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JFK movie Kevin Costner 1991JFK movie with Kevin Costner: What are the limits of “artistic license”? In Oliver Stone’s 1991 political thriller, Costner plays a justice fighter who uncovers a sinister conspiracy behind the death of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Any similarities to the facts, however, are mere coincidences.
  • JFK (1991) movie review: Oliver Stone’s political thriller is an exemplar of an accomplished “work of art” that also happens to be shamelessly dishonest in its retelling of historical events and in its portrayal of real-life individuals.
  • On the plus side: JFK is grounded by a forceful star turn – a surprisingly effective Kevin Costner – and features several notable supporting performances (Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy) and excellent production values.
  • JFK movie synopsis: New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) comes to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was a mere cog in a widespread conspiracy behind the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
  • JFK won two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson) and Best Film Editing (Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia). It received six additional nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar), Best Music (John Williams), and Best Sound.

JFK (1991) movie review: Starring a resolute Kevin Costner, Oliver Stone’s skillful political thriller makes reckless use of ‘dramatic license’ to create an alternate version of U.S. history

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

If it’s an Oliver Stone movie, it must be bombastic, sentimental, clunky, and controversial. With the exception of “clunky,” the $40 million all-star political thriller JFK is all of the above. It’s also earnest, dishonest, irritating, riveting, moving, phony, paranoid, and, more frequently than one might expect, outright brilliant.

Screenwriter-director Stone and co-writer/film newcomer Zachary Sklar’s tale about a dogged district attorney’s investigation into the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy can best be described as a slick piece of propaganda that (mostly) works both as drama and as cinema. Indeed, with the exception of a handful of supporting performances and John Williams’ overemphatic score – Oliver Stone movies need anything but overemphasis – JFK’s artistic and technical elements are put in place to extraordinary effect.

Key among them, Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia’s editing 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, the viewer is thus hit with a barrage of images and sounds that, however overwhelming – so as to heighten our own sense of paranoia – are almost invariably spellbinding.

If only a good chunk of the facts hadn’t gotten trampled on the way to cinematic illustriousness. More on this issue further below.

Family goo

Although prone to sentimentality, Oliver Stone generally manages to maintain JFK’s sensorial and intellectual onslaught once things get going, only losing his grip whenever the camera goes inside the home of the movie’s justice-pursuing hero, investigative New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (1921–1992), played by Kevin Costner.[1]

Sloppily written and conventionally staged, these scenes featuring Garrison and wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) feel like stuff straight out of the daytime soap universe. Worse yet are the D.A.’s conversations with his older son (the filmmaker’s real-life son, Sean Stone), which are as hokey as anything you’ll find in the most sickening family sitcoms.

Elsewhere, when we have our hero on the trail of an endless assortment of conspirators, murderers, and psychopaths, Stone never lets JFK miss a beat.

JFK movie Tommy Lee Jones Clay ShawJFK movie with Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw: Oliver Stone has said that Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomonwhose “truth”? – was a key inspiration for JFK, which, in tone, actually feels much closer to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men and, especially, Costa-GavrasZ.

Fey Tommy Lee Jones + unusually restrained Gary Oldman

As for JFK’s star-studded cast, some survive the cinematic mayhem, others don’t.[2]

The thriller starts out poorly, with a weepy Jack Lemmon and a malevolent Edward Asner as a couple of dueling hams, but things vastly improve from then on.

Cast against type, John Candy delivers a memorable performance as sweaty, twitching trial witness Dean Andrews Jr., and so does eventual Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones as D.A. Garrison’s target: The decadent and oh-so-slightly effeminate gay New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (1913–1974), who – shades of Marcel Bozzuffi’s murderous gay fascist in Costa-Gavras’ Z – may or may not have been a CIA spy involved in the Kennedy assassination. (It must be noted that in a 1967 interview, Shaw doesn’t seem at all effeminate.)

Gary Oldman, for his part, sheds his oft-times mannered persona to bring Lee Harvey Oswald back to life; the resemblance between the Prick Up Your Ears and Dracula actor and the real-life assassin is uncanny.

Mr. Garrison goes to Washington

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 the No Way Out and Field of Dreams actor from reaching a career peak for his star turn as JFK’s fearless truth seeker.

Less an early James Stewart type than a cross between John Garfield and Gary Cooper, this latter-day Mr. Smith goes to Washington not to draw red-white-and-blue strength from the Lincoln Memorial but to delve into a far-reaching conspiracy whose aim is to destroy the United States’ democratic institutions.

Like the American film heroes of yore, Costner’s Garrison is a decent, straightforward, and commanding fellow, with shoulders broad enough to carry the weight of a whole nation. During his climactic courtroom speech, he’s all determination and respectability; one doesn’t expect him to get weak-kneed while espousing the next American Revolution, and, as it happens, Costner’s/Garrison’s knees never buckle.

The fact that such inexhaustible righteousness doesn’t come across as vomit-inducing is a testament to the actor’s and his director’s capable handling of their – wholly fictionalized – Galahad-like character.

On the downside, Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar are responsible for wasting Best Actress Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980) – Liz Garrison is a non-dimensional role – while Stone shares the blame with Joe Pesci for the creation of the most infuriating character in the film. Wearing a brownish mop on his head, Pesci – as pilot and Garrison target David Ferrie – is so over the top that he makes his Goodfellas (Best Supporting Actor Oscar, 1990) and Home Alone characterizations look like models of understatement.

