Wednesday, October 21, 2009

1991: JFK (Oliver Stone)

Released: December 20, 1991

Director: Oliver Stone; Screenplay: Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar based on the books “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison and “Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy” by Jim Marrs; Cinematography: Robert Richardson; Studio: Regency Enterprises, Warner Bros; Producers: A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone

Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Ed Asner (Guy Bannister), Walter Matthau (Senator Russell B. Long), Donald Sutherland (Mr. X), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon), Michael Rooker (Bill Brussard), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Gary Grubbs (Al Oser), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel)

- “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: I feel fairly certain that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. The multitude of conspiracy theories that try to attribute the assassination to various shady characters simply don’t hold up to scrutiny. A lot of conspiracy theorists assume that it is the job of others to prove that there was _not_ a conspiracy, raising relatively minor details to inflated importance simply because they cannot be explained with one-hundred percent certainty. Believe me, I’ve been sucked into the black hole that is JFK assassination research – it’s a never-ending cycle, where after long bouts of research and learning, you feel no more certain of the truth than when you knew absolutely nothing. At the end of the day, there is no infallible theory concerning the crazy events related to the assassination, whether pro or anti conspiracy. None of them are without holes or doubts. It’s just that the most solid theory I’ve yet to see is actually the most boring: that Lee Harvey Oswald likely was the lone nut he was originally thought to be.


As I said, there are still unanswered questions. Certain inconsistencies, or lack of proper investigation, in the official version of events that have never been satisfactorily answered. I don’t feel like these minor mysteries necessarily affect the final conclusion, but the enigmatic and secretive nature of the entire affair means that examining everything remains eternally interesting.

To be certain, many respected, educated folks genuinely believe that there was a conspiracy and that the Warren Commission was nothing but a whitewash. Olive Stone is one of them, feeling that the official inquiry was nothing but a government-endorsed myth. What Stone intended to do was to create what he called a “countermyth.” And this is why this masterpiece of a film is often misunderstood. People assume that what Stone offers in this film is his complete theory of what actually transpired and who initiated the conspiracy to murder the president. This is completely off-base. What Stone wanted to do – and what he reiterated many, many times – is to take all of the popular conspiracy theories, mix and match between them, and create a kind of collage of “what might have happened” or bring light to inconsistencies that he thinks need to be answered. Many people went into the movie expecting one completely cohesive theory and left feeling like they were just fed a load of bunk. In that sense, I suppose they were. But put into its proper context, the film works incredibly well. Rather than looking for one consistent theory, I think it’s necessary to view the tons of information and theories thrown at the audience as being used to create a genuine political mystery. It’s like an old-fashioned detective story, with all of the potential suspects and evidence laid out on the table. Most of the evidence isn’t even true, but it’s the process of wading through it to try and make some sense of it all that is the adventure.

To attempt a full plot synopsis would be impossible for a movie like this. The plot follows the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the only man to ever bring a case to trial in the assassination of the president. Garrison becomes completely obsessed with uncovering exactly what happened on November 22, 1963 in Dallas. Soon he is on the trail of what he believes to have been a massive right wing conspiracy centered in New Orleans. He believes that it was led by rabid anti-Castro Cubans and their American intelligence handlers, and that it was supported by the United States military. Garrison’s office begins in-depth investigations into the life of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) and come into contact with an incredible cast of characters: David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a bizarre looking man who fancies himself a paramilitary leader; Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a male prostitute who unwittingly meets many of the principals in Garrison’s conspiracy; Guy Banister (Ed Asner), a former FBI chief who is a staunch anti-communist; and countless numbers of Cuban refugees who want to kill Castro immediately. Eventually, Garrison brings charges against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a well-respected Louisiana businessman who is suspected of being a CIA operative.

If it sounds ridiculously convoluted and crazy, it is, and that’s precisely the point. Stone’s intention was to make everything complex, to recreate the vortex of events and political machinations that were taking place in the Cold War atmosphere of Kennedy’s presidency. The style of production is geared specifically toward this purpose and I think that Stone and others working behind the camera are the true stars of the film. It’s like an oxymoron to refer to a 3.5 hour plus screenplay as tight, but this screenplay from Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar is quite the achievement. They throw ungodly amounts of information at the audience, but keep things moving at such a brisk pace that they never allow anyone to stop and dwell on minor or unimportant details. The points that they want to make are stressed and then the story is propelled forward once again. And their ability to create tension is incredible. The movie may be about politics, but it plays like a pure thriller.

