Released in 1991, JFK is the first official film of the ‘90s. Director Oliver Stone, a dramatist first and foremost, uses the defining moment of the second half of the 20th century – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – to try to figure out what exactly went so wrong in the wake of America’s triumphant prosperity following World War II. Stone sees the Kennedy assassination as the moment when his generation – the Baby Boomers, the generation to reap the rewards of the Greatest Generation – splintered into those who would forever be suspicious of authority and those who figuratively went to sleep to the constantly changing world around them.
Stone, an only child of privilege, turned his back on his roots by dropping out of Yale to join the Marines and go to the front line of Vietnam. He wanted to find himself. (In his autobiographical film Platoon, Stone’s surrogate, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) says he dropped out of college and volunteered because he didn’t see the point of the poor kids having to go to war. Fellow soldier King (Keith David) laughs and says, “Shit, you gotta be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know, the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.”) He came back from the war a decorated hero but just as confused as when he went, maybe more so. His experiences with combat, drugs and clashes with authority gave Stone the ammo to become one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, writing such pulp landmarks as Midnight Express and Scarface. He energized the second half of the 1980s with his electrifying directorial efforts Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Talk Radio, muckraking docudramas that flirted with danger with their confrontational attitude toward accepted history. Then, with Born on the Fourth of July, Stone began a transition into a more
JFK represents the culmination of Stone’s work up to that point, the curtain raiser for his extraordinary ‘90s run of movies that forced us to rethink our collective history and consider the history we were making. Part ‘70s-style political thriller, part Frank Capra dream, part mix-media collage of fact and speculation, JFK recreated the feeling of disorientation that swept across America beginning on November 22nd, 1963. The movie may have been set in the ‘60s, but its sensibility was present-day 1991. Stone uses the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison – a flamboyant, controversial, some would say reckless man who remains the only man to date to bring someone to trial for the assassination of President Kennedy – as his way into his own investigation of the case. In ‘70s political thrillers like The Conversation and All the President’s Men, both the protagonist and the audience were shocked to discover how corrupt The System was. JFK has no such illusions. It is infused with a nervous energy and constant state of paranoia, the byproduct of the coke-fueled go-go ‘80s. Hip audiences weren’t shocked to discover a cover-up conspiracy was afoot. They wanted the movie to go even deeper into the heart of darkness.
Old guard critics and historians were outraged at the time at what they saw as Stone playing fast and loose with history. They felt Stone had a responsibility to be clear and not muddy history with speculation. But Stone is not a historian; he’s a storyteller. His responsibility is to emotional truth. JFK is a movie told with hindsight. A scene of the Garrison family sitting around the dinner table as Jim talks about his growing concerns about the Warren Commission is like a Norman Rockwell tableau about to crack, an All-American family unit unaware that its days are numbered. The scene is followed by Garrison awakening from a nightmare, an awakening that America as a whole would be forced to go through. (That scene appears below.)
JFK’s groundbreaking free-form editing style and use of several kinds of film stocks upset traditionalists who felt fact-based docudramas should have clean narratives, as so not to confuse the viewer. But Stone and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia knew audiences were ready and capable of processing several pieces of information at once. We had been perfecting the ability to filter fact from fiction, speculation from theory. In a sequence where Garrison walks two of his assistants through his discovery of a secret intelligence community smack dab in the middle of New Orleans, where Lee Harvey Oswald spent his free time, we are shown Stone’s methodology. We see key characters like Oswald (Gary Oldman) or Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) emerge from building doorways as soon as Garrison says their names, as if entering from off-stage and being presented to the audience for consideration. When Garrison recounts documented events the film switches to handheld black and white photography. We take in the information on multiple levels at once and without any difficulty. As Garrison pieces things together, so do we. We begin to put the pieces together, deciding for ourselves what is important and what isn’t. (That scene also appears below.)
