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
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.