Our review of JFK (Blu-Ray), published November 11th, 2008, is also available.
The story that won't go away
When a twisted Muslim radical set his sights on destroying the Evil Empire that threatened his theocratic notions of intolerance and fundamentalism, he organized his suicide specialists and sent them crashing into the Manhattan skyline. And, for a while, a battered nation sat stunned. The US was not used to facing such homeland harm, especially as it played out endlessly, from every conceivable angle, on every channel on the air. Even networks not known for news aired continuous footage of planes crashing into buildings, helpless people leaping to their deaths, and metal/glass behemoths imploding, hoping that through constant repetition we could somehow grasp the magnitude of what had happened. But imagine if we lived in a time when there were no 24-hour cable news networks, where people didn't have easy access to video cameras and a voyeuristic need to use them. How would you feel if one of the most popular and polarizing leaders in the free world was gunned down in plain sight of hundreds of well-wishers and anxious observers and there was not one single recorded image of it happening? Would you believe the eyewitness reports? The government probe and investigation? Would you question the inevitable legal findings and the factual conclusions? Or would your own imagination begin to question and dissect the events and the testimony, your emotional emptiness feeding your frenzied desired to know the truth? And then, when a shaky 8mm film of the event finally surfaced, would that appease your doubts? Would you draw the proper conclusions or simply let the ambiguous evidence support your rigid personal position?
As a piece of pseudo propaganda used to bolster an almost unhealthy obsession with shadow governments and secret intelligence community agendas, Oliver Stone's JFK is a brilliant, broken attempt to settle the conspiracy question surrounding Kennedy's assassination once and for all. But for everything important and rational it uncovers, it occasionally muddles the picture with far-reaching attempts to implicate everyone. It is undeniably a great film. But it may not be great history.
Facts of the Case
On a clear day in November 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was gunned down in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Having been in office for a little over two years, he was a populist leader who, behind the scenes, had stirred up quite a firestorm of controversy and dissention. After the initial shock and the chaos cleared, a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald was pronounced the killer and the wheels of justice sprang into action. If it wasn't for Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who took it upon himself to wreak a little vigilante style revenge on the supposedly insane shooter, the trial of the century was poised to unsettle a nation.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, District Attorney Jim Garrison heard about the President's murder and the prime suspect. He recalled a local connection to his office. He then began a preliminary investigation, but with Oswald's death and the Warren Commission report on the crime, the case appeared to be closed. But after reading the multi-volume vindication of the single gunman, magic bullet theory complete with legal assumptions and illogical statements that rang hollow to his trained legal mind, Garrison determined to re-open the case and discover who actually killed the President.
Garrison discovered a link between Oswald and a few local lowlifes including agitator David Ferry, ex CIA P.I. Guy Bannister, and an unknown shady character named Clay Bertrand. As the case continued to move forward, Bertrand's name kept coming up. Eventually, Garrison made the connection that Clay Bertrand was Clay Shaw, a well-respected, closeted homosexual businessman in New Orleans with his own possible connections to the CIA, the Cuban community, and other radical groups. Pressured by leaks to the press and the FBI, Garrison arrested Shaw and charged him with conspiracy to kill the President. Thus, the only trial in the murder of President Kennedy was initiated.
It's amazing how, forty years removed from the actual events, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, still haunts our nation. The Twin Towers can fall, we can find ourselves embroiled in wars across the sea and bury our heads in patriotic grandstanding, and still, when names like Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and the Warren Commission are brought up in conversation, passions inflame and arguments ensue. Apparently, even decades removed, the wounds from those fateful events in Dallas are still fresh and raw. Like a sore that will not heal, there can be many reasons for the continuing tenderness: grief, lack of clarity, refusal to criticize the government, and the overwhelming unbelievability of the act. But the main reason that the events of November 22, 1963 still continue to resonate with this nation is that the death of President Kennedy spelled the end of an era for America. After Kennedy's death, the rose-colored glasses fell off the public's perception and a veil was lifted on corruption and the covert. No longer were the secrets stashed in the hallowed halls of the Washington ivory towers forbidden or taboo to the people or the press. Hidden Oval Office issues like Roosevelt's wheelchair or JFK's affairs lost their fourth estate protection and soon, it was open season on the system, culminating in Watergate and the resignation of Nixon.
