Of all the bold moves Oliver Stone made with his 1991 historical mystery JFK, the boldest may be its title. JFK isn’t a biopic about the 35th president of the United States; it’s the story of how New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) investigated some local connections into the assassination of President Kennedy, and made national headlines in the late 1960s with the evidence he uncovered of a possible conspiracy. So why JFK, and not On The Trail Of The Assassins or Crossfire (the two books Stone and his co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar adapted for this movie)? Because the thesis of Stone’s film is that Kennedy was killed by his own government due to his intention to wind down U.S. military intervention abroad, which means JFK really is a film about the president: what he stood for, and how his death may have squashed an opportunity to live in a very different world.
When JFK was released, it occasioned a string of hand-wringing editorials and reviews, arguing that the movie plays fast and loose with the facts, and is downright irresponsible in the way it presents conjecture as settled history. Stone has remained unapologetic about what JFK is, saying his intention was to forge a powerful “counter-myth” to what he sees as the official myth of the crazy lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald (played in the film by Gary Oldman). The ultimate point of JFK isn’t that Kennedy may have been murdered as part of an institutional coup d’état, but that there are powerful, shadowy forces always at work in the United States, usurping democracy by preventing citizens from investigating who’s really using their tax dollars.
Yet somewhat lost in the controversy over whether JFK is “right” or “dangerous” is the matter of whether it’s any good, just as a film. That’s the downside to Stone being such a provocateur: It’s too easy to get sidetracked by arguing with his opinions and the confident way he states them, while losing the handle on what he’s able to accomplish as an artist and storyteller. Stone doesn’t make it any easier on himself with his style, which at times can be so kaleidoscopic that any moments of poetry or profundity seem almost inadvertent. JFK is just over three hours long—even longer in the director’s cut—and it’s a near-constant flurry of images, from re-enactments of Kennedy’s assassination to actual archival footage to scene after scene of Garrison and his team of investigators questioning witnesses and suspects. It’s an overload of visual information, much of it run through various filters to make it look aged. (In fact, it’s hard to tell whether the Blu-ray edition of JFK looks any better than the DVD or the old theatrical prints, because the movie has never exactly been gorgeous.)
Stone can be blunt too, and gaudy. In JFK, the actors almost uniformly overdo their Louisiana accents, and are prone to cornball pronouncements like, “Ah’ve been sleepin’ fo’ three yeahs!” The film fumbles dramatically whenever it dwells on what the Kennedy case did to Garrison’s family life, and nearly all of the sequences that deal with the case’s coterie of shadowy homosexuals (played by Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, and Kevin Bacon) venture into a florid decadence that verges on offensive. The purported villains of the piece stop just short of mustache-twirling, and in the speculative flashbacks, they make anti-Kennedy statements that are conveniently damning, even for a hypothetical.
So is JFK a good movie? Actually, it’s a great movie that looks better with each passing year. Even aside from what it’s saying, and even with the many, many forced moments, JFK has a mad genius about it. The sheer effort that went into re-enacting not just the assassination, but dozens upon dozens of related incidents and memories—often for the sake of a cutaway that lasts only seconds—is the very definition of “obsessive.” And there’s a design to Stone’s montages that isn’t always evident right away, but becomes clearer the longer the movie plays out, and on re-watching. Frequently in JFK, the pictures on the screen directly contradict the voiceover recollections, or the flashbacks reveal, in fragments, key characters or pieces of evidence that won’t become fully relevant until later. There’s a mesmerizing effect to Stone’s approach, as he leads the audience to pay attention to every fleeting insert shot.
Stone had used this approach before, and would again, and JFK was so successful that its style briefly became fairly commonplace in big historical prestige pictures. It serves more of a purpose here, though, because one of JFK’s points is that even with all that the government was keeping classified, there were still copious public records that had gone largely forgotten: news stories, police reports, and first-hand recollections that all deserve a look, as opposed to the carefully chosen pieces of information in the official files. (Outside of the circles of conspiracy nuts, even Garrison had ceased being a household name prior to JFK’s release, even though his crusade was national news as it was happening.)
Always, though, Stone keeps bringing the movie back to two men. There’s Garrison, whom JFK paints as an ordinary, reasonable, good-humored man—not a kook, in other words—trying to run a major investigation on a piddly budget, while seeing his faith in institutions tested every time he runs into another uncooperative government agency or hostile reporter. And then there’s Kennedy, whom JFK recognizes as a divisive figure, sparking heated arguments among Americans even in the immediate aftermath of his death. JFK is Stone’s effort to turn a nation of watchers—many of whom had already received the information in this film back in the 1960s, but didn’t know then how to make sense of it—into a nation of activists. (“It’s up to you,” Garrison says directly into the camera at the end of the closing argument of the only major criminal trial related to the Kennedy assassination.) But as Stone shows the revolting headshot in the Zapruder film over and over, he also reminds the audience that this is a film about a human being whose administration ended horrifically—and undemocratically.
Warner Brothers’ new JFK box set commemorates the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and uses Stone’s film as a starting point for multiple perspectives on the president. JFK itself appears on Blu-ray in its extended director’s cut, joined by a Stone commentary track in which he spins more theories in his usual persuasively dispassionate fashion. Another Blu-ray disc contains the Kennedy-themed episode of Stone’s controversial Showtime docu-series Oliver Stone’s Untold History Of The United States, which attempts to correct the record on Kennedy’s military adventures in Cuba and Southeast Asia by tying it to his administration-long squabbles with the Department Of Defense. The set also includes Warner Archive’s stripped-down DVD edition of the 1963 war movie PT 109, a stiff but entertaining recounting of Kennedy’s WWII adventures in the Pacific theater, with Cliff Robertson playing a courageous regular joe of a JFK.
Separate DVDs in the set contain the documentaries John F. Kennedy: Years Of Lightning, Day Of Drums (a 90-minute Gregory Peck-narrated, George Stevens Jr.-produced memorial, made in the mid-1960s) and JFK Remembered: 50 Years Later (an archival-footage-loaded look back at Kennedy’s public appearances, from the campaign trail to the days before his death). And in addition to Stone’s commentary, the actual JFK disc adds nearly an hour of deleted and extended scenes (with more Stone commentary), plus a 90-minute documentary about the making of the movie and the real-life people it’s about, and multimedia essays that explore some recently declassified material. Taken all together, the extras in the JFK box set offer a more complete picture of the man and his death than Stone’s film, which is focused almost exclusively on the conspiracy. The set blows past all the “man of hope and change” vagaries and offers specifics on what Kennedy’s policies were, and why they might’ve led to his bloody demise.