Dir: Oliver Stone, 1991. Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland. Drama.

With the film JFK, superstar editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia were able to do some of the most groundbreaking editing since Psycho and Battleship Potemkin, which would mean some of the greatest editing in film history. Combining actual news footage, historical recreations, and a dense investigation and courtroom story with literally hundreds of speaking roles, they were able to piece together a three-hour drama that, no matter what you feel about director Oliver Stone’s politics or often ham-fisted approach, this film is now the definitive pop-culture record on the murder of President Kennedy.

There was a phony outrage and assault thrown at the film JFK before it was even released or seen. Critics of Oliver Stone howled that he should not be messing with history, slanting it to fit his picture. But of course that’s what any good biography or historical account will do. The combination of news footage and recreations were called manipulative. But after thirty years of the "mainstream" press in lock step with the Warren Commission’s cover-up, it’s about time to see a "mainstream" movie question the events. No matter how much that news footage apparently confused some audience members, the bottom line is: this isn’t a documentary, those are actors. Not to mention, there are enough actual documentaries and books out there on this subject to fill a library. Some right, some wrong, some rational, some hysterical. If you need to hear from the other end of the spectrum, maybe the best made documentary on the assassination was Oswald’s Ghost, a very persuasive piece of filmmaking, but in the end it has Norman Mailer declaring there was no conspiracy.

The hero of this story, Jim Garrison (played with a questionable Louisiana twang by Kevin Costner), was the New Orleans District Attorney. He is still the only public official to actually bring anyone to court for the murder of JFK. He was presented in news accounts as a mad man seeking attention, but in his book, On The Trail of The Assassins (for which the JFK script is based), as well the film, it’s clear he is just a passionate guy who realizes many of the conspiracy’s key players were right under his nose and felt he had an obligation to do something about it. Every minute of his investigation was stalled and harassed by the federal government. What did they not want him to find?

Hours after Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, the government and media declared Lee Harvey Oswald (played perfectly by Gary Oldman) the lone assassin. Knowing he once lived in New Orleans Garrison rounds up his known associates there including David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a wild eyed hyper who tangles himself deep into his own fake alibi. But after the FBI clears Ferrie and Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) kills Oswald (while in police custody) Garrison closes his investigation.

Years later, when chatting with Senator Russell Long (Walter Matthau) about the assassination, Long questions the findings of the Warren Committee (the federal government group appointed to look into the entire event). This gets Garrison’s curiosity rolling again; realizing that Oswald was a CIA operative he opens up a full on new investigation. His team's sniffing and digging leads them through an eccentric cast of characters, all the way up to the big dog, Clay Shaw (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones) a homosexual businessman with ties to gun running and would be anti-Castro Cubans. Eventually Garrison charges Shaw with conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

This leads to the second half of the film - the trial. Here, using the voice of Garrison, Stone is able to lay out all the detailed facts of what made the conspiracy such an obvious truth (by conspiracy all they mean is more than one man was involved with the murder). Garrison also has a secret conversation with a high level Pentagon man, X (Donald Sutherland), who lays out the entire post-WWII history of American military hanky-panky, all leading up to the events in Dallas. This scene is a startling piece of docu-drama, again exceptionally edited with archival footage (also, this secret history of America’s war machine was more recently told in the excellent documentary, Why We Fight).

Costner, not always my favorite actor in the world, manages to carry the film on his shoulders. But he is the perfect everyman for the audience to see the facts through his widening eyes. His giant courtroom detailing of the case is an exhausting and demanding exercise that he pulls off perfectly. The one downfall in the film is when Garrison is at home and has to deal with his doubting and needy wife (Sissy Spacek), I can understand why the guy wants to wrap himself up in his investigation. Costner is aided by a giant cast all having a field day acting their buts off. Beside the great performances by Oldman, Sutherland, Jones, and Pesci, the cast also includes Jack Lemmon, Kevin Bacon, Ed Asner, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, and even John Candy (and many more established actors in even smaller roles), all doing service to the story.

The great cinematographer Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds) is able to capture the period with astounding detail and the mix of archival and new footage are often indistinguishable (another criticism of the film, by some). Recreating the same interviews used by Emile de Antonio and Mark Lane with their documentary Rush To Judgment (based on Lane’s groundbreaking book of the same title, which first brought the lies of the Warren Commission to light), using every kind of film stock, the film often has a Battle Of Algiers feel, making the period details even more authentic. The film also makes use of Abraham Zapruder’s previously classified home movies shot in Dallas, which are the best evidence for more than one gun shooting at the president. For many, the movie JFK was the first time most people were able to see that historical footage in its entirety.

Oliver Stone would try to use his new hyper editing style and multi-camera stock technique again with his obnoxiously ugly Natural Born Killers. It may have helped tell the story, but unlike JFK it just wasn't a story worth telling. JFK has been the highlight of Stone's interesting directing career. No matter how much style he has tried to infuse into the bios he directs, they usually are made or broken on whether the cast and technique match the material. Sometimes it works (The Doors, W), sometimes it doesn't (Nixon, World Trade Center). Now that the controversy and the yelling and screaming has died down, it's easy to look at JFK for what it was, exceptional filmmaking from all involved. Perhaps Stone's assertion that Kennedy was killed because he wanted to end the war in Vietnam in his next term (this, just after jacking up the American involvement) is wishful thinking from a Kennedy apologist, but it's still a theory that stands-up better than anything the Warren Commission put forward.


JFK won 2 Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. It was nominated for six other Oscars including: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Nov 19, 2010 2:59pm
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