Even more impressive is the editing. Put simply, it’s amazing. The ability to intersperse actual newsreel and documentary footage with scenes recreated by Stone with his cast is a marvel to watch. The transitions from one to the other are seamless. The editing is also done at a furious pace, with quick, sharp cuts from one scene to another and even from one time frame to another. Flashbacks are used extensively, particularly as Garrison and company approach potential witnesses and have them recount their experiences in the conspiracy. Joe Hushting and Pietro Scalia were deservedly awarded Academy Awards for their editing duties. The flashbacks are also done in the gorgeous black-and-white photography of cinematographer Robert Richardson. Everything taking place in the present is in color and Richardson creates very realistic shades of colors in this environment. But it is in the flashbacks that he shines. Richardson also won an Academy Award for his cinematography, which perfectly compliments the virtuoso performances of the editors. I really don’t know if my writing here even does justice to how impressive the editing is. It’s no coincidence that I rarely mention editing in my reviews, yet am completely gushing over it in this case. It’s that good and truly does make all the difference.

Famed film composer John Williams also contributes an incredibly varied soundtrack that is adjusted to fit the moods of the various segments of the story. The music moves from everything from the triumphant to the ominous, such as the military drum march that leads up to the assassination. This might not be Williams’ greatest work, but he too deserves recognition.

If the true stars of the movie are those behind the screen, there are still plenty of performances on the celluloid that elevate the film still further. Costner is solid, if not overly spectacular as the eccentric Garrison. Tommy Lee Jones as the conniving Clay Shaw is the consummate pro. Gary Oldman is truly great as Lee Harvey Oswald. Aside from actually bearing a physical resemblance to real-life Oswald, Oldman plays the man as the enigma that he remains to this day. It’s never possible to get a handle on his true intentions. And in continuing my praise of Joe Pesci at his best, his turn here as David Ferrie is incredible. He's actually not on-screen all that much, but those instances are short bouts of brilliance. It can’t be easy playing a gay ex-Catholic seminary student who suffers from alopecia, but Pesci makes it work. The man is on edge at all times, jumping around and talking a thousand words a minute. Pesci is able to play a role like this as naturally as the gangsters he does so well. In one scene in particular – when Ferrie is taken to a hotel by Garrison in order to protect him – Pesci delivers one of the three or four best performances in a single scene that I have ever witnessed. The tension is thick beyond belief when Ferrie is asked by Garrison who killed Kennedy and he responds with this sudden outburst: “Oh man, why don't you fuckin' stop it? Shit, this is too fuckin' big for you, you know that? Who did the president, who killed Kennedy... fuck man! It's a mystery! It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! The fuckin' shooters don't even know! Don't you get it?” Sorry for the profanity, but I just had to include what is one of my favorite cinematic moments.

The other interesting thing regarding performances is the number of big-name actors who shine in what would otherwise be bit parts. John Candy as Dean Andrews is on-screen for less than 10 total minutes, but he is spectacular as the flashy New Orleans defense attorney. The same is true of Ed Asner’s Guy Bannister, Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin, Kevin Bacon as Willie O’Keefe. These supporting performances give the impression of each person taking the small amount of time that they are on screen and trying to one-up all of the others.

This is a divisive film and one that can split otherwise likeminded movie fans. Those likely to be offended by filmmakers taking liberties with facts and massaging events are likely to seriously be turned off by it. In the end, I’ll echo what Roger Ebert said in his assessment of this masterpiece: “Fact belongs in print, films are about emotion.” In JFK, Stone creates an emotional, stirring political thriller that fascinates me to this day after countless viewings. This is one the films that could, depending on when you ask me, be cited as my all-time favorite film. And yet, I still don’t believe most of the theories proposed by it. Strange, isn’t it?

