'JFK' Movie Review: Oliver Stone Flawed But Riveting Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Paranoia

JFK movie Kevin Costner'JFK' movie with Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison.

'JFK' assassination movie: Gripping political drama gives added meaning to 'Rewriting History'

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 of the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy is a slick piece of propaganda that mostly works both dramatically and cinematically. If only some of the facts hadn't gotten trampled on the way to film illustriousness.

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 heighten our own sense of paranoia – but that are invariably spellbinding.

'Leave It to Beaver' family goo

Though always prone to sentimentality, Oliver 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. JFK, in fact, starts out 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.

JFK Movie Lee Harvey Oswald'JFK' movie Lee Harvey Oswald mug shot: Gary Oldman.

Kevin Costner: Oliver Stone's idealized Jim Garrison

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 from reaching a career apex as a tough and world-weary Mr. Smith – a cross between Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, with a touch of John Garfield – 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 courtroom 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.

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.

'JFK' screenplay: 'Artistic license' or sheer dishonesty?

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 infuriating 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 Supreme Court 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 of a tome that uncovers a new wide conspiracy, this time behind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

JFK Kevin Costner Donald Sutherland'JFK' with Kevin Costner and Donald Sutherland.

Scary, paranoid times

Numerous questions remain about the circumstances surrounding the Kennedy assassination, and Stone and Zachary Sklar could easily have hammered these out to create a fully plausible screenplay. But if opting for the sensational destroys JFK's credibility, 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 America, whose spooky parallels to the equally paranoid and dangerous present make for a compelling three hours.

JFK (1991).
Dir.: Oliver Stone.
Scr.: 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.
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. Gary Grubbs. Wayne Knight. Brian Doyle-Murray. Ron Jackson. Sean Stone. Tomas Milian. Lolita Davidovich. John Larroquette. Ron Rifkin. Frank Whaley. And the voice of Martin Sheen.

Kevin Costner JFKKevin Costner in 'JFK.'

Top star Kevin Costner bypassed

Kevin Costner, at the time one of the biggest box office draws in the world, failed to be shortlisted for the 1991 Best Actor Academy Award. The nominees were:

The winner was Anthony Hopkins.

Kevin Costner became a top star in 1987, with the release of two major box office hits: Roger Donaldson's thriller No Way Out and Brian De Palma's crime drama The Untouchables.

In the ensuing five years, apart from a couple of latter-day releases of problem-plagued productions (Revenge, The Gunrunner), Costner could do no wrong:

Things began going downhill in 1993, with the release of A Perfect World, with Clint Eastwood and Laura Dern. Then came accusations of temperamental behavior and a string of costly box office bombs: Wyatt Earp, The War, Waterworld, The Postman, and Tin Cup.

By the turn of the millennium, Kevin Costner's film star status was a thing of the past.


JFK cast information via the IMDb.

Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, and Kevin Costner JFK movie images: Warner Bros.

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1 Comment to 'JFK' Movie Review: Oliver Stone Flawed But Riveting Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy Paranoia

  1. 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.