A 1991 Oliver Stone film helped lead to the release of the JFK files 26 years later

Kevin costner JFK
Kevin Costner in the 1991 film ‘JFK.’ Warner Bros.
  • Thousands of documents relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy are scheduled for release on Thursday.
  • They were originally due to be released in 2029, but Congress was pressured in 1992 to move the date up several years.
  • We can thank the 1991 conspiracy film “JFK” for renewing public interest in the assassination and forcing the government to release the files sooner.

The long-awaited release of 3,000 previously-classified documents relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy may not have happened for years were it not for a blockbuster 1991 film.

The documents, collectively known as the “JFK files,” are slated to be released on Thursday, as mandated by a federal law in 1992. They were originally supposed to stay sealed until 2029, but under public pressure, Congress moved the release date up to October 26, 2017, 25 years after the enactment of the law.

We can attribute that public pressure largely to Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” a star-studded 1991 film about the Kennedy assassination and the New Orleans businessman who some believe was involved in the murder. While historians argued the film was far from historically accurate — The Washington Post calls it “barely factual” — “JFK” succeeded in generating intense public speculation over Kennedy’s death and injecting new life into moribund conspiracy theories about it.

In the film, Kevin Costner plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who is depicted as leading an effort to prove that local businessman Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald and the CIA to kill Kennedy. Garrison targets key witnesses who seem to confirm the government conspiracy, but the jury comes just short of finding Shaw guilty.

In real life, such a trial did take place, but Shaw was acquitted after less than an hour of deliberation. It turns out Stone greatly exaggerated details of the trials, and even invented one of the key witnesses out of whole cloth. Years later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune said the trial “left a lasting stain on the city’s justice system.”

Stone defended the film upon its release, but admitted its factual shortcomings.

“It is not a true story per se,” he told the New York Times in 1991. “It explores all the possible scenarios of why Kennedy was killed, who killed him and why.”

Still, the possibility of a government conspiracy resonated with Americans. In 1992, Congress passed the JFK Records Act, expediting the release of the classified JFK files. It also established the Assassination Records Review Board, which in 1998 acknowledged the influence of Stone’s film in the decision to release the files ahead of schedule.

“Stone suggested at the end of JFK that Americans could not trust official public conclusions when those conclusions had been made in secret,” a report from the review board said. “The American public lost faith when it could not see the very documents whose contents led to these conclusions.”