Sunday, September 5, 2010

Oliver Stone: JFK

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.


  1. Masterpiece indeed.

    I hadn't read that OS had deemed his film a counter-myth. That's cool. And correct.

    When I moved to New Orleans, one of my first missions was to 'see' where parts of the film were set.

    So creepy and awesome. If anything, Mr. Stone should be praised for his writing genius. This one's right there on top.

    I'm stoked now.

    /here's a link to an interview with JFK co-writer Zachary Sklar:

  2. I think JFK is fourth on my list of Stone films, but I think also that it simply means that it's in a three-way tie for second with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. I still go with Natural Born Killers because I have just never seen a mainstream filmmaker go so batshit. Godard had to tear his entire reputation apart piece by piece before going this far, but Stone did it all at once. I admit that the satire is questionable, but I honestly think it works (if not as well as the more composed Fight Club) and that the aesthetics are truly radical.

    But all of that film lies here in some form. I love Ebert's defense of the film as an emotional work instead of a political one. Stone, occasionally insufferable wacko that he is, doesn't really believe that Garrison is right, but he does believe that Garrison is right to point out, whether he finds the answer or not, he at least "disproves" the single killer idea. Stone is following the line of his own anguish over Kennedy's death, which he makes into the root of everything, especially his experience with Vietnam, and because of that I actually thought of this film when I saw the documentary Dear Zachary. He puts so much weight into JFK that he just seems to be a guy putting together the pieces of his life after his father died. He just wants people to see that they've ignored a great man (as much as I honestly think that Kennedy is overrated).

    And you and Craig are totally right about Stone's talent with a cast. How many names are thrown at you in the film, and how much do you retain precisely because everyone makes an impression even as the film never stops. And who the hell makes the climax of a film a 50-minute courtroom scene and then makes it more gripping and action-packed than war films? God, please come home, Oliver Stone. I'm so sick of looking back on films like this and seeing the greatest American filmmaker of his generation get all his greatness out of him in the span from Platoon through Natural Born Killers.

  3. Whether or not you agree with Garrison's conclusions (on balance I don't, from what little I know) the film convinces you beyond doubt of his conviction and of the thoroughness of his investigation.

    It is a maelstrom, stream of consciousness film that, by the end, makes you want him to win and makes him winning seem like America winning. It is strange though how the forceful editing and speech-making ("back and to the left, back and to the left") feel like the brainwashing the administration are accused of.

    The whole film doesn't grip me like the last half an hour does but I do think it's Stone's best film to date (Maybe I'd put it on a par with ALEXANDER).

  4. I feel JFK is Stone's masterpiece (though I admit I haven't seen NBK or 4th of July in more than 10 years), for all the reasons you mention: its propulsiveness, the way it juggles all the information and conspiracy theories, the way time melts while you watch it. I must have seen it start to finish 10 times now, which is quite a lot for a film of that length, and the past few times I've seen it I'm always amazed at the length of the X portion or the monologue at the end. They're such small portions of what make the film great that you assume they could only be a few minutes long each. There's just so much here.

    The only place I might disagree with you is in relation to Costner. He doesn't bother me like he bothers others, but there are times he looks pretty lost here, particularly in some of his not-quite-tearful-but-trying-to-be fights with his wife. But take away his bad scenes and he's perfect for the part. (I know that sounds strange, but I think it works.) I'm not on the anti-Christopher Nolan bandwagon, but sometime that guy should look at all the stuff that Stone crams into this movie. Nolan would cry for weeks. This is intricate. It makes Deception look straightforward.

  5. I also think that this is Stone's masterpiece and my fave film of his (with NIXON a close, close second). There is just so much going on in this film and he is able to juggle all these characters, ideas, etc. Amazing stuff. It is so hard to pull of scenes full of exposition but when you've got the kind of cast that Stone had with this film, they not only make it look easy but they suck you in and really hold your attention.

    Good comparisons to Z and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. I would definitely agree. Now that all the controversy and hype has died down for JFK I think people can now look at it as a top notch thriller which is what it is.

  6. Whenever I see JFK I usually wind up getting obsessed with the Kennedy assassination all over again. Sometimes the film has, admittedly, obsessed me to terminal extremes: when I first saw it in 8th grade the film made so much of a conspiracy theorist out of me that I wrote an amateur review on Yahoo in which I arrogantly declared my beliefs at the time that J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson AND all those feds were in on the killing (embarrassingly, you can still find this horrid "review" of mine on Yahoo somewhere). Then I saw it again as a junior in high school and even though I didn't quite believe what I believed then, I was still a conspiracy theorist. It made me angry to see all of these cases being made to debunk the theory because here I was saying, "But it's all there in OLIVER STONE'S MOVIE! How can you imbeciles not SEE IT!??"

    What I didn't realize is that JFK is not so much an argument for the conspiracies as much as it is a very honest, sincere attempt to lay all of the theories--or, more appropriately--options--up there on the screen. Obviously at least half of the theories in the movie are crap, and Stone knows this. Norman Mailer once said that the reason he stopped theorizing about the assassination was because all of those crazy theories simply didn't add up in the end. Some JFK conspiracy theorists I've met don't believe that Clay Shaw was in on it and that Garrison was harassing him because of his homosexuality; and there are some theorists I've met who actually believe that Oswald was falsely accused and was an American "patriot" (though such people are often 9/11 conspiracy theorists as well).

