After the lukewarm reaction to The Doors, Oliver Stone needed to rejuvenate the quiescent angst that had been on display in his earlier films like Salvador and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone wanted to fashion a film – what he would call a "counter-myth" – about what he perceived as the conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy. Molding his screenplay in the style of Z and Rashomon, Stone created JFK; a procedural unlike any I've ever seen. Thanks to Stone's amazing ensemble cast (as Craig pointed out about a week ago in the Wall Street thread Stone is an underrated director with his actors, and reminds one of the way Altman always handled his large casts with ease) and the film's insanely kinetic aesthetic (once again shot by Robert Richardson, and edited by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia), JFK is indeed another angry movie from Oliver Stone, and it's my favorite film from the controversial director.
There isn't enough space on the blog to talk every point of the film, so the gist of it is: New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), notorious for bringing corrupt Louisiana judges to justice, feels that something isn't right with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the subsequent arrest and murder of the so-called lone assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). After reading the Warren Report, Garrison's investigation focuses primarily on the involvement of New Orleans businessman Clay Bertrand (Tommy Lee Jones in a great, smarmy role) in a conspiracy to attempt a coup d'etat with high-ranking politicians in Washington, including Lyndon Johnson.
This last point is what struck such a chord at the time of the film's production. Numerous newspapers were on the set of the film, reading the first draft of the screenplay, and writing reports about how Stone had gone off the deep end, essentially accusing Lyndon Johnson of having a hand in the murder of the president. Whether or not I agree with Stone's politics and conspiracy theories, I find myself riveted by the film every time I watch it. It's one of those rare films that has the ability to suck me into its story, into the investigation, and before I know it 40 minutes has passed. I intended only to watch specific parts of the film for this review (since I've seen the film at least 20 times), but as I was watching it I lost track of time, and before I knew it an hour had passed. That's the amazing thing about this film: here is what is essentially amounts to 206 minutes of people talking; searching for answers and relaying stories. It's uncanny in how the film maintains a level of suspense that is comparable to Alan J. Pakula's All the Presidents Men – another film that makes people talking (usually on the phone) suspenseful.
Upon the most recent viewing of JFK I noticed a few lines that really get to the heart of the film's visual and narrative theme: "You're a mouse fighting a gorilla" and "Dave's mind was a mess…". These two lines, the first spoken by David Ferry (Joe Pesci, in one of his craziest performances) and the second about Ferry are perfect encapsulations of what JFK's aesthetics and narrative are all about.
The first line brings us back to the Blakean themes we've seen in every Stone film aside from The Doors. Here it's the boyscout in Garrison as played by Costner (who is perfect in these clean-shaven, All-American boyscout type roles), who plays the District Attorney much in the same way he played Elliot Ness. However, Garrison is only like Ness prior to reading the Warren Report – an activity that acts as the catalyst for his Blakean progression from Elliot Ness-like Boy Scout to world weary whistleblower trying to bring down corruption in the government. It seemed like a natural progression most people made at the time as the idealism of Americana and 1950's Values were giving way to the counterculture; not only that, aside from the assassination of Kennedy other important leaders were dying – chaos reigned. It only seemed natural that people started to question their government and the world they inhabited, and that's what Garrison begins to do as he goes from a DA who took down nine corrupt New Orleans judges to a man trying to take down backroom political puppet masters. The idea of Garrison being a mouse that's fighting a gorilla is an apt metaphor for what the counterculture was experiencing by the time Nixon took office; in fact, you could change the spelling of the word and it would still be apt: they were all guerillas fighting their own little war against the establishment. Once again this idea of the squelched voice fighting a war you can't win fits nicely with the anger found in Stone's previous films (especially Born on the Fourth of July), and it shows an interesting progressing by Stone going from the more hopeful ending of July to the more frustrating ending of JFK where moral victories are no longer something to be valued.