But like a modern mythology created to complement the crazed and insane circumstances of the 1960s, the story of John, Jackie, Camelot, and the isolated loner that brought them all tumbling down still entrances and enrages us. No matter how many books about womanizing, pill popping, and potential scandal are scribbled onto the tablets of history, we are steadfast in our belief in JFK as a fallen idol, as a symbol of solidarity and hope for a new ideology that was tragically torn from us by forces to wicked to reason with. The assassination is like the last great saga, a Shakespearean tragedy filled with characters and circumstances that freeze time and test the limits of our faith. On the side of good is the young nation longing for a charismatic leader to move them through a sea of potential upheaval. On the side of darkness are the competing claims of the intelligence community, the Defense department, the special interest groups, and the various political organizations that feared and faulted him for everything wrong. The fact that Kennedy stirred so many pots is not so surprising as the fact that, once he was drastically and dramatically gunned down, the Powers That Be thought the nation would easily accept it as the actions of an insanely jealous lone maniac. If the anti-President wrath reached so deep within the Federal fortress, why was an outsider responsible? Since when does change require silencing?
No matter what Oliver Stone says, JFK cannot be taken as pure unadulterated fact. To allow its dramatizations, inferences, and suppositions to stand the test of truth as Gospel verification of a conspiracy would be unprofessional and unconscionable. No, what JFK really represents is a primer for how Washington D.C. and its internal "shadow government" functioned and embedded itself into our nation before Watergate blew the roof off the sucker for the first and final time. JFK is a dissertation on cover-ups. It's an indictment of people in power attempting to duck and cover after their less-than-loved leader was gunned down and their bureaucratic guilty conscious was jump-started. It's the story of one man's attempt to break through the rigid barriers of the old school good old boy network of the Federal system and somehow unearth the tiny roots of truth from which a mighty oak of subversion arose. And it's a lesson in why you should never get on the government's bad side; about how active our representatives and tax-supported entities become to hopefully silence our curiosity. The public has a right to know what happened on that dark day in Dallas. The fact that forty years later we are still arguing with goofballs and glory grabbers, no nearer the truth than those who initially inquired in the name of freedom, indicates that there is still a powerful element that wants the truth buried along with the shooter, the vigilante, and the target.
So if we forget the fudging and cleanse our mental palate of Stone's numerous, if still delicious, red herrings, the overwhelming impression we are left with from JFK is that, from all indication, the United States of America really didn't want Jim Garrison "independently" investigating Kennedy's death. For some unknown reason, and this is where conspiracy theorists find most of their fire and passion, the varying forces at play in Washington just didn't (and seemingly still don't) want a deeper probe into this event. The key question to come out all of this is "why?" and it makes JFK a compelling cinematic consideration. Imagine if the current President was assassinated. Do you think we'd get or even accept the same closed door, secret society treatment of his death? Would we silence witnesses who differed in their interpretation of the facts, or would they have their own nightly special on the Fox News Network? Just recently, a Showtime TV movie showed how very close we came to losing President Ronald Reagan after John Hinckley pitched his homicidal hissy fit to get Jodie Foster's phone number. Why didn't we have some fancy Warren Commission style inquiry into the attempt on Ronnie's life? Where are the hundreds of volumes on this sad Colorado boy's supposed political affiliations and his potential ties to "shadow" entities (not to mention his obsession with The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane)? Why do we readily accept Reagan's attempted murder, but spin our wheels in endless pursuit of the spirits that still seem to haunt the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza?
Indeed, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the strange, suspicious manner in which a lone gunman theory was thrust down the public's throat just screams plotting and mystery. And if a movie like this opens up the lines of communication, questions the sealing of files and documents for another 35 years, and gets more people involved in the asking of the really important questions, then it has done a greater service than the hundreds of books and crackpot scholars on the subject. When the truth all comes out (if it ever does), perhaps it will be more compelling than any man-made fiction Stone materializes on the screen. But no one will have nailed the paranoia, the appearance of impropriety and potential danger the proponents and opponents of the final findings felt when Lee Harvey Oswald was signed, sealed, and delivered as official state killer better than Stone. If you grant JFK nothing else, you must admit it is one of the most brilliantly created, crafted, and directed works of moody modern cinema, a true stylistic statement of the power in images, design, and editing. The reason most people fear JFK's power to persuade (and potentially mislead) is that it so often feels like a documentary, an actual capturing of events back in real time as they happened. Stone's ability to manipulate fact is nothing compared to his ability to capture the feeling of history on the screen. He is a genius at visualizing the past so that it rings authentic in the present.
