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Time has been kind to 1991's most controversial film. With seventeen years' distance from the typhoon of official protest and political scorn, it's finally possible to evaluate the movie apart from the notoriety of its director, Oliver Stone. Only Michael Moore has elicited louder howls of "propaganda" and "fantasy masquerading as truth". If it's meant to be the absolute truth, Oliver Stone's JFK can condemned as a dangerous work of paranoia. Who needs more levels of myth and conjecture added to a tragedy already mired in flaky theories and wild conjecture? Movies as emotionally impactful as JFK can easily replace historical facts with "enhanced revisions" of history, as we've seen in influential shows like Sergeant York . Will Stone's movie version eventually become the accepted truth, like Washington chopping down the cherry tree?
Oliver Stone would say that the assassination is too important to be forgotten, just because all the facts aren't in. Every historical drama places politicians and generals in fictitious scenes, sticking writer's words in their mouths and reducing their complicated lives into storybook lessons. Stone claims that JFK is constructed only from known facts. He directs us to a conclusion that has been denied ever since November of 1963: American power has shifted into the hands of what Eisenhower called "the Military-Industrial Complex." Stone asserts that this unofficial coalition of the Pentagon, the defense industry and the intelligence community overrode the government in the 1960s, killing a president who threatened to stop the Vietnam War and make peace with the Soviets.
To make a movie that spells that out is more than a challenge, it's a minefield. An earlier generation of Hollywood liberals produced Executive Action, a 1973 "docudrama" about the Dallas assassination written by the noted conspiracy theorist Mark Lane. It made little impact. Stone relies on a book by Jim Garrison, a New Orleans District Attorney considered by some a great patriot and by others a deranged opportunist. Detractors would claim that Stone's film is nothing more than a better-publicized, more irresponsible Executive Action.
There's no denying that, as a commercial filmmaker, Stone benefits by making his conspiracy movie as controversial as possible. He's also definitely liberal in his viewpoint, as seen in his films Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July. After JFK Stone made two more scathing movies about U.S. presidents, neither of which distorts historical fact to any great degree.
The anti-conspiracy voices have a point. The Cult of Kennedy Lore is an easy sell to a public that already believes in flying saucers and mystic spirits. Conspiracy buffs have grown the Kennedy assassination into an industry of fuzzy, scurrilous and mostly worthless information: there are good reasons why our courts demand sound arguments and decent evidence. Detractors may claim that Stone's movie is the summit of this mountain of misinformation, but none have settled the doubts that still hover over the assassination.
The Warren Report appears to gloss over many facts and to ignore many others, including the firm testimony of actual witnesses to the assassination. Independent ballistic experts agree that Oswald couldn't have been the only shooter. Vital evidence was withheld from the public for years, most importantly the 8mm Zapruder film record of the killing. A national magazine printed frames from the Zapruder film out of order, misleading all America as to which bullet hit Kennedy first. Depending on what one reads, these assertions are either hard fact or hysterical myth.
JFK investigates the assassination through the experience of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), an individualist D.A. that Oliver Stone presents as a patriotic truth-seeker. Garrison's suspicion is aroused when he investigates a suspicious individual named David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), and hands him over to the Feds. Garrison and his staff can see that Ferrie is mixed up with a number of men with ties to the intelligence community, the anti-Castro community -- and to Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). But the F.B.I. lets Ferrie go after an interview. The eccentric Ferrie, businessman Clay Shaw (alias Clay Bertrand, played by Tommy Lee Jones), and convict Willie O'Keefe (Kevin Bacon) have homosexual ties. Private Eye Guy Bannister (Edward Asner) is an ex-intelligence man aiding Cuban rebels, with the help of clerk Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon). Sleazy lawyer Dean Andrews (John Candy) tells Garrison one story and a totally different one to other authorities. Oswald's killer Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) definitely has mob ties.
