His problem in "JFK" was formidable: to put forward not merely an alternative to the Warren Commission's finding that one lonely, deranged assassin killed President Kennedy, but a theory diametrically opposed - that the killing was orchestrated by a wide-ranging conspiracy that included the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the Mafia, the White House, the vice president and J. Edgar Hoover.
He succeeds brilliantly. The films lags in spots - with all that exposition, it's got to - but for the most part it rolls from beginning to end with chilling persuasiveness.
I, of all people, should have been an easy mark for "JFK." I'm a sucker for conspiracy theories. Moreover, I've always been a Warren Commission skeptic.
The Commission asked us to believe that a misanthropic schlemiel, armed with a $20 rifle he'd bought from a mail-order house, had plotted and - in a flash of Zen marksmanship - executed the murder of a president of the United States, then, while in custody, was himself murdered by a small-time Mafia hood overcome with patriotic feelings of vengeance.
"The Flying Nun" was more believable.
But a conspiracy theory that involved everybody to the right of Walt Disney? Pul-leeze. My own feeling was that Kennedy's murder was the result of a small-time conspiracy involving rogue elements of the CIA and the Mafia, both of whom Kennedy was attempting to dismantle.
Then I made the mistake of going back to review the evidence, much of it as laid out two decades ago by Des Moines attorney David Belin in his book: ''November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury." Belin was one of the Warren
Commission's chief investigators and he takes us through the testimony, answering the various challenges in turn. He snows you with facts.
Yes, it was altogether possible for one bullet to hit both President Kennedy and Gov. John Connally, cause seven separate wounds and emerge looking only slightly the worse for wear.
Yes, it was possible for a head shot fired from the rear to make President Kennedy's head jerk backwards.
Yes, it was possible for a rifleman to get off the shots that were fired in the time available.
Item by item he brings the impossibilities of the Warren Report theory into the realm of the merely improbable. By the end he establishes at least this much beyond question:
Lee Harvey Oswald fired shots at President Kennedy from the sixth floor
window of the Texas School Book Depository and, shortly thereafter, shot and killed Dallas patrolman J.D. Tippet.
Belin further makes a persuasive case for the fact that Oswald was indeed the only gunman on that day in 1963. The only real question lies in whether he was acting alone or as the triggerman of a larger conspiracy.
If he was, it certainly wasn't a big-time conspiracy. The military- industrial complex (Stone's villain) surely would have given its hitman a better gun. And it would have picked a more reliable shot.
No theory of the Kennedy assassination is entirely satisfactory. Stone's movie makes a better story; if you construct a big enough conspiracy you can explain anything. But the Warren Commission Report, oddly shaped as it is, makes better history.
Now I'm starting to rethink "The Flying Nun."