JFK is a movie that must be watched at least three times to get its full effect. Like a high tech history book exploding into a billion bifurcated images, Stone's statement about America's death of innocence resounds with a power that is simply overwhelming in the first run through. In its new director's cut edition with 17 extra minutes, it is still one of the shortest 200-minute movies ever made. And considering it is almost all talking, endless minutes of exacting exposition, the triumph of the narrative technique is even more impressive. The year he was nominated for Best Director, Stone deserved to win (even though Jonathan Demme's stellar work in The Silence Of The Lambs is hard to argue with). Even more than his work in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone's command of the cinematic language is incredible in JFK, using a mixed media style that would become a trademark in his future film work. But his work with actors, attention to detail in the sets and designs, the gloriously inventive editing, and engaging dialogue reveal a mastermind of uncompromising skill expertly creating a moment in our nation's time out of thin air and stock news footage, and the effect is unreal.
The first time you watch JFK you will sit, in cinematic awe, at the clever, creative, and clean way Stone manages to deliver reams of information to the audience. Those unfamiliar with the late, great leader or the impact he had on the nation are instantly transported back three and a half decades to Kennedy's rise to power. Through the use of montages, news clips, home movies, recreations, and absolutely eloquent narrations, it's the early '60s all over again and Washington is Camelot pre-tatters. If you ever wondered why people consider the Kennedy assassination a pinnacle moment in their personal life, JFK's opening ten minutes will fill you with the same sense of loss and hopelessness. Then, as we move through the layers of players and piles of paperwork, Stone still keeps the focus intact and fresh, never losing his audience and constantly reinforcing names and faces to promote recall. Perhaps the most compelling cinematic tour de force occurs when Jim Garrison goes to Washington to meet Mr. "X," a military intelligence official who sets up the second half of the film for us. Over what is basically a 15-minute conversation with one man doing most of the talking, Stone creates a sequence so intense and enlightening that it literally steals seconds of your life. Every note is perfect, every edit a thing of beauty.
The second time you view JFK, you experience anew the characters and acting. Stone makes the very interesting choice of filling this film with dozens of famous face cameos, big name stars, and Oscar winners all given a chance over one or two powerful scenes to strengthen his saga. And it works each and every time. Actors like Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Sally Kirkland, Joe Pesci, and Brian Doyle-Murray take their limited time onscreen and maximize it to brilliant effect. Like separate shadings within the same story, these recognizable faces bring their superstar success along with them, using it to support the stories they tell and the veracity they are supposed to evoke. But his stock company is also made up of absolutely compelling performances, acting that really makes the mad amount of information and counter-attack seem that much more believable and understandable. Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Wayne Knight, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones lose themselves in their roles as investigators and criminal targets until we actually begin to believe we are seeing the real people and the actual events passing before our eyes.
But special recognition must be given to Kevin Costner who plays Garrison as less of a wise old Cajun lawman and more of a Capraesque human vessel, ready to be filled and foiled by the events and people around him. Costner's performance is so subtle and nuanced that many find him the hollow center in an otherwise spellbinding film. But to discount him in this fashion (and frankly, there is no love lost between this critic and Costner's body of work) cheapens what is probably the best performance of a pilgrim's progress through the valleys of the shadow of death ever placed on film. Costner is unreasonable and suave, funny and foolish. His Garrison is a man sworn to defend the law but willing to bend it to get to the truth. Costner wears a pair of glasses that are crucial to understanding Stone's thesis surrounding JFK and Garrison. Every so often, when he turns his head or moves across a scene, Costner/Garrison's glasses catch the light and suddenly they become opaque, filled with brash brightness. They block his eyes, making them unreachable. The symbolism is two-fold. In some instances, these are moments when Garrison is "blinded" by his cause, using the Kennedy assassination and its tenuous links to New Orleans as a crusade against deep seeded government corruption. In other instances, they are epiphanies, the times when Garrison literally "sees the light." Costner, and frankly Stone's entire cast, captures this fever and fear perfectly. For all its directing finesse, JFK is an equally well-acted film.
