Monday, March 26, 2007
JFK (1991) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek
I still remember seeing JFK in the theatres way back in 1991. Even after the endurance of 189 minutes of information overload and conspiracy theory bombardment I was still twitching from excitement. That’s the experience of seeing the film for the first time. If you haven’t seen JFK and think you know anything about post War America, you don’t.
The film is more than just about finding that second gunman on the grassy knoll, it’s an epic journey through American cold war politics – America’s most terrifying and paranoia-fueled period in its history. The film starts with a virtuoso sequence dramatizing the fateful last moments of President Kennedy’s life. We begin in 1960, Martin Sheen’s voice is unmistakable and his speech summarizes the complicated yet comprehensive backstory with clarity. Stone mashes virtually every form of media he can get his hands on to visualize the events. In fact, as the film progressed I realized his psychotic (and Oscar-winning) editing technique was a completely new form of cinema. I’d never seen anything like it before. The next scene dramatizes the actual assassination with great suspense and skill. I was watching a master filmmaker at the height of his talents. John Williams’ snare drum music cue of this scene is terrific. In fact, his score was his best in 10 years, and he hasn't been better since.
After the assassination, we see the aftermath from the point of view of the New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison. He discovers some not-so-coincidental connections of the assassination to the city of New Orleans. Years later, after the Warren Commission is released and Lee Harvey Oswald is declared the lone gunman, the verdict still doesn’t sit well with Garrison. After reading the entire volume of material on the case, he decides to conduct his own investigation. Garrison describes the inconsistencies of the case and the New Orleans connections to his staff in a terrific scene as he walks through the famed French quarter pointing out all the details and movements of the conspiracy’s nefarious characters.
The investigation consumes Garrison, which troubles his wife, his colleagues and his superiors. Garrison’s obsession compound and his life becomes consumed by the detailed minutiae of the evidence. With his wife about to leave him, his office bugged by the CIA and his staff deserting him, Garrison meets his “deep throat” referred to as X (deliciously played by Donald Sutherland). X confirms to Garrison how close he is to uncovering the trail of breadcrumbs, he also expands Garrison’s and the audience’s scope of the events beyond the cosmetic details of the magic bullet. We’re given full context for the assassination. “Well that's the real question, isn't it?” X says, “The Why? The how and the who is just scenery for the public.”
The film shouldn’t be judged on the validity or strength of Garrison’s and Stone’s argument, it’s not a whodunit, and it’s not meant to solve the crime. It’s meant to open our minds to the threat Kennedy’s Presidency represented to the higher powers at be, the powers that needed a Cold War to fight Cuba, the mob, Communism, and Vietnam. There’s a very interesting ABC documentary available “The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy” which actually refutes all of Stone’s physical evidence and supports the lone gunman theory. In fact, ABC's arguments are just as compelling as Garrison's - I really don't know who to believe - but it hasn't coloured my opinion of Stone’s film in the least.
It was and still is an electric film and in my view is a landmark of cinema, and certainly one of the best films of the 90’s. Enjoy.
Buy Stone’s film here: JFK
Buy the anti-Stone film here: The Kennedy Assassination - Beyond Conspiracy
Here’s the brilliant opening: