JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

If you want to learn about the most famous murder of the 20th century, don’t watch Oliver Stone’s movie about it.  For god’s sake, learn all you can about the assassination of John F. Kennedy from history class and (relatively) unbiased textbooks first, and then visit Stone’s grand epic that tries to throw those history classes and (relatively) unbiased textbooks out the window of the Texas School Book Depository.  Not satisfied with the Warren Report’s explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald and Lee Harvey Oswald alone was responsible for firing three of the most precisely fired bullets EVER into the President of the United States (and really, is there anyone fully satisfied with that appallingly cryptic explanation?), Louisiana D.A. Jim Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner) goes so far as to implicate the C.I.A., the weapons industry, and President Johnson himself in Kennedy’s murder.  At times he’s frighteningly persuasive, at times frighteningly obsessive and downright crazy.  And that’s exactly what Oliver Stone’s film is – persuasive one minute, total bullshit the next.  But with filmmaking talent like Stone’s, even the bullshit of “JFK” becomes incomparably compelling.

There’s a reason why “JFK” was embroiled in all that controversy even before it was released.  It practically launched Oliver Stone’s reputation as that crazy, left-wing conspiracy theorist.  Guess introducing the idea of a massive government cover-up and plot to assassinate the President might do that, might just be a stretch.  And there are points galore in “JFK” where ‘stretch’ doesn’t begin to describe the absolute gluttony of theories and speculations and facts about bullet angles and Oswald and who was where at Dealey Plaza on that fateful day.  More than once I just laughed out loud when Garrison or his colleagues or his informant Mr. X would just conclude from the shadiest ‘evidence’ imaginable that the whole assassination occurred to prevent a troop withdrawal from Vietnam.   It’s really silly, but perhaps the most compelling silliness you’ll ever see.  There was nary a moment in this three-hour film (it didn’t feel nearly that long, by the way) that didn’t have my complete and rapt attention.  I was thoroughly absorbed in every who-was-where, who-did-what, who-was-affiliated-with-who, and magic bullet that Oliver Stone threw at me.  Hell, I couldn’t afford not to be thoroughly absorbed with the orgy of information this movie’s got for us, or I would’ve been hopelessly lost.  If you consider “JFK” to be a straight-up murder mystery / thriller / courtroom drama, then it’s got more evidence and information than just about any other film of its kind that I’ve seen.  Donald Sutherland’s mysterious Mr. X gives a monologue to Garrison for at least 10 minutes which is just fact after fact, conjecture after conjecture, that achieved a kind of poetry.  I find it shocking that even an actor of Donald Sutherland’s caliber could actually memorize all that crap without reading it off cue cards.  And of course there’s Kevin Costner’s now-famous closing statement at the trial of Clay Shaw (the only man ever tried for the murder of John F. Kennedy), complete with the Zapruder tape analysis, the implication of everybody in the U.S. government and their grandmothers, and his best Jimmy Stewart impression in imploring the jury to see justice done.  Even if this movie didn’t have the impeccable flashback structure, dialogue delivery of the facts alone by people like Mr. X and Garrison are so saturated with stuff that you couldn’t possibly keep up…but by god you’ll try to.

But thank god those flashbacks are there, ‘cuz you’ll need them.  The (Oscar-winning) editing of past and present is haphazard and quick and chaotic – just like the chaotic mess that Jim Garrison finds himself trying to piece together.  You combine a barrage of information thrown at you from all sides, little snippets of images of what might have happened at different times, and John Williams’ over-the-top but thrilling score and you’ve got some damned compelling conjecture to sort through.  You’re as absorbed in all the information, misinformation, and straight-up speculation as an increasingly-obsessed Jim Garrison is, and it’s all thanks to Oliver Stone’s artistry.  And the cast, a who’s-who of famous faces, ain’t no slouch either.  Some of the ‘performances,’ like blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em appearances by Walter Mathau, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon and John Candy, are just distractions and could’ve been much more effective with unknown faces.  Others, though, are excellent – Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Pesci…being Joe Pesci, as a hotheaded pilot and possible Oswald compatriot, Kevin Bacon as a gay prostitute, and of course Tommy Lee Jones as the subtly flamboyant Clay Shaw.  Good luck sorting out who’s who among these zany characters, ‘cuz that’ll be as tough as sorting out the cacophony of facts – tough, but really, really fun.  This movie and its wide range of theories is like that insolvable puzzle that you can’t help but try to futilely figure out one piece at a time.  It’s like when you feel that great sense of pride upon completing one side of the Rubik’s Cube – and then realizing you still have five sides to complete, and you have no choice but to completely undo what you’ve already accomplished.

Oliver Stone does a hell of a job making this mess of assumptions and theories just clear enough to make the conspiracy argument frighteningly compelling, but he also does a wise thing in not completely buying into it.  In fact, the film’s version of Jim Garrison is often demonized as an obsessive whack job who’s lost all sense of priority.  The film’s big weak point is trying to melodramatically humanize the Garrison family in thankless and clichéd scenes involving fights with his wife played by Sissy Spacek, but even putting those aside, just think about how far Jim Garrison takes this, implicating the highest levels of the United States Government in a massive conspiracy of treason and murder, and watch how Kevin Costner becomes just a little too emotionally drawn to his final argument (in what’s easily the best performance of the otherwise irritating Costner’s career, by the way), and you’ll see that Stone doesn’t exactly paint the brightest picture of this guy.  His closing argument in the courtroom comes complete with scale-models, charts, the Zapruder film, facts, speculations, and a big emotional pay-off – but does little if anything to implicate Clay Shaw, the one who’s actually in the defendant’s chair.  In fact, he only refers to Shaw by name once or twice.  If Lee Harvey Oswald was the ‘patsy’ in the assassination plot like he claimed after being arrested, then Shaw was Garrison’s ‘patsy.’  Garrison had no case against Shaw and knew it – he just wanted an avenue to make his grand theories public, to let it all out and vindicate himself of his obsession.  We can see how cockeyed Garrison and his theories are, but thanks to that craaaaazy liberal Oliver Stone and his gift for making a hell of a mystery/ thriller regardless of how it leans politically, we become as intoxicated in the information as Garrison does.  It’s ridiculous to think that a conspiracy to kill Kennedy went as far as Garrison claimed, but one head going ‘back and to the left’ later, I defy you to say with a straight face that one man with a shitty gun from a shitty vantage point could’ve done that to the head of the most powerful man in the world with three shots in six seconds.


1 comment so far

  1. tpfleming on

    If it’s ridiculous to think the plot went as far as Garrison claimed, how do you explain the fact that the president’s wounds changed between Dallas and Washington. The Parkland doctors’ descriptions of the wounds differ greatly from the Bethesda doctors’ descriptions of the wounds. The autopsy photos and reports bear little resemblance to the Dallas medical personnel’s eyewitness accounts of the wounds as they appeared at Parkland Hospital.

    The fact is, the wounds were altered to obliterate evidence of shots from the front; thereby, the plotters were free to frame Oswald who, supposedly, was shooting from above and behind. When you come to grips with this, and accept this as fact, you’ll begin to understand the full scope and magnitude of the plot. Who was powerful enough to have access to the body and to alter the body on its way back to Andrews AFB? Who?

    Tim Fleming
    author, “Murder of an American Nazi”

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