The third time through this wound-up web of wild accusations and strange stories, you begin to ask yourself the big questions. What was the government hiding? Did they really not want the truth to come out or were they just fighting to keep classified top secret information from slipping into the wrong (read: Soviet) hands? Did Oswald really act alone, or was there something to all the New Orleans threads that kept showing up on the record? But perhaps the most important issue you start to confront is that of our representative democracy becoming ingrained, insular, and angry. Just like it's near impossible to imagine a time when "colored folks" were forced to use separate water fountains and restrooms, in our post-Woodward and Bernstein media mentality it seems silly that a bunch of elected officials and their appointed pals could clandestinely kill their own leader without someone knowing about it and blowing the whistle. And yet time and again, JFK cements a supposition that before Kennedy's death and even after the Watergate rats wept their mea culpas, there was a rogue element within our government that believed in maintaining its own power at any cost, including that of breaking the law and covering it up. Call it the military industrial complex or the Department of Defense. Point to the CIA or the FBI. But never forget that, beyond all the potential balderdash and judgment jumps, JFK stands for the citizen's right to question the government, free of reprisal or recourse. It's a lesson we still need to understand and live by some forty years later.
As a moviegoing experience, JFK is as epic as they come. It teleports us back to Dallas circa 1963, the grassy knoll, the police garage where Ruby confronted Oswald, and the Louisiana courtroom where Garrison fought for justice. It is a movie that never lets us off the hook. It offers up several intriguing scenarios, lays out every possible conspiracy no matter how whacked out or weird, and lets us pick through the pieces to develop our own hypothesis. It does occasionally preach instead of teach, and sometimes the message is smeared in blatant bias and misguided intentions. But there is no denying some certainties. The Warren Commission rubberstamped a theory with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Oswald, if he acted alone, committed the single greatest act of overcoming personal incompetence that ever occurred in the history of crimes against the State. And only one prosecutor, Jim Garrison of New Orleans Parrish in Louisiana, has ever, to this date, brought a criminal prosecution in connection with the Kennedy assassination anywhere. No other attempt has been made within the oath and evidentiary climate of a courtroom to discover the truth about what happened that day in Dallas. JFK is not a perfect film from a substantive standpoint, but it is one of the most compelling, intelligent, infuriating, and fascinating movies in the history of American cinema. It is a movie that makes you think and forms the foundation for decades of debate and dissension. While it may not be a classic of complete historical accuracy, it is indeed an archetypal film and one of the finest films ever conceived and executed.
Warner's new DVD release of this title is basically a reworking of their 2001 Director's Cut with the addition of a new documentary entitled Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy. Previous versions of the film were also criticized for being non-anamorphic. In this version, we get the 17 minutes of bonus footage, which is itself a mixed blessing (see the Rebuttal Witnesses), a gorgeous transfer filled with breathtaking imagery (the artistic use of the frame by Stone and many of his framing choices are exceptional in 2.35:1), and a 16x9 mastered print. The decision to leave the majority of the bonuses for disc two means that the transfer really sparkles. As does the sound. Stone loves to use ambient noises to fill in information and establish tone. The 5.1 Dolby Digital is wonderful, overflowing with a real spatial quality and enough directional overlapping to keep you off guard. Conversations start in corners and swim across the channels. Characters speak from vantage points mimicked in the onscreen blocking. The musical score—another brilliant, atypical job by John Williams—sprawls just beneath the surface, supporting the riveting material onscreen. As a visual and aural presentation, JFK is excellent. The fact that this version is also filled with hours of bonus content is the sweet icing on this carefully constructed cake.
There are basically three major bonuses on this disc. The first is a thoughtful, somewhat apologetic, occasionally self-aggrandizing commentary track by Stone himself. This is a movie and a subject the director is very passionate about, and while sparse in places, he tries to maintain a disinterested, reporter style persona, explaining backstory and admitting to areas in which liberties were taken. But every once in a while the passionate provocateur comes crawling out and we get another zealous diatribe about some aspect of the Warren Commission, the CIA, or any one of Stone's other sordid targets. The commentary is not without unique insights (the differences in drafts of the screenplay, the rearranging—and omission—of events to effect the storyline), but overall, this is an explanation and a reaffirmation of his work here. Stone believes in this film, and after listening to the commentary, you can sense just how serious he is.
