Oliver Stone’s massive, three-hour JFK is powerful, compelling, brilliantly written and directed, superbly acted by a stellar cast of luminaries with courage and conviction, and one of the most important history lessons the cinema has ever told.
Stone compiled a massive dossier to support his belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was just a naive pawn in a much deadlier government plot involving defence contractors, oil bankers, big business conglomerates, and the military – all of whom wanted the war in Vietnam, which President John F Kennedy opposed, in order to pump $80 million into the sagging American economy.
What we have here, he says, will go down in history as a right-wing military coup d’etat.
Compiling the evidence (much of it awesomely convincing) is a painstaking effort that makes for quite an exhausting film.
Weaving actual footage with dramatisation, JFK is not the story of an assassinated American president, although it is observed that he was set upon by assassins like Julius Caesar.
It is the story of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played with verve, intensity, and honest inspiration by Kevin Costner in a performance that will amaze you), a man worth making a movie about because he was the only man in the country who wouldn’t put the assassination to bed.
Beginning with Eisenhower’s farewell address in January 1961 and moving through the Bay of Pigs, the film deals with Khrushchev, the family album (nothing, of course, on Marilyn Monroe), right up to the fatal Dallas motorcade in 1963.
JFK chronicles the life of the man