Oliver Stone’s “JFK” still riles them up. Who are them? To paraphrase Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones,” “who’ve you got?”
This is still one controversial flick, even if most people in the public agree with it, even if they just agree that there is a conspiracy at foot in Kennedy’s assassination. Conspiracy’s are still in vogue. People believe 9/11 was an inside job. That Obama is actually a Kenyan Muslim. That the Holocaust never happened. And that Monica Lewinsky was a Russian secret agent.
Still, perhaps for all-time, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will remain the mother of all conspiracy theories. And Oliver Stone fueled the flames with this epic. Still, would it be so compulsively watchable if there wasn’t something to it?
That’s a negative. And it also wouldn’t have been as watchable if anyone else but Stone had made it. Over the years, Stone has been one of the most politically-bold filmmakers of all-time, from his Vietnam films like “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July” to his ultra-violent “satire” “Natural Born Killers” to his sympathetic 9/11 story “World Trade Center” to 2008’s “W.”.
But “JFK” is his masterpiece, in cinematic style if not necessarily storytelling truth. Pick at the facts all you want, but Stone fuels this film with a storytelling rage that is unforgettable and mesmerizing. Starting with the prologue- narrated by Martin Sheen- that sets the stage for November 22, 1963, Stone, cinematographer Robert Richardson, editors Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing, and composer John Williams paint a portrait of Kennedy as a hero to anti-establishment liberalism, with a political landscape that is not too inviting to such ideas. After the assassination, however, that’s when Jim Garrison- the Louisiana District Attorney played by Kevin Costner- goes down the rabbit hole, and the case becomes an obsession that’ll threaten his career…and his life.
Stone uses all forms of visual information- flashbacks, archival video, snapshots, recreations, all captured in different film formats- presented with a remarkable stream of consciousness that makes even dialogue scenes (and the film- all 205 minutes in it’s Director’s Cut format on DVD- is all dialogue) move along with the excitement of the best action blockbusters, culminating in a courtroom scene where every American’s frustration, every American’s rage against the establishment comes out of Garrison’s mouth in a closing statement that may be pious to the 10th power, but is emotionally powerful for what it represents. This is ultimately the heart of the film, that Garrison is angry about the truth not being revealed, and even if he doesn’t know what that truth was, he still had the courage to fight for it to come out. That makes it a true-blue underdog tale in the telling.
“JFK” isn’t a historical film strictly because Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar are playing loose with the truth, but it is one of the most important political films of all-time. It’s important because it captures the frustration of a generation who grew up with Vietnam, Watergate, and the assassination of a president that may not have been a great president, but was one of our greatest political leaders. That generation, and the ones after, still feel betrayed by a political establishment that allowed a tragedy like 9/11 to happen, that sent us into a war whose justifications have been called into question, and that has fostered a political landscape that makes rational discourse impossible. If I haven’t really focused on the cast of characters and actors in this review, part of it is because this film is bigger than any one actors, part of it because, well, look at the actors in this movie- Costner, Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Sissy Spacek (Garrison’s wife), Joe Pesci (Dave Ferry), Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and many, many others. You know what these actors are gonna bring to the table, and they bring it in spades for Stone, and help make “JFK” a provocative and powerful classic.