The film’s most incendiary instance of speculative imagery occurs when Garrison and his staff are discussing the discovery of Oswald’s palm print on the rifle. Garrison is suspicious of this and suggests that someone could’ve easily grabbed the print while Oswald was in the morgue. The movie cuts to a black and white image of someone lifting Oswald’s hand off the gurney and pressing it against the butt of the rifle. Critics criticized Stone for including such an image, fearing audiences would interpret it as found documentary footage. (Did they really think someone would allow himself to be photographed in such an incriminating manner?) Of course Stone’s critics knew the image was staged for dramatic purposes, but were concerned others wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The movie operates on two realities at once. On one level it tells the story of Jim Garrison’s growing obsession with solving a murder. On a basic high-concept level, JFK plays like Anatomy of a Murder crossed with Blow-Up. On another level, the movie is racing ahead of the characters as history marches past their discovery of new evidence. This is dramatized in the sequence where Garrison and his team sit around a restaurant table discussing the travel history of Oswald leading up to the assassination. The sequence is broken up with the doctoring of the famous photograph of Oswald holding the murder weapon in his hands. We see brief shots of the pasting of the image together in a darkroom. The scene climaxes with Garrison telling his team, “We’re through the looking-glass here, people. White is black and black is white. Maybe Oswald is what he said he is – a patsy.” At that instance we see the finished photograph. Stone is saying no matter how much “truth” we discover there are still forces at work. (That complete scene is below.)
The casting of Kevin Costner turned out to be a masterstroke as he uses his Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper-like rapport with the audience to bring them along on Stone’s shadow version of American history. Costner’s casting goes a long way to giving credibility to the frankly shaky reputation of the real-life Garrison. When Costner’s Garrison is walking to the courthouse and John Williams’ militaristic score accompanies him, it’s like an update of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This time the difference is that the fight might turn out to be a futile one. Costner is contrasted brilliantly with Tommy Lee Jones’ mysterious C.I.A. man Clay Shaw. Jones gives the character an effete style that turns out to be just a mask. When Shaw leaves Garrison’s office he extends his best wishes to everyone in the room. We’d almost believe his sincerity if it wasn’t for the fleeting moment when his eyes narrow and we realize he hasn’t revealed a thing about himself. The rest of the cast is comprised of actors who disappear into their roles as Stone employs an Irwin Allen-like genius for typecasting. He uses John Candy’s trademark jovial persona to shocking effect as a flamboyantly crooked lawyer. (His constant sweating tells us he’s in a constant state of crisis control.) Joe Pesci is all manic energy, chain-smoking and constantly explaining, as disgraced company man David Ferrie. Oldman is an enigma from beginning to end as modern history’s original Travis Bickle. And Kevin Bacon is terrific as a strutting gay hustler with a radical conservative streak. (He’s like Jon Voight’s Joe Buck minus the naiveté.) The ensemble casting of movies like JFK and Nixon is almost a lost art today. (It takes a Scorsese or Soderbergh to bring together a cast of high profile names willing to give themselves over to an envelope-pushing enterprise.) A scene involving Jones, Pesci, Bacon and Oldman is kind of amazing as we see different generations and acting styles meshing in order to further a story.
The highlight of the movie is Garrison’s meeting with Mr. X (Donald Sutherland), a high-ranking military official who tells him he is very close. The nearly 18-minute sequence is a spellbinding piece of filmmaking as fact, speculation, reenactments and documentary footage add up to a vision of the military-political machine operating on its own, as if human intervention is simply an inconvenience. It is the granddaddy of all walk-and-talk sequences with ‘70s Hollywood liberal icon Sutherland giving the film his seal of approval. (That scene scene appear above this graf.)
That sequence is mirrored by Garrison’s closing summation as he lays bare all the evidence he’s amassed as proof of a conspiracy. The centerpiece of his closing argument is the film’s bold use of the Zapruder 8 mm home movie of the assassination. Stone has Garrison replay the movie over and over again until we become convinced we can see exactly what happened. Or do we? In the end, the legacy of Oliver Stone’s JFK is not whether you believe Garrison or some other conspiracy theory or simply believe Oswald acted alone. What Stone dramatized is the moment when America stopped believing its own eyes, when the notion of “fact” would forever be up for debate.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.