JFK: Watch Responsibly
He’s a district attorney. He will risk his life, the lives of his family, everything he holds dear for the one thing he holds sacred… the truth.
Roger Ebert ran into Walter Cronkite some time after the premiere of Oliver Stone’s JFK and received a “tongue-lashing” for having praised the film. In Cronkite’s view, it was full of distortions and every journalist who said anything good about the film should be ashamed. Ebert disagreed. A film critic’s job is to judge a film as a whole. As he writes, “fact belongs in print, films are about emotions”. JFK stands as perhaps the most prominent example of a film that plays fast and loose with facts but deserves to get away with it.
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22, 1963. The nation is in shock and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) decides to help the investigation by looking into possible New Orleans ties to the murder, including the bizarre and mysterious David Ferrie (Joe Pesci). However, nothing comes out of it and Garrison closes the investigation shortly after the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman), the man identified as Kennedy’s murderer. In 1967, Garrison opens the investigation again; he’s never really moved on since JFK’s murder and is convinced that the case is unsolved. He believes that Oswald, Ferrie and Jack Ruby (the man who shot Oswald) were pawns in a conspiracy. Garrison and his associates interview several people who tell them interesting tidbits, including a male prostitute (Kevin Bacon) who once heard Ferrie talk about a coup d’etat; they also discover that it was almost impossible for Oswald to have hit Kennedy from that school book depository window. Garrison meets a shady Washington insider (Donald Sutherland) who calls himself X and suggests to the District Attorney that the conspiracy is bigger than he thinks, involving people as high up as the current president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The movie is over three hours long, but it grabs you right from the start and doesn’t let go. Stone and his co-writer Zachary Sklar have structured the screenplay in a way that rarely makes you question the facts; it’s that convincing a lecture and it forces viewers to watch the film responsibly, with a critical eye. Editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia have taken cinematographer Robert Richardson’s work and mixed it with TV news reports from that time and newly shot 8 mm and 16 mm footage; the results are fascinating, moving the story forward at a blistering pace that makes you forget about time… except the period the film takes place in, which is credibly recreated by the filmmakers. John Williams wrote a score that is eerie at times, intensifying the frightening aspects of the conspiracy, but also stirring in the scenes where the director wants us to view Garrison as a hero. The only ingredient that doesn’t work that well is the depiction of Garrison’s family; that his wife is concerned about his obsession comes as no surprise, but it’s unimaginatively portrayed. The cast is full of celebrities, but this is one instance where it works; they all end up owning their parts. That goes for Costner as well, who basically represents the audience; he finds out facts when we do and he’s as appalled as we are. His final trial speech is one long, intense and emotional presentation of what he believes are the facts; equally captivating (and scary) is Sutherland’s sequence in the middle of the film.
The whole movie is a conspiracy in itself, deceptively well made by a master filmmaker. Just like in the case of Michael Moore, one should not trust every “fact” that is presented… but the skill and power are undeniable.
The YouTube clip shows the trailer.
JFK 1991-U.S. 188 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar. Books: Jim Garrison (”On the Trail of the Assassins”), Jim Marrs (”Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy”). Cinematography: Robert Richardson. Music: John Williams. Editing: Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia. Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Kevin Bacon (Willie O’Keefe), Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman… Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Sally Kirkland. Voice of Martin Sheen. Cameos: Jim Garrison, Lolita Davidovich.
Trivia: The alternative version runs 15 minutes longer. Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson were allegedly considered for the part of Garrison. Garrison plays, ironically enough, Earl Warren.
Oscars: Best Cinematography, Editing. BAFTA: Best Editing, Sound. Golden Globe: Best Director.
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