[sigh] I won’t lie – I love this movie. As an accurate record of the facts, it doesn’t pass muster. But as an engrossing conspiracy thriller-slash-whodunit, it is superb. Brilliantly crafted, beautifully-shot, well-acted, miraculously-edited… Oliver Stone’s 205-minute magnum opus never lags, never bores, and continues to polarize – 51 years after the tragedy that precipitated the whole thing.
November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his team investigate some local connections but shortly thereafter close the investigation when assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Three years later, after an encounter with Senator (and Warren Report skeptic) Russell Long, Garrison re-opens the investigation. They interrogate disgraced pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), male prostitute Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), and many others, including local witnesses who claim there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. O’Keefe claims he was at a party with Ferrie and some anti-Castro Cuban exiles where a conversation about killing Kennedy took place. Also at the party was a man O’Keefe was involved with named Clay Bertrand, who turns out to be New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones).
If you’ve seen the film, I doubt anything I say will change your mind. We can debate history in the comments. (Most of this is above my pay grade!) If you haven't seen the film, it’s definitely worth watching once, though it might require two or more viewings to take it all in. The film is a kaleidoscope of new footage shot in 35mm, vintage news footage, amateur newsreel footage, new footage made to look like vintage footage, re-enactments, cutaways and inserts that last mere seconds, a dozen different film stocks – hell, the true heroes of this movie are Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing, the editors who won a well-deserved Oscar for their work! The film is well-shot by Robert Richardson who also won an Oscar for his work. I couldn’t even imagine some of the setups: the filmmakers re-created the assassination in the real Dealey Plaza, which had to be restored to its 1963 look. They were even able to spend a limited amount of time in the actual Book Depository. Today, this would all no doubt be shot in some European country with nice tax incentives… but Oliver Stone goes for broke.
somewhat consistent: he’s one of those left-wingers who hates the “mainstream media” as much as right-wingers do, but for different reasons. (The corporate influence, no doubt.) His filmmaking career has been on the wane for a while, but JFK was made in his prime. Stone has total control, manipulating pieces like a master chess player. The film is infinitely detailed and never boring but, while it’s complicated, it’s not too deep – you don’t need a poli-sci degree to understand it. There's also a lot of world building – little details in the margins that add verisimilitude: non-sequiturs like the maître d with the weird mustache who sits Garrison and his team at a restaurant, and a lot of the homespun bon mots uttered by the characters (“I mean, how do you know who your daddy is? ’Cause your mama told you so.”)
At this point in his career, Kevin Costner had perfected the stoic Gary Cooper everyman thing and it serves him well here, though the real Jim Garrison wasn’t quite the Boy Scout we see in this movie. Coster’s Garrison comes across as the ultimate patriot/father figure, ubiquitous pipe and all. Sissy Spacek plays his wife Liz. I can’t complain, but reviewers seem to be split: they either enjoy her, saying she helps humanize the movie… or they say she’s drags the film down, a case of a talented actress saddled with the clichéd “housewife” role. Garrison’s team includes Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon, Michael Rooker as Bill Broussard, Laurie Metcalf as Susie Cox, Gary Grubbs as Al Oser, and Wayne Knight as Numa Bertel. (Knight would later parody this movie in a famous Seinfeld episode.) Sanders and the always-entertaining Rooker get most of the meat: the former resigns on account of Garrison’s obstinance; the latter apparently sells out to the Feds. The real Jim Garrison appears as Chief Justice Earl Warren.
(NSFW!!!). Joe Pesci cranks it up to 11 as David Ferrie. Ferrie suffered from alopecia areata, so Pesci shuffles around with an obvious wig and ridiculous eyebrows. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Oscar for playing Clay Shaw. While Stone clearly portrays him as a villain, he’s just too… nice! He lies through his teeth to Garrison, but he comes across not as a criminal mastermind, but as a perfectly charming citizen. Liz even reminds Garrison that they once met Shaw at a local fundraiser. Jack Lemon shows up as Jack Martin, a paranoid drunk who helps implicate Ferrie and Shaw. He works for New Orleans PI Guy Bannister, played by Ed Asner. I have to say that the villains aren't as effective as they should be. Jones is too congenial, Pesci and Bacon are too over the top, and Asner is just a grump. You want a scary Oliver Stone villain? Watch Sam Waterston as CIA director Richard Helms in Nixon.
Walter Matthau plays Senator Russell Long, all bow-tied and dignified. We’re inclined to believe him when he talks about Oswald’s skills with a rifle, even though we really have no reason to. “Average man would be lucky to get two shots off…” Is this true? I have no idea, but Garrison just accepts it. (It’s far from the only blind assumption in this film!) John Candy plays lawyer Dean Andrews, who was allegedly called by Clay Shaw to represent Oswald. He’s only in a couple scenes, claiming that everything he told the Feds was a figment of his imagination. (Man, I miss John Candy.) Brian Doyle-Murray plays Jack Ruby and Beata Poźniak plays Marina Oswald. For research, Poźniak actually lived with the real Marina Oswald for a while.
This sequence is a tour-de-force of editing, camerawork, and sound design… even if a lot of it is bullshit. It almost works as a short film in and of itself and it also features one of my favorite John Williams cues: “The Conspirators,” which makes great use of woodblock and metronome ticking. Williams was actually busy working on Steven Spielberg’s Hook so for this film he didn’t compose a score in the traditional sense. Instead, he saw some footage and went ahead and composed several different themes, which Stone and his team used when necessary, sometimes even editing the film to fit the music. To see (hear?) the power of music and sound design, watch the deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-Ray, most of which are presented in rough form. No ambient music, no added sound design – just dialogue, and it’s all pretty lifeless.
Now take Kennedy and Oliver Stone out of it for a second. I must admit, to my amateur Independent ears, some of this material sounds downright Tea Party-friendly: the idea of a government that is reckless, that hides tax-funded information from the American people, government officials that treat regular citizens like children, incompetent bureaucrats, and overbearing security measures? Why does this all sound so familiar? (I’ve said this to Andrew before: the line between liberal film and conservative film is often just one or two degrees). On the other hand, it's worth asking: at what point does a movie become propaganda? How many facts are the filmmakers allowed to fudge before the point is lost?
So who killed Kennedy? If you believe the Warren Report, it was Lee Harvey Oswald. If you believe Oliver Stone, it was a group of militant right-wing homosexuals, in collaboration with the FBI, the CIA, Cuban exiles, the Mafia, and… oh hell, maybe I was there, too! (20 years before I was born – why not?!) For many people, it’s easier to believe in a conspiracy. It’s almost reassuring. After all, the idea of one lone nut changing the course of history is much more disconcerting. Oliver Stone’s JFK is part of our pop culture and if you bring up the subject of the assassination, many people – for better or worse – immediately think of this movie. In any case, its message is clear: never stop questioning authority.
“Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.”