It is usually best to see a movie fresh— without a lot of preconceptions. In the case of JFK, that is difficult. Director Oliver Stone’s dramatic investigation into John F. Kennedy’s assassination became a target of controversy long before it was completed. Prominent U.S. journalists who obtained early drafts of the script charged that Sune had fallen for the most paranoid conspiracy theories. And now that JFK is out, it has been bitterly condemned by assassination experts, from conspiracy theorists to former members of the Warren Commission—which came to the now-disputed conclusion that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald alone.
JFK does play fast and loose with the facts. Stone has intercut dramatic and documentary footage so skilfully that fact and fabrication become inseparable. That is what alarms many historians. But that is what makes the movie so seductive: JFK is rivetting entertainment. Despite a wooden performance by Kevin Costner, Stone’s three-hour blitz of words and images is utterly engrossing.
The director has built his story around New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Costner), who carried out the only prosecution
in the assassination. Garrison’s investigation led to the 1969 trial of Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a New Orleans businessman who was acquitted of conspiring to kill Kennedy. Stone became interested in making the movie after reading Garrison’s 1988 book, On the Trail of the Assassins. But he has chosen to ignore allegations that Garrison used bribes and threats to obtain testimony. Stone turns him into an untarnished hero, armed with material scavenged from 28 years of assassination theories.
Stone describes JFK as a “whydunit.” And the movie’s speculations are bold—that highlevel officials seeking to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam ordered Kennedy’s assassination; that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a possible accomplice; that the killing was a military-style ambush in which Oswald served as a decoy; and that the Warren Commission inquiry, headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, was a coverup.
The movie begins with newsreel flashbacks. Then-President Dwight Eisenhower warns of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. President Kennedy says that the war in Vietnam cannot be won. History accelerates to that sunny afternoon in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963— the motorcade, the gunfire, the pandemonium. In New Orleans, Garrison watches it on TV and
says, “God, I’m ashamed to be an American.”
His involvement begins three years later, with his inquiry into an incident in New Orleans that took place on the night of the assassination: a private investigator named Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon) was beaten up by his boss, Guy Bannister (Ed Asner), an ex-FBI man thought to be connected to Oswald. The trail leads to a cabal of right-wing extremists, including the hysterical David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a hairless man with fake eyebrows and a ludicrous toupee. Ferrie dies in an apparent suicide that the movie suggests is murder. Other potential witnesses vanish mysteriously. Garrison’s conspiracy case eventually hinges on Shaw, a homosexual with CIA connections who is linked to the assassination by a gay hustler, Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon).
The movie is a blizzard of names, faces and facts. It requires concentration. But Stone enlivens the narrative with provocative cameos—including one by Garrison as Warren. Gary Oldman creates an enigmatic Oswald. And Donald Sutherland delivers the movie’s most arresting performance as Mr. X, a Deep Throat from the intelligence community who is based on a source consulted by Stone.
In dramatic terms, the movie’s weakness is Costner’s stolid portrayal of Garrison. At times, the actor’s southern twang is awkward. And his weepy speech ending the trial has to be one of the longest, most sanctimonious courtroom sermons in screen history. Stone attempts to humanize Garrison with a perfunctory subplot that shows how his obsession almost drives his wife, Liz (Sissy Spacek), to divorce. But the family heals itself all too conveniently. And Stone’s deification of Garrison is no more credible than that of Jim Morrison in The Doors, released earlier this year.
In the end, JFK’s images are more compelling than its characters. Stone intercuts from color to sepia to black and white. He explores rifle trajectories in fascinating detail. He stages a lurid re-enactment of Kennedy’s autopsy. And he exploits every frame of the famous 8-mm home movie of the assassination—Kennedy clutching his throat, his head snapping back, Jackie in pink crawling across the trunk.
Stone has suggested that he is as fascinated by myth as by fact. He has called Kennedy the slain father of his generation. And the director has compared his own mission in making JFK to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. By playing with Hollywood fiction to “catch the conscience of the king,” Stone risks being taken for a fool. But he has made an unforgettable movie with the useful message that something is rotten in the state of America.
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