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1991: Another outstanding year in film. It might have become cliché to cite Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs as a great film, but I’ve never shied away from popular sentiment. The performances by Jodie Foster and particularly Anthony Hopkins are too much to deny. It’s a wonderful thriller. Another close runner-up is Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe, which is the story about a Jesuit missionary in New France who travels among the local Algonquin population. It’s a horrifyingly beautiful film. The Coen Brothers’s Barton Fink is one of my favorites in their entire body of work. It is quirky, funny, and at times very mysterious.

Some other films from this year that I quite like: Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang), Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton), Bugsy (Barry Levinson), Beauty and the Beast (Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale).


  1. Must admit I don't remember JFK very well, but I do remember finding it confusing - reading your very good review makes me realise that maybe I was meant to be confused!

    My favourites from 1991, with my usual bias towards UK and historical cinema, are:
    The Commitments (Alan Parker)
    Close My Eyes (Stephen Poliakoff)
    Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland) - I see the imdb lists this as a 1990 release, but I've seen it listed elsewhere as 1991 and in the UK it actually came out in 1992!
    Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott)
    Where Angels Fear to Tread (Charles Sturridge)


  2. Missed this one too... Lots of duds and average ones, for me, in 1991.

    A few that did impress:

    Shadows And Fog (Allen)
    Terminator 2: The Judgement Day (Cameron)
    The Silence Of The Lambs (Demme)
    Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Godard)
    Night On Earth (Jarmusch)
    Life... And Nothing More (Kiarostami)
    Rhapsody In August (Kurosawa)

  3. Definitely check it out Judy and Just Another Film Blog... honestly, I consider it one of the best thrillers of the decade. Over the top in its theories, but a wild ride the entire way.

    Plus, as I said, it just looks spectacular.

  4. Yes, JFK is one of Stone's greatest films, for my money his best, ahead of SALVADOR, NIXON, PLATOON and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Excellent point there Dave with the deliberate "convolutions" Stone made to promote his case. As riveting a drama as they come.

    My Own #1 Film of 1991:

    La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette; France)


    Beauty and the Beast (Trousdale; USA)
    Prospero's Books (Greenaway; USA)
    Fried Green Tomatoes (Avnet; USA)
    Black Robe (Beresford; Canada)
    Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou; China)
    Man in the Moon (Mulligan; USA)
    JFK (Stone; USA)
    My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant; USA)
    The Silence of the Lambs (Demme; USA)
    Europa Europa (Holland; France/W. Germany)
    A Brighter Summer Day (Yang; Taiwan)
    Un Coeur en Hiver (Saudet; France)

  5. Dave, JFK is that rare film that seems to require a disclaimer when someone wants to give it its due as a work of art, but I feel the same way about it and its subject as you do. One can admire its craft and intensity while rejecting its suggestions entirely. It tops my own list for 1991, and here's the rest of the list:

    2. Black Robe
    3. Prospero's Books
    4. Homicide (David Mamet)
    5. Silence of the Lambs
    6. Delicatessen (Jeunet-Caro)
    7. Raise the Red Lantern
    8. Barton Fink (not one of my favorite Coens)
    9. Beauty and the Beast
    10.Armor of God II: Operation Condor (Jackie Chan)

  6. Well, I'm 1 for 1 (we'll see about the other half of my prediction tomorrow). I am in full agreement with you on this film, including your reasons for liking it. It would most likely be my #1 for '91 as well.

  7. Dave,

    A truly excellent review breaking down this film. As a convoluted mystery, worthy of The Big Sleep in its complexity, this is a great film and IMO one of Stone’s best ( for me #1 being “Platoon”, sorry Sam). I agree with Roger E. as you quote, “Fact belongs in print, films are about emotion.” If you want facts, go to the library.

    #1 JFK

    Best of the rest

    Barton Fink
    Ramblin’ Rose
    Cape Fear
    The Commitments
    Dead Again

  8. I have to say that I am a little surprised (pleasantly) to see that there are a number of others that agree with me. I'm so used to this film being so divisive, with a lot of people dismissing it simply because Oliver Stone is the director.

    MovieMan - 1 for 1 on the prediction so far. I won't give anything away for 1992, but will say that it was another outstanding year in my book.

  9. The film became embroiled in controversy even before it was finished after The Washington Post national security correspondent George Lardner showed up on the set.

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