JFK movie Kevin Costner Sissy SpacekJFK movie with Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek: The film’s immaculate heart and soul, Costner was bypassed at the Oscars even though JFK was nominated in eight categories. Supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones was the only shortlisted cast member.

JFK plot: Artistic license or brazen dishonesty?

Now, even though Stone and Sklar’s JFK movie revolves around real-life events, it’s officially based on two books: Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins (edited by Sklar) and Jim Marrs’ Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.

The former title explains why JFK portrays Garrison – who even has a small role as Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren – as the virtuous hero of the Kennedy investigation. Never mind that many have questioned Garrison’s motives, called his investigation “a fraud,” and accused him of being both a flamboyant opportunist and an anti-gay bigot, as, among his various allegations, at one point he claimed that the Kennedy assassination had been a “homosexual thrill killing.”

As for Jim Marrs, he is also the author of a book that explains how Planet Earth is ruled by secret societies, of another on aliens and UFOs, and of yet another about a new wide conspiracy, this time behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Paranoid, moi?

Numerous questions remain about the circumstances surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar could easily have hammered these out to create a fully plausible screenplay.

Had they felt so inclined, of course.

But if opting for the sensational destroys the credibility of both JFK and its makers, it does not take away the entertainment value – as a work of alternate-reality fiction – of this extremely well-crafted whodunit about a dark, scary USA, whose spooky parallels to the equally paranoid and danger-filled present make for a compelling three hours.

JFK (1991) cast & crew

Director: Oliver Stone.

Screenplay: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar.
From Jim Marrs’ 1989 book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy & Jim Garrison’s 1988 book On the Trail of the Assassins.

Kevin Costner … Jim Garrison
Sissy Spacek … Liz Garrison
Kevin Bacon … Willie O’Keefe
Tommy Lee Jones … Clay Shaw (a.k.a. Clay Bertrand)
Laurie Metcalf … Susie Cox
Gary Oldman … Lee Harvey Oswald
John Candy … Dean Andrews
Donald Sutherland … X
Edward Asner … Guy Bannister
Jack Lemmon … Jack Martin
Walter Matthau … Senator Russell B. Long
Sally Kirkland … Rose Cheramie
Joe Pesci … David [W.] Ferrie
Michael Rooker … Bill Broussard
Jay O. Sanders … Lou Ivon
Sean Stone … Jasper Garrison
Tomas Milian … Leopoldo
Beata Pozniak … Marina Oswald
Brian Doyle-Murray … Jack Ruby
Vincent D`Onofrio … Bill Newman
Gary Grubbs … Al Oser
Wayne Knight … Numa Bertel
Jo Anderson … Julia Ann Mercer
Pruitt Taylor-Vince … Lee Bowers
Tom Howard … L.B.J.
Ron Jackson … FBI spokesman
Jim Garrison … Earl Warren

Voice Cast:
Martin Sheen … Narrator (uncredited)
John William Galt … L.B.J. voice

Scene(s) Deleted:
Lolita Davidovich … Beverly Oliver (director’s cut credit)
John Larroquette … Jerry Johnson (director’s cut credit)
Frank Whaley … Oswald Imposter (director’s cut credit)
Ron Rifkin … Mr. Goldberg (director’s cut credit)

Cinematography: Robert Richardson.

Film Editing: Joe Hutshing & Pietro Scalia.

Music: John Williams.

Producers: Oliver Stone & A. Kitman Ho.

Production Design: Victor Kempster.

Costume Design: Marlene Stewart.

Production Company: Camelot Productions.

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Running Time: 189 min.

Country: United States.

JFK (1991): Oliver Stone + Kevin Costner” notes

Oscars bypass Kevin Costner

[1] One of the biggest box office draws in the world in the early 1990s and the winner of two Academy Awards – as director and co-producer of the previous year’s Dances with WolvesJFK star Kevin Coster failed to be shortlisted for the 1991 Best Actor Oscar.

The nominees that year were Warren Beatty for Bugsy, Robert De Niro for Cape Fear, Nick Nolte for The Prince of Tides, Robin Williams for The Fisher King, and eventual winner Anthony Hopkins for The Silence of the Lambs.

Would-be JFK cast members

[2] Veterans Angela Lansbury (Laurence Harvey’s incestuous mother in another outlandish political thriller, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate) and Glenn Ford (Gilda, Trial) were supposed to have joined the JFK movie cast.

Ford reportedly dropped out due to an operation. Lansbury, who was to have played Jim Garrison’s mother, had her scenes removed from the shooting script.

Also of note, JFK scenes featuring several actors (e.g., John Larroquette) are found only in the extended DVD version.

This JFK movie review refers to the 206-minute director’s cut released on DVD by Warner Bros.

JFK movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website, which is also the source of the would-be JFK casting of Angela Lansbury and Glenn Ford.

Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, and Kevin Costner JFK movie images: Warner Bros.

JFK (1991): Oliver Stone + Kevin Costner” last updated in August 2023.

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1 comment

Louis -

Excellent review. It’s been a looooooong time since I’ve seen the movie,
probably since about a year or two after its release, so it’ll be
interesting to go back to it with this review in mind. Thanks.


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