This is a reworking of my previous JFK review in order to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the assassination.
For the past fifty years, the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been a major touchstone not just for America but for everyone in the world, transitioning from the idealism of the fifties to the uncertain age of the 60s and 70s. Since 1963, conspiracy theorists have speculated that Lee Harvey Oswald, the so-called killer, was a patsy and that the real culprit was still out there. Jim Garrison, the district attorney of New Orleans, thought something was awry and so does director Oliver Stone. Stone’s JFK not only follows Garrison’s path through the events of the Oswald investigation, it conveys the fear of a post-JFK world.
When JFK debuted, it received an enormous amount of controversy that still circles around the film today. Critics accused Stone of misusing and misrepresenting facts and over-sympathizing with Garrison to mislead audiences. Historians decried that Stone was popularizing conspiracy for box office success. But JFK does not matter whether Garrison was right or wrong and whether Oswald was a victim or murderer. It’s about reliving the anxiety that rushed through America, that even in a modern age a president could be killed.
In ordaining the structure, Stone opens up with a recreation of the assassination, compiled of actual as well as staged footage. Oswald (Gary Oldman) is quickly captured after the shooting and arrested, but the backstory doesn’t make sense. Oswald would have to have been an expert shooter in order to kill Kennedy, not to mention pedestrian reporting is scrambled and less than reliable. Garrison (Kevin Costner) questions the facts and sets out to discover the reality. Like Richard Dreyfus’ Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Garrison is a truth-seeker, pursuing any measure to protect people’s right to know what really happened on that fateful day. His wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) doesn’t want Garrison to do this and believes he’s endangering his family. But Garrison wants to make a world where his children can know the truth, where facts are detained.
The rest of the movie compiles of Garrison theorizing the events. Possible suspects include David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), who may have been Oswald’s get away driver, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a suspected C. I. A. operative who may be hiding some secrets of the assassination, and multiple witnesses who profess various accounts of the shooting.
Many detractors claim that Oliver Stone has just jumbled multiple theories together and it’s difficult for the viewer to comprehend the story. True, there are many parts of the film that are hard to follow, but I believe this is Stone’s intention. It’s his job as a director to thrill and entertain the audience and while he floods viewers with heavy dialogue scene after another, not a single second of the running time is dull. Using John William’s heart-thumping score, Stone makes the film as exhilarating and tense as possible. The director’s cut is almost three and a half hours long yet Stone keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout the entire film. He paces the movie magnificently, keeping it quick and sharp. The film is filled with the amazingly fast energy rivaling the rapid cutting of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. He and his editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia operate the movie smoothly and quickly, supporting the sheer epic quality of the picture.
The cast further highlights Stone’s intentions. Kevin Costner’s portrays Garrison as an everyman, someone who cares deeply about his country as much as his family. I may not be the biggest fan of Costner, but he’s perfect for this role, symbolizing the truth and justice behind America. Tommy Lee Jones also deserves much credit for his performance as Clay Shaw, which he was nominated for an Oscar. And fans of Seinfeld will surely recognize Wayne Knight, who lovingly parodied the movie in the episode “The Boyfriend.”
What makes JFK a masterpiece is its ability to respond to Kennedy’s assassination. Right and wrong is ultimately not the point (for the matter, I would not be surprised if just about 90% of the film is not true). The end credits indicate that the government will release the files in 2029, which may or may not include these findings. But until then, JFK is the goldmine for hungry conspiracy theorists and the peak of political thrillers.