Warner Bros. // 1991 // 195 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 11th, 2008
The true story that won't go away.
"Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth. And the truth is on your side, Bubba."
The year is 1963. President of the United States John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated. A nation mourns. The government quickly arrests Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker's Dracula), a suspected communist. Oswald claims innocence, but is never given an opportunity to make his case in court. He is murdered by a man named Jack Ruby, and the government essentially views this as the end of the case. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner, The Postman) thinks something smells funny, and determines to dig a little bit deeper. As his investigation progresses, Garrison slowly but surely comes to believe that the JFK killing is at the center of a complex and diabolical plot that has very little to do with Lee Harvey Oswald. Solving the mystery is not easy, though. As he gains progress in the investigation, he loses ground in his marriage. Before long, Garrison's wife (Sissy Spacek, Carrie) is threatening to leave. Will all of Garrison's hard work pay off, or is he just digging a political grave for himself?
Oliver Stone's JFK represents the very best and the very worst of the controversial director's career. For many fans of cinema, it is the film that defines Stone. This 195-minute saga is a fascinating and beautiful mess, and whether or not it works for you depends on what your definition of a good film should be. As a piece of conspiracy-theory filled fictional drama, it's nothing short of fantastic. Stone smoothly weaves vast amounts of archival footage into his film, and does such a fine job of creating the look and feel of the era that it's occasionally tricky to tell where the created footage starts and the actual footage stops. In many cases, the best clue is the appearance of a recognizable actor, but that's not even too easy at times. For instance, Gary Oldman proves to be the spitting image of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Regardless of what you think of the film, one can't help but admire the sheer ambition of JFK. The film is a genuine epic, and the considerable running time gives the viewer an appropriate sense of weary excitement as Jim Garrison slowly but surely approaches what he believes to be the truth. I have seen few films that have managed to make the basic process of fact-finding so exciting (All the President's Men and Zodiac are also quite good as this). We are presented with an endless stream of facts, fiction, theorizing, and conspiracies, and Stone invites us to examine what we hear along with Garrison as the film progresses.
As he did four years later in Nixon, Stone brings an all-star cast to the table to help bring an additional level of intrigue to these often clinical proceedings. On a superficial level, the film is engaging because we're looking forward to finding out which famous actor is going to turn up next. Everyone is given at least one opportunity to shine in the spotlight, usually during a Q&A session with Garrison. Bit roles are handed to the likes of Jack Lemmon (Missing), Walter Matthau (The Bad News Bears), Ed Asner (Elf), Donald Sutherland (M.A.S.H.), Joe Pesci (Goodfellas), John Candy (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and others. Most manage to make at least a small impression, and a select few (particularly Sutherland) really resonate.
There are also plenty of fine performances among the key cast members. The ever-reliable Sissy Spacek has a nice turn as Garrison's long-suffering wife, slowly growing irritable as he continues to get buried in his investigation. Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) turns in one of the two strangest performances of his career (the other is in Stone's Natural Born Killers), playing Clay Bertram, an incredibly creepy man with a fondness for strange sexual behavior. Gary Oldman effectively immerses himself into the role of Lee Harvey Oswald, while Kevin Bacon has an engaging turn as a homosexual prisoner who may have some key information.
Perhaps the greatest attributes of the film are on a purely technical level. The film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, and won in two categories: cinematography (Robert Richardson) and editing (Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia). It certainly deserved to win both categories. Also notable is the superb score by John Williams, which features some memorable thematic writing but is most notable for its recognizable "conspiracy" music, featuring nerve-wracking percussion and jittery pianos.
The hi-def transfer is generally excellent and spotlights Stone's seamless visual work on this film. There is occasionally a slight gap in quality due to the fact that the archival footage is quite grainy and damaged; Stone's original material is fresh and clean. However, Stone works very hard to make everything blend without being distracting, and I think he does so quite well. When the film isn't focused on trying to incorporate archival material, the transfer is strong and sharp. Blacks are deep, facial detail is excellent, the image is very well balanced overall. The Dolby TrueHD sound is a considerable upgrade from the DVD audio, and the Williams score blends wonderfully with subtly busy sound design to create a very immersive listening experience.
Extras are ported over from the special edition DVD. The best of these is "Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy," a feature-length documentary that makes an attempt to piece together the fact and the fiction. It's very absorbing stuff, and reasonably well-balanced (if tilted in Stone's favor). We also get an audio commentary from Stone, who is a bit more active and engaging here than he has been on some of his commentary tracks. He obviously has a great passion for the ideas he presents in this film. In addition, we get deleted scenes, an alternate ending, some multimedia presentations, and a trailer. The only extra that I didn't really care for is the 34-page booklet that is attached to the attractive hardcover Blu-ray case. It's full of hyperbolic praise for Stone, featuring big splash pages with phrases like, "Stone, armed with the COURAGE of his convictions and the support of his cast, crew, and studio, fought TOOTH and NAIL to bring the TRUTH TO THE PUBLIC." Yawn.
Those who prefer films about historical events to be historically accurate may find themselves very irritated with JFK. The film's many historical inaccuracies and suspect conspiracies have been well-documented, and I'm not going to chronicle all of them yet again here. However, you deserve to be warned, JFK works better as a dramatic film about the concept of searching for the truth rather than as a revelation of actual honest-to-goodness truth. In addition, I frankly find Kevin Costner's performance in this film to be rather boring. In recent times, Costner has become quite an engaging screen presence. Back in 1991, he had a unique ability to put viewers to sleep with his flat acting turns. His Jim Garrison is not particularly memorable, and Costner is outshined by almost everyone he shares the screen with. In addition, Costner is saddled with some of the film's worst dialogue, and he can't pull it off. The moment near the beginning when Garrison responds to the Kennedy shooting by saying, "I am so ashamed to be an American right now," should be touching. Instead, it comes across as incredibly hokey. Still, the weak lead performance is not a huge liability here, considering that Costner is merely a tour guide through these compelling proceedings.
I do have another complaint about the supplements: when are we going to hear more from the actors? Both here and on the Nixon discs, the actors have been pretty much absent. I'd like to get hear more from Costner, Jones, Spacek and others, particularly regarding the film's controversial political views.
Though JFK is a flawed film (and there is those who consider it to be some sort of crime against the medium of cinema), I think it still holds up well as a viewing experience. Stone misfires big time on several counts, but it's a tribute to his skill as a director that he is still able to make this tale so hypnotic and memorable. He may not present us with a clear answer here, but the message he is trying to get across is a noble one. We should not take things at face value. The pursuit of truth is a difficult task, but it is nonetheless one worth pursuing. As for whether this Blu-ray release is worth an upgrade, I'm going to say yes. The packaging is sturdier and more attractive than the cardboard DVD packaging, everything is conveniently housed on a single disc, the transfer is stellar, and the audio is a notable improvement. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 195 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Ending
* Deleted Scenes
* Multimedia Essays