For those who lived through it, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States of America, marks a distinct moment, a moment when a kind of innocence was blown away. Suddenly the world felt less safe and, if the young, vibrant president could be killed, how could anyone feel totally secure? Coupled with the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up a decade later, it's a wonder that anyone can still blindly trust the government. Well, if Oliver Stone had his way, no one would.
The release of JFK was a defining moment in the history of motion pictures just as the events it depicts divided politics. Before JFK it would have been very hard to sell a political film in which the truth is questioned, twisted, warped, and ultimately found unattainable, in which the highest levels of our government are accused of unthinkable acts, and in which the title character is assassinated before the opening credits finish rolling. From a cinematic stand-point a film with a three-hour plus running time that ends with what is essentially a 45 minute monologue doesn't seem a likely candidate for mainstream release.
JFK follows New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) for several years after Kennedy's assassination. During that time Garrison, a staunch believer in Kennedy, America, and the ideals of justice, discovers that several shady figures in his own jurisdiction were tied in to various conspiracy theories. In the film's prolonged climax Garrison prosecutes Claw Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a colorful local celebrity that, Garrison believes, was involved in the plot to kill Kennedy. It is a measure of Garrison's persistence and obsession that, during the trial, he delves so deep into the conspiracies that he loses sight of the matter at hand: Prosecuting one individual. This isn't an oversight. Garrison's (and Stone's) intention was to put a face on a hidden agenda and to get the public questioning: Questioning the intelligence community's denials, questioning the Warren Commission's report attributing the assassination to a lone gunman, questioning the status quo of lies and deceit regularly fed them.
Oliver Stone's achievement here is that JFK is actually a very entertaining film. It is the first, and best, instance of collage filmmaking by Stone. His mastery of a variety of visual styles, editing, and juxtaposition makes JFK almost seem interactive. Some criticized the film as falling prey to shallow MTV-style technique, but the montage is totally appropriate. The main theme of the film is the need to question the words of others and the way different viewpoints shape our collective consciousness. JFK incorporates many different styles, film stocks, and rhythms to craft a whole that seems pieced together from shreds of memories and lies. It dares to make points and try to work them out. (Stone used this style again in, among other films, Natural Born Killers, where it made sense as a media-criticism, and in Nixon, where it was totally inappropriate.)
Like Fight Club, JFK travels down paths that it later discovers to be dead-ends; The point is the journey. For instance, when a character speculates that Lee Harvey Oswald was actually identified as a fatter man by one witness and a pair of men by another, Stone shows both of these scenarios. Much was made at the time of Stone's turning rumor and innuendo into cold, hard fact by visualizing them (the alleged fabrication of the famous Oswald rifle photo being a prime example) but film is a visual medium and JFK is fully aware of that. It uses images to experiment with theories and notions, some founded in fact, others purely speculative. In an age of advanced media sophistication it is limiting to still draw a line between what is permissible because it can be proved and what should not be shown because it can be misconstrued. Art should challenge and reach and JFK pushes the notion of what is real and what is fantasy in interesting and new directions.
Where previous political conspiracy films like The Manchurian Candidate, The China Syndrome, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President's Men (all of which are outstanding films) are relatively conventional in style, JFK itself seems to be coming apart at the seams the way the fabric of the society it depicts tore a little further each time a national leader was assassinated. The film weeps for the horrors of the 60's: JFK, RFK, MLK, but it also seems angry and impatient. When Garrison sits in the Dallas book depository with Oswald's rifle, attempting to simulate the fatal shots, he seems horrified at the act, but also disgusted at his own ability to mimic it. When Garrison and his colleagues stand amidst the New Orleans headquarters of the FBI, CIA, and other unaccountable national agencies the camera cranes upward, attempting to take in the full scope of secret power, the way the camera cranes up in All the President's Men as Woodward and Bernstein leaf through evidence at the Library of Congress, just starting to understand the complexity of the Watergate cover-up. The hypnotic mini-movie at the center of The Parallax View and the gardening-hypnotism scene in The Manchurian Candidate come the closest to predicting JFK's layered construction.
The cast of JFK rises to Stone's challenge, turning in uniformly outstanding work. Kevin Costner controls his usual sappiness and plays Garrison straight enough that he works as a vehicle to introduce the dense side-shows. Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, and Joe Pesci have fun showboating as colorful N'awlins creeps with varying levels of possible involvement in the underlying conspiracy. Gary Oldman completely disappears into Lee Harvey Oswald, hitting the perfect marks in some of the most iconic moments in modern history. Team players Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and John Candy are effective as some of the assorted characters that Garrison encounters along the way. Donald Sutherland is suitably mysterious as the informant known only as "X", a secret whistle-blower with an unnamed military post. The information that he provides Garrison is totally unproveable, but there is no doubt that there are people like X out there that have seen more than they can reconcile with their consciences. (see the extras section for more on this character.)