    Honestly, I don't know where I stand on the issue. I don't want to take a definite stance that Oswald did it all by himself because, after all, Stone has a point--there's too much overwhelming credibility to the other side of the argument, as messy as it may be. But if I'm not as passionate about the conspiracy as I used to be, it may be because I share Jake's viewpoint: as awesome of a human being as Kennedy no doubt was, I don't know if I'd say he was that terrific of a president and I would charge that LBJ was arguably more successful in the White House (this coming from the same kid who once charged that LBJ was in on the assassination!). But in the end, what remains undoubtful is the power of Stone's film, which can be easily credited as a masterful documentation of ALL the theories surrounding the assassination in a lovely dramatic form.

  7. The Motorcycle Boy:

    Thanks for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I love that you went to N.O. and found all of the sites they filmed at. Also, thanks for the link to the interview.

  8. Jake:

    You say: I think JFK is fourth on my list of Stone films, but I think also that it simply means that it's in a three-way tie for second with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. I still go with Natural Born Killers because I have just never seen a mainstream filmmaker go so batshit. Godard had to tear his entire reputation apart piece by piece before going this far, but Stone did it all at once. I admit that the satire is questionable, but I honestly think it works (if not as well as the more composed Fight Club) and that the aesthetics are truly radical..

    I know this is a post about JFK, but having just finished NBK this morning I have to agree with you, and I may need to rethink my stance on JFK being Stone's masterpiece. However, I will say this about NBK: it didn't need the superfluous ending with the footage of O.J. and Menendes Brothers and the like. I did forget that he kind of flipped the ending of BONNIE AND CLYDE, though, and I was really struck by those final images moreso than the news footage/channel surfing stuff. But damned if that isn't just one of the most audacious American movies of the 90's.

    As for JFK: I like that you bring up Ebert's stance that the film is an "emotional" work and not a "political" one. I couldn't agree more with that sentiment, and I think that's why I love Stone's films from this particular era; even though I may disagree with a lot of his "out there" philosophies, he's still a talented enough filmmaker to make me care about the tireless journeys his characters go on to shed some light on the truth as they see it.

  9. Jason:

    I'm glad you mention that seen with's probably my favorite in the entire film. It's so layered and intense, and yet, it's essentially two people sitting on a bench talking. Sutherland's acting is is phenominal in that scene.

    And I agree with you about Costner when he tries to do melodrama (the domestic fights in this movie, as you mention, and the scene with Malone's death in THE UNTOUCHABLES come to mind), but I don't think of JFK as being a melodrama, so really those rather brief moments don't really make me dislike Costner in the role. His speech at the end is some of the best acting he's ever done. I personally think too many people rag on Costner for the wrong reasons (and I'm not saying you're doing that with your comment), but I think if they would look at the final 40 minutes of this movie, they would see a talented actor that they probably didn't existed.

    Oh, and I love what you say about Nolan at the end there, hehe. Thanks as always for swingin' by and leaving a comment.

  10. J.D.:

    Well said! Thanks for the comment.

  11. Adam:

    Thanks for sharing a personal anecdote there with us. I loved it. And I agree with you that JFK is not just another argument about who is wrong or who is right, it's an argument for information, and for that information -- all of it -- needing to be made available to everyone so they can formulate their own opinion. That's one of the very basic American ideals, and I think Stone's anger is palpable throughout the film that during that major shift in the country during the 60's and 70's that perhaps the biggest crime of all that was taking place was the hiding (or even destroying) of information.

  12. Terrific write-up, Kevin. "JFK" fascinates me most via the tension between Stone's whirligig visuals and editing with his completely square "Mr. Garrison Goes to Washington" (or Dallas) sensibility. The real Jim Garrison is a bit of a shifty character himself, but I guess Stone felt he needed a bedrock of virtue at the center of the storm. That may be why "Nixon" is my favorite Oliver Stone film, because the central character's own duplicity gets caught up in the machinations of larger forces.

    That said, there is no question that "JFK" is a watershed film, one that political pundits at the time analyzed with dismaying literal-mindedness. I think Owen Gleiberman interpreted it best when he said that the movie is really about how we collectively remember the assassination, which is why the multimedia style is so appropriate and dazzling.

  13. Adam above said it even better: "What I didn't realize is that JFK is not so much an argument for the conspiracies as much as it is a very honest, sincere attempt to lay all of the theories--or, more appropriately--options--up there on the screen. Obviously at least half of the theories in the movie are crap, and Stone knows this." Yes, I think that's it exactly.

    Another thought: Where my Altman comparison falls apart may be in how he worked with actors in contrast to Stone. By nearly all accounts, Altman created a relaxed family atmosphere where his cast felt safe. Stone, reportedly, pushes and prods and keeps his actors in a constant state of tension and anxiety. Richard Dreyfuss called him a fascist (or maybe it was a tyrant) while making "W.," and I've no reason to doubt him. On the other hand, that movie features his best performance in years.

  14. Craig:

    You say: The real Jim Garrison is a bit of a shifty character himself, but I guess Stone felt he needed a bedrock of virtue at the center of the storm. That may be why "Nixon" is my favorite Oliver Stone film, because the central character's own duplicity gets caught up in the machinations of larger forces.

    I agree with this. And that's why I love Stone's casting of Costner. He seems perfect for that kind of 'boyscout' role. I also agree with your views on NIXON, and, in fact, it's the one film I was most eager to re-visit when I decided to this retrospective on Stone. I've only seen in twice (once in the theater at a relatively young age for a movie like that...I think I was 12 or 13, and a second time on VHS when it first came out on video), and I remember loving the movie, but I don't remember much about it except for the film's great performances. The "duplicity" of Nixon is something I'll look for when I watch it tomorrow.

    Oh, and I like what you say about Dreyfuss. It's true: that was his best performance in years.

    Thanks for stopping by, Craig!