|Directed by||Oliver Stone|
JFK is a 1991 American historical legal-conspiracy thriller film directed by Oliver Stone. It examines the events leading to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and alleged cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner).
Garrison filed charges against New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for his alleged participation in a conspiracy to assassinate the President, for which Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was found responsible by a government investigation: the Warren Commission.
Past the controversy
In the time since I first saw the film “JFK”, I have found myself inexplicably drawn to the events in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963. I have researched online and in libraries to learn the truth of these events, and I would say that my outlook on those matters has changed substantially. But underneath that, and the controversy that developed from it, there is one universal and almost indisputable truth regarding the film: JFK is simply an excellent movie. And no difference of opinion can refute this.
I have seen my fair share of films over the years, I’m not a cinema maniac by any means. But I think I can judge a quality product when I see one and that’s simply what this picture presents. It is, as Tom Wicker of the New York Times said at it’s release, propaganda; but the same can be said for every film by Michael Moore… of whom I’m NOT a fan… but they are still strong pictures.
JFK runs the difficult task of presenting fact, fiction, conjecture and opinion, twisting them all to present the increasingly difficult to dispute conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone (and according to director Oliver Stone, did not act) in the assassination of President Kennedy.
The films accomplishments though, past this controversial thesis, are many: 1.) Kevin Costner turns in one of the greatest performances of his career. While his accent is stronger than Garrison and the physical resemblance not astonishing, Costner three dimensionalizes a character and lives in it throughout the film.
2.) An impressive and versatile cast is used superbly. The film is loaded with quality stars such as Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones (in an Oscar nominated role), Gary Oldman, and Joe Pesci (who share an intense and crucial scene); as well as character actors and actresses such as Michael Rooker, Sissy Spacek, and Jay Saunders. Stone even navigates a dramatic turn from the late comedy great John Candy and utilizes Hollywood legends Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Donald Sutherland superbly.
3.) With the possible exception of the lone gunman theory, every possibility of truth is explored, at least in dialogue. Because the case has never been fully elaborated on no one can say for certain what the truth is; Stone presents all views while advancing his theory.
4.) The film is a masterwork of editing. It won the Oscar for film editing in 1991, and deserved it. I once read in Entertainment Weekly that a normal film has roughly 200 cuts in it; there are more than sixty in the opening minutes alone here. Even more impressive when you consider the variety of film used.
JFK is not absolute fact, it does not truly pretend to be. By Stone’s own admission, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, and Kevin Bacon play composites or dramatized characters, not the real thing. But standing alone as a movie, JFK is untouchably excellent. And if it does force you to question, as Costner’s Garrison asks in the closing moments “of what is our government made?”, then it’s all for the better.
Stone lone braveman
4 November 2001
“JFK” was and remains so controversial that any positive reviews (not to say they were characteristic) it received were dwarfed by the trashing to which it was subjected in the official press, which started well before it was released. This was disturbing, for what is the big need — it is just a movie. But to so many “JFK” was not, it was somehow threatening.
Ultimately, it does not matter whether JFK’s conclusion is correct, and I am even willing to give a little more license than I normally would to more-substantive, as well as less-important, inaccuracies, although I have my limits here too. But this movie’s significance is just that it was made. For although other films had chronicled the events surrounding the assassination, none had in any substantial way sought to discredit the Warren Commission, as was so absolutely merited.
Regardless of your opinion on what really happened, it is my view that everyone should be critical of the media, which were so obsequious to the Warren Commission. The New York Times from the start referred to Oswald as the “assassin,” not the “suspect.” Life Magazine altered photos strongly suggesting a shot had been fired from the grassy knoll. Many years later, when being interviewed by Dan Rather about his film, Oliver Stone said to his face, referring to the event: “Where were you, Dan?”
Indeed, in a documentary he made, Rather said, “in the absence of any CREDIBLE evidence, we can only…” This fallacy is a betrayal of the legal definition of evidence, with Rather’s poor characterization of the word “credible.” There is enormous, indeed endless, evidence contradicting the Warren Commission’s view, and much of it is certainly credible, including all the evidence of the Commission’s own efforts to conduct a dishonest and incomplete investigation and intimidate witnesses into changing their testimony to support the version it wanted.
In fact, I consider it Gerald Ford’s greatest character flaw that he served on it and backed its conduct and conclusion, a far more disturbing matter than his pardon of Nixon. Whether the evidence to which Rather referred is CONCLUSIVE is another story; that is up to us, the jury. The sort of smugness Rather shows has been characteristic of much of the media, and I do not know all the reasons they behaved as they did. Thus, we needed a more courageous, enterprising person like Oliver Stone to step in and fill the gap — the overwhelming majority of people believe the Commission got it wrong.
Stone’s enlistment of mere hypotheticals, theorized by Garrison (setting aside the final scene–there were moments before) or whoever, has been subjected to unfair, ill-conceived criticism. Most people who knew anything at all about the assassination believed there were problems with the Commission’s version before they saw this film, and came out of it with an elaboration and hypothesis, not a mindbender.
Even if we concede that some younger viewers knew little about the assassination, the notion of the critics of “JFK” that the film would automatically program their minds is an insult to their intelligence, of the ability of people in general to think and come to their own conclusions. Indeed, no one to whom I have EVER spoken has betrayed a view of events that reflects even most, if not all, of Stone’s conclusions. If any programming is called for, it is to program people against the Commission’s version, not, as its defenders would wish, against Stone. For no one can be programmed to accept Stone’s alternate view.
OK, some inaccuracies of Stone can be criticized, such as his portrayal of Garrison (All-American Kevin Costner, natch) as a wholesome hero, and the time-between-shots issue (it is now generally conceded that there was enough time, based on all the evidence, for Oswald to have done it, for those who believe he did). Perhaps the speech by David Ferrie never occurred, but it still reflects the widely held view that the CIA and Mafia worked together in this matter.
Certainly, many people in the government despised Kennedy, and there were substantially more elements of this hostility than portrayed in the film. Anyway, we can go on and on. The Warren Commission tried to cover up overwhelming evidence that Ruby knew Oswald, that a shot was fired from the grassy knoll, that a dark-skinned man fired shots from the Dallas School Book Depository, and that Officer Tippit was killed by someone other than Oswald (actually, two people). Well, at least some members resisted the single bullet theory (I guess that passes Rather’s definition of “credible”), although they ultimately signed the report.
I do not agree with Oliver Stone’s specific ultimate conclusion about the central moving force of the assassination. But he has the right to suggest the U.S. government was involved, and many, including myself, think it was involved somehow, but that what is debatable is merely to what extent and how far up. Hats off to Stone for his courage and thoughtfulness in making his necessary statement.
9 out of 10
Zachary Sklar, a journalist and a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, met Garrison in 1987 and helped him rewrite a manuscript that he was working on about Kennedy’s assassination. He changed it from a scholarly book in the third person to “a detective story – a whydunit” in the first person. Sklar edited the book and it was published in 1988. While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison’s book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with $250,000 of his own money to prevent talk going around the studios about projects he might be developing.
Kennedy’s assassination had always had a profound effect on Stone: “The Kennedy murder was one of the signal events of the postwar generation, my generation.”Stone met Garrison and grilled him with a variety of questions for three hours. Garrison stood up to Stone’s questioning and then got up and left. His pride and dignity impressed the director. Stone’s impressions from their meeting were that Garrison “made many mistakes. He trusted a lot of weirdos and followed a lot of fake leads. But he went out on a limb, way out. And he kept going, even when he knew he was facing long odds.”
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison’s life, but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He also bought the film rights to Jim Marrs’ book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.
One of the filmmaker’s primary goals with JFK was to provide a rebuttal to the Warren Commission’s report that he believed was “a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a counter-myth.”Even though Marrs’ book collected many theories, Stone was hungry for more and hired Jane Rusconi, a recent Yale University graduate, to lead a team of researchers and assemble as much information about the assassination as possible while the director completed post-production on Born on the Fourth of July. Stone read two dozen books on the assassination while Rusconi read between 100 and 200 books on the subject.
By December 1989, Stone began approaching studios to back his film. While in pre-production on The Doors, he met with three executives at Warner Bros. who wanted him to make a film about Howard Hughes. However, Warren Beatty owned the rights and so Stone pitched JFK. Studio president and Chief Operating Officer Terry Semel liked the idea. He had a reputation for making political and controversial films, including All the President’s Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields.
Stone made a handshake deal with Warner Bros. whereby the studio would get all the rights to the film and put up $20 million for the budget. The director did this so that the screenplay wouldn’t be widely read and bid on, and he also knew that the material was potentially dangerous and wanted only one studio to finance it. Finally, Stone liked Semel’s track record of producing political films.