The only consistently weak thread is Sissy Spacek's as Garrison's wife. Humanizing Garrison as a husband and a father was not necessary as it's his mission, not his person, that is important. Garrison is portrayed as a total straight-shooter, but the best way to bring him down to human levels wouldn't have been to show him forgetting Easter dinner (who cares about that when truth and justice are in jeopardy?) but to be a little more explicit in the ways that Garrison's broad scope of inquiry blurred his ability to maintain focus on the smaller details at times. His pursuing of Clay Shaw becomes a little abstract after a while. What exactly is he insinuating that Shaw did, specifically? It's a tough situation, but the main idea is that somebody did something and they did it undetected. In a time of political double-speak where we live under a government that kowtows endlessly to sinister corporate interests and not what is best for the American people, JFK's main message rings clear: No governing body is to be trusted blindly. It's a lesson that we cannot afford to miss.
The video on Warner's recent re-release (timed to be included in their new Stone boxed sets) is an improvement over previous releases. The length of the film hasn't prevented a crisp, unblemished transfer. The colors are slightly muted but, given the obsession to visual detail, that is probably intentional. Considering the number of sources and styles represented, the new transfer works extremely well. This is the first anamorphic release of JFK and also the first to include the entire film on one side.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is used well. Full of subtle atmospheric effects as well as bold, disorienting sequences, this is a perfect film for enjoying complex, textured dialog-driven sound design.
Warners has spun a full 180 degrees from their original bare-bones flipper by including an impressive set of extras with JFK. Disc one includes the film and an informative commentary track from Stone. In scene after scene Stone is able to articulate his intentions, his methods, his influences, as well as the social, political, and historical factors at play. His memory is excellent as he quotes speeches verbatim and recalls details and moments from a complex and twisty period. He also discusses what is based on fact and what is speculated on by him or others. Stone, a veteran of the Viet Nam war, has spent much of his film career obsessing over the period of American and international history from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies and JFK, along with Nixon, is his chance to tie it all together. Unlike many filmmakers who look at their material from a cinematic or academic viewpoint Stone seems genuinely pissed. It's this anger that sometimes drives him to create what some criticize as overly sensationalistic films, but no one can argue that he doesn't have his heart in it.
The second disc contains a couple of interesting elements. Most notable is the short video "Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty" a collection of interviews with the military officer who provided Stone with some of his most incendiary theories. This sort of first hand input is somewhat rare in public entertainment and is very valuable as it adds a voice other than Stone's to the presentation. It would have been great if Jim Garrison himself had recorded an interview or commentary for JFK before his death in 1992, but that only serves to point out the need for historical context for these films. (Hopefully a deluxe All the President's Men will someday be released with input from Woodward and Bernstein as well as any other key players.)
The disc also includes a short feature called "Assassination Update - The new Documents" which details documents that were made public partially due to the reaction to Stone's film. The segment is short and could definitely be the subject of a much longer documentary, but its inclusion here is informative.
In addition to these programs JFK includes nearly an hour of deleted and extended scenes. Stone's commentary is included on an alternate track for these clips and once again he is able to clearly explore his motivations and intentions. For the viewer who has no reservations about watching even MORE JFK, these additional scenes, culled from a not-great rough cut transfer, are an outstanding supplement.
The trailer included on the second disc had serious problems and would barely play, but I think that that was a problem specific to my copy. It could have been related to the shoddy packaging of the second disc, which is tucked into a paper envelope in a nook of the snapper case. This sort of packaging is totally unprofessional and cheap looking. I wouldn't want to buy a 10 movie Oliver Stone boxed set and find the second discs on several movies were scuffed from crummy packaging.
A DVD-ROM section features additional trailers, web-links, and reviews of the film from its original release. I won't be nit picky, since this is a very good release overall, but the second disc doesn't seem to really utilize the storage capabilities of DVD to the fullest. Perhaps an episode of "Larry King Live" or some other news show discussing the film with Stone would have made a nice supplement. Warners seems to understand the need for context with this particular release and has concentrated more on the material of the film than the form (there is no "behind-the-scenes" segment on how great a time the actors had on the set or how much fun the shoot was). The presentation is appropriately sober. I only wish a few more items could have been included.
JFK is an intelligent and thoughtful film but the danger, as with all things political, is that believing too easily leads to blindness and confusion. No one should watch JFK as if it were a documentary (although I believe that there is more truth in Stone and Garrison's theories than in the pat Warren Commission report), but rather as a plea for open minded reconsideration of the government line as gospel. As The X-Files' Fox Mulder, a character influenced in no small way by Garrison and JFK, would say, "Trust no one." Like Garrison and Stone, however, he would also retain the faith in the truth to keep searching.