The next major bonus is a brilliant, matter of fact documentary called Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy. Made in 1992 as kind of a response to the outcry against the film, this riveting dissection of the dissent surrounding the film and the naysayers who hold on to the "lone gunman, magic bullet" theory of the assassination is eye opening. When ardent Warren Commission supporters like Walter Cronkite suddenly confess to believing in "some manner" of conspiracy, the old party line from 30 plus years ago begins to fracture and crumble right in front of you. Sure, the conspiracy theorists seem a tad goof, exemplifying the "too much time on their hands" ideal with most of their suspicions. But by the end of this ninety-minute discussion of the event, the film, and its critics/proponents, you get the distinct impression that Stone is on the right path, he just may be driving the wrong car. The fact that it accomplishes all of this without resorting to biased side-taking makes Beyond JFK a welcome addition to this disc set.
The final major addition is another hour of deleted scenes featuring even more guarded commentary from Stone. The material here is presented from a time stamped workprint and it pales in comparison to the outstanding transfer of the film. There are color correction issues and some awkward lighting, but overall, these scenes are almost good enough to be reincorporated into a VHS copy of the film. As they stand, they show that JFK could be a five or six hour film and still barely scratch the surface of the information and insinuations Stone wishes to make. Some of the material is merely repetitious and was cut for those reasons, but other portions, like more about Oswald's home life and discussion of the key eyewitnesses, are thought provoking and insightful. Add to this a couple of short, sweet, and to the point multimedia essays (discussing new documents released in the late '90s and conversations with Fletcher Prouty, the inspiration for Mr. "X" in the film), excellent production notes, reviews of the film, and some exceptional DVD-ROM content, and you've got an in-depth, fairly comprehensive package that covers both the film and the event in fine detail.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When Oliver Stone revisited this title for release on video after its initial theatrical run, he added 17 minutes of footage that he felt clarified his theories and strengthened the information he offered the first time around. Unfortunately, this material is now an indoctrinated staple of this film's presentation and this DVD (and others) does not allow you the option to view the original theatrical cut. Anyone who saw the film upon its initial release in theaters (this critic included) misses the lyrical brilliance of certain sequences that now seem a little bloated with the bonus footage. Specifically, the meeting montages where Oswald and Shaw are discussed seem overstuffed. A sequence on a faux-Johnny Carson show is pretty pointless and there is a vague, uneventful threat at an airport terminal. Though the chapters where this bonus footage occurs are clearly marked (and one assumes, they can be avoided during playback by discrete programming), it seems to make more sense to have an option to view the original version and the "improved" director's cut. Having only one option seems unfair.
In some ways, it's understandable why Stone took so much heat for this film. JFK is not a comfortable movie to comprehend. It says things about our government, our system, and our own personal sense of liberty and autonomy that are scary and painful. Just like the notion of 747 jet airplanes being used as human filled "missiles" against skyscraper targets in our largest metropolis, the idea that our government would want to "avoid" the truth about who killed Kennedy, the President of the people, is unsettling to the point of depression. Those awful questions of "why" keep coming up, and Stone seems to suggest even more avenues of inquiry than he resolves.
But as a film, JFK is a spectacular experiment in docudrama as an argument for action and treatise for a time gone by. While watching the movie unfold, one holds out hope that the country that quieted its critics, that stifled independent investigation, and sold a seemingly fraudulent bill of goods as the honest result of a fair and impartial commission, is long gone and as faded into history as the events that occurred in Dallas in 1963. But, unfortunately, another feeling comes crawling up the back of your neck as you view Stone's story of innocence lost and the truth untold. You get the distinct feeling that nothing has changed and in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "it's déjà vu all over again." Forty years later and the nation still seems like it did at the end of JFK: torn, twisted, and tainted by the scent of corruption and manipulation. Apparently, we are condemned to repeat history, no matter how much we think we've learned from it.
As one of the best films of the 1990s and American cinema overall, JFK is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Brothers is also commended for the DVD package they have created. Unfortunately, with the ultimate truth about the Kennedy Assassination still open for conjecture, the Court has no choice but to remain in session until the matter is resolved once and for all time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Oliver Stone
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