The second line perfectly matches the aesthetic of the film: a mess of points-of-view visualized by a manic pace and kinetic editing – flashing back and forth between past and present and various recollections using grainy 16mm, shaky hand-held, and stock footage to give the film a faux-documentary feel. After experimenting with this style in The Doors, Stone and his cinematographer Richardson pull the trigger on what would define their aesthetic in the mid-90's with films like Natural Born Killers and Nixon, until it went overboard and became eye-rollingly awful in films like Any Given Sunday. The film's look definitely has its detractors, but I love it; I feel that it makes the film even more intense and interesting as all of these varying points-of-view swirl around the viewer in an array of styles. The aesthetic perfectly matches the feelings of the characters and the mood of America at the time, and I think it's one of the most ambitiously made American films of the 90's.
I've already mentioned that JFK is one of the most methodical procedurals I've ever seen; that the countless scenes of people simply talking and recounting stories and experiences makes the film as tense as any thriller or mystery. One moment in particular showcases what a masterpiece in editing JFK is: Garrison and his investigative team are discussing the history of Oswald, all while being cross-cut with Lucy (Laurie Metcalf) telling her colleagues what kind of information she dug up. Meanwhile we see photos of Oswald in Russia (it's actually Gary Oldman) flash up on the screen, that's cross-cut with black and white footage of Oswald with his family, and that's cross-cut with shots of someone's hands cutting out an image of Oswald that would appear on the cover of the infamous Life Magazine issue that apparently shows Oswald holding the rifle he killed Kennedy with (although Stone suspects it's Oswald's head pasted on someone else's body, based on the shadows in the picture). It's a long scene, but you hardly notice it because of the pacing and the editing (not to mention the sound editing, which is fantastic) and the way Stone and the actors brilliantly show that this is interesting information; edge-of-your-seat type entertainment – regardless whether or not you think it's all a bunch of crap – that reminded me of other great procedurals like the aforementioned All the Presidents Men. In JFK Stone makes conversations in offices, around dinner tables, and at restraints interesting; far more interesting than those events have any right to be.
It's hard to ignore the cultural impact JFK had on society at the time (it was brilliantly parodied on an episode of "Seinfeld") creating a buzz for conspiracy theories (a lot of crazies came out of the woodwork because of this movie); I would argue that "The X-Files" – even though it appealed to a totally different audience – wouldn't have resonated as much as it did if JFK hadn't made the idea of conspiracy theories somewhat mainstream. As mentioned earlier the film's style and narrative structure owes a great deal to the great 1969 Algerian film, Z. Stone has also been quoted as saying that he was interested in the plot structure of Rashomon and how it showed the same story through different lenses; however, Z is really the film you can see that had the most influence on Stone's film (it's why Stone titled the film JFK, making it one word, instead of adding the periods in between each letter so that it would look like initials) as both films deal with the assassination of a president, the conspiracy theories about the assassination, and the way different people relay their stories about the assassination. Perhaps one of the greatest things about JFK is that it reminded me of how brilliant Z is; both films play off of each other really well, even if Z's message was more immediate for its time (1969) and Stone's message was more the sound of a crazy man screaming on the corner of the street begging you to listen to him…a kind of wake-up call to the masses who have become too complacent (something that can definitely be associated with society in the 90's).
Oliver Stone would get locked in to the manic style of JFK with four of his next five films (Heaven and Earth being a nice breather between JFK and Natural Born Killers), but I don't think he would ever top what he did here with JFK. JFK was not just an aesthetic revelation for Stone, but it was also the vehicle for what is perhaps Costner's greatest performance (his near 40 minute long monologue at the end of the film is pretty amazing, and he would suffer a pretty big fall in the face of the public after this role), and it was the last time an Oliver Stone film from the ever-prolific era of his would be nominated for Best Picture of the year and losing favor with Hollywood (he's two films away from being seen as a complete nutjob); however, like a lot of his earlier work, JFK shows a filmmaker in complete control of his amazing ensemble cast, controversial narrative, and kinetic aesthetic. I think it's a masterpiece.