Garrison finds that a number of witnesses are dying by various kinds of accidents. A concerted media campaign is directed to discredit him and his investigation. He eventually makes contact with a secret source of information -- a "Deep Throat" witness who refuses to be identified. This "X" (Donald Sutherland) claims that a consortium of generals, shady CIA types and war industry power brokers conspired to kill Kennedy and point the guilt at Moscow, or Havana. "X" claims that he was a military intelligence supervisor assigned to head up security for the president. "X"'s superiors sent him to Antarctica just before the President's visit to Dallas -- where, against all rules of policy, most normal security measures were dropped from the motorcade route.
Stone starts with the day of the assassination and leads slowly up to Garrison's prosecution of Clay Shaw. When the court disallows key evidence, Garrison knows he can't get a conviction. His secondary goal is to use the trial to put his conspiracy theory into the public record. Stone's twenty-minute trial scene is a genuine tour-de-force of masterful montage, which includes the uncut Zapruder footage in all of its gruesome clarity.
Forty-six years ago, America trusted its authoritative voices. If Walter Conkite said something, it was fact: "The Warren Commission's findings are sound." Today we don't know what to believe, or even where to find untainted information -- many of our country's "news" outlets have partisan agendas. If Stone's version of the Kennedy killing is a complete fabrication, his detractors have never elaborated the exact items that are lies or distortions. But even if it's only 50% true, there's enough truth in it to seriously consider Stone's basic argument -- that the Military Industrial Complex pulled off a coup d'etat. 1
As a film, JFK is extremely well made. The script veers at times toward thin expository dialogue, but Stone deftly juggles several narrative threads as he builds his conspiracy thesis. Because nothing is dumbed down, many viewers will be unable to keep up with its complex weave of ideas and information. The cast is uniformly excellent. I'm sure that conservatives were enraged to see practically every liberal activist Hollywood actor in a plum part. Stone's movie surely helped inspire the self-serving conservative notion that Hollywood is a nest of left-wing radicals who "hate America".
Stone certainly is a wild man -- I find Natural Born Killers to be an almost wholly offensive mess -- but his politics aren't crazy, as his detractors make out. I remember being suspicious of JFK when it was new, if only because it asked me to accept too much information too quickly. I resisted being swept off my feet by the hyper-emotional conclusion. Who has the time to verify all of the movie's claims? One very rational reaction is to withdraw. Seventeen years later, enough of Stone's cinematic thesis remains still credible. The film's conclusions are buttressed by our greater willingness to believe in a culture of official lies.
Warner's Blu-ray of the Director's Cut of Oliver Stone's JFK looks great in Hi-Def. The extra quarter hour of footage smoothes out a few transitions and allows us time to absorb more information (or propaganda, take your pick). Color is excellent and the news film clips in the fast-cut montages make a strong impact. The Zapruder film is difficult to watch but a revelation of its own. As "X" proclaims to the New Orleans D.A., on a sunny day in D.C., "Kings are killed, Mister Garrison. Politics is power, nothing more!"
The voluminous extras are split between movie-oriented material and the kind of info overkill that conspiracy addicts love. Oliver Stone's commentary discusses ideas and subjects in a free-form manner. The director's calm and rational demeanor will disappoint detractors expecting hysterical behavior. Deleted and extended scenes include an alternate ending, a real stinker that was wisely discarded.
Watching the movie is both emotionally and mentally exhausting, so one might want to wait before going through the lengthy docus, featurettes and visual & text essays. A feature-length docu is included, along with a piece on the real man referred to as "X" in the movie. Savant's favorite is a piece on documents brought to light by the 1992 Assassination Materials Disclosure Act -- a bill inspired by popular demand after the release of JFK. One declassified letter confirms that a Network TV newsman was indeed passing information on Jim Garrison to the F.B.I., and promoting the production of news shows aimed at discrediting Garrison's investigation.
Bound into the book-format disc case is a 34-page souvenir booklet, heavy on graphics and publicity-oriented copy. Adequately framing this complex picture for a commercial context may be an impossible task, so the booklet is easily forgiven.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A great filmic expression of this gnawing disillusion can be found in some dialogue from Robert Aldrich's Hustle: "You think this America? Look around! You're living in a banana republic with color TV!"
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