grateful."
Responding to Stone's complaint that his critique jumped the gun, Lardner said: "If history is being distorted, I can write about it whenever I want, without waiting for a press release. I'm in the news business, not show business. Stone is just using this controversy to hype his movie."
"JFK," budgeted at $35 million to $40 million, features Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Asner, Gary Oldman, John Candy, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, in addition to Costner. The part of Chief Justice Earl Warren is played by Garrison himself.
Stone spent three years digesting material on the subject and -- much to the consternation of others preparing their own projects -- signed a horde of witnesses and researchers to exclusive contracts. He has created composite characters from several real-life figures and events have been condensed, but anything speculative, Stone says, is identified as such and shot in sepia tones to distinguish it from the rest.
"I take a 'Rashomon' approach, showing multiple scenarios -- Oswald as guilty; Oswald as innocent," Stone says. "It's an inquiry based on both fact and speculation -- not 'The Jim Garrison Story,' as some have claimed. Garrison is a flawed man -- full of hubris, King Lear arrogance, but in a three-hour movie, there is no time for a character portrait.
"Though Garrison's theories are riddled with mistakes, I admire his argument and courage. To me, he's the embodiment of the questions Americans still have on the subject and, as such, is a perfect dramatic vehicle. I cast Costner because he's a sweet person, the man of the street who smells a rat when it comes to the Warren Commission. But I'm going beyond Garrison, assembling a jigsaw puzzle of facts that have surfaced since the trial."
Harrison Livingstone, co-author of the 1989 book "High Treason," which explored the assassination, isn't convinced. "I'm not against Stone," he says. "I'm not against the movie. But both Stone and Garrison are well-meaning men bringing charges without the evidence. They're trying to tell the truth, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions."