Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison in JFK
If it's an Oliver Stone film, it must be bombastic, sentimental, clunky, and controversial. With the exception of "clunky," JFK is all of the above. It is also riveting, earnest, dishonest, moving, irritating, paranoid, and, more frequently than one might expect, outright brilliant. In sum, Oliver Stone's 1991 political thriller about a determined district attorney's investigation on the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy is a slick piece of propaganda that works both dramatically and cinematically. If only some of the facts hadn't gotten trampled on the way to film greatness.
With the exception of John Williams' overemphatic score – Oliver Stone films need anything but overemphasis – JFK's technical and artistic details are put in place to extraordinary effect. Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia's editing and Robert Richardson's cinematography seamlessly mix 1960s documentary footage (both in black and white and in color) with scenes shot in the early 1990s. As JFK progresses at an increasingly frenetic pace, we are continually hit with a barrage of images and sounds that are at times confusing – so as to arise our own sense of paranoia – but that are invariably spellbinding.
Though always prone to sentimentality, Stone manages to keep up JFK's hard-hitting pace once the movie gets going, only losing control of the story when his camera goes inside the home of investigative New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison. Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek's scenes, as Mr. and Mrs. Garrison, are sloppily written and play with as much emotional honesty as anything on daytime soap. Worse yet, Garrison's conversations with his on-screen son are as phony as anything you would find in the most sickening Leave It to Beaver episodes. Elsewhere, when we have our hero pursuing an endless assortment of co-conspirators, psychos, and murderers, Stone never lets JFK miss a beat.
As for the star-studded cast, some survive the mayhem, others don't. The picture, in fact, starts poorly, with a weepy Jack Lemmon and a rabid Edward Asner as dueling hams. Fortunately, things improve from then on. Gary Oldman, for instance, sheds his usually mannered persona to bring Lee Harvey Oswald back to life. The resemblance between the actor and the real-life character is uncanny.
The same cannot be said of Kevin Costner and Jim Garrison, who look about as similar as a camel and a platypus. Even so, that doesn't prevent Costner (right, with Donald Sutherland) from reaching a career apex as a tough and world-weary Mr. Smith who goes to Washington not to eulogize Lincoln or the country's Founding Fathers, but to learn about a conspiracy that is about to destroy American democracy.
Like the American film heroes of yore, Costner's Garrison is an earnest, straightforward, and commanding fellow, with shoulders broad enough to carry the weight of a whole nation in search of the truth. During his climactic speech, he's all determination and righteousness. One doesn't expect him to get weak-kneed while espousing the next American Revolution – and Costner's knees never buckle. His movie-movie D.A. loses the case while winning this viewer's admiration.
JFK also offers two other career highs: Tommy Lee Jones, as a decadent and oh-so-slightly-effeminate gay man who may or may not have been a CIA spy, and, gasp, John Candy, cast against type as a sweaty, twitching trial witness. On the downside, Oliver Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar are responsible for wasting Sissy Spacek's talent, while Stone shares the blame with Joe Pesci for the creation of the most annoying character in the film. Pesci, wearing a brownish mop on his head, is so over the top that he makes his previous psycho villains seem like models of understatement.
Now, even though JFK is based on fact, it is also based on two books: Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs' Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. Since JFK is partly based on Garrison's book (the former D.A. even has a small role as Chief Justice Earl Warren), it is not surprising that Garrison is portrayed as the virtuous hero of the Kennedy investigation. Others, however, have questioned Garrison's motives, and have accused him of being both a flamboyant opportunist and an anti-gay bigot, as he has reportedly claimed that the Kennedy assassination was a "homosexual thrill killing." As for Jim Marrs, he is also the author of a book that links the freemasons to the pyramids, of another that exposes an "alien agenda," and most recently of a tome that uncovers a new wide conspiracy, this time behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Numerous questions remain about the circumstances surrounding the Kennedy assassination, and Stone and Zachary Sklar could easily have hammered those out to create a fully plausible screenplay. But if opting for the sensational detracts from JFK's credibility, it does not take away the entertainment value of this extremely well-crafted whodunit about a dark, scary America, whose spooky parallels to the equally paranoid and dangerous present make for a compelling three hours.
Note: This JFK review refers to the extended DVD version. A version of this review was initially posted in October 2004.
JFK (1991). Direction: Oliver Stone. Cast: Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Laurie Metcalf, Jack Lemmon, Sally Kirkland, Jay O. Sanders, Edward Asner, Walter Matthau, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Rooker, John Candy, Donald Sutherland. Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar; from Jim Marrs' book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy and Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins.
2 Academy Award Wins
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Best Editing: Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia
6 Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture: A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone
Best Direction: Oliver Stone
Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones
Best Adapted Screenplay: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Sound: Michael Minkler, Gregg Landaker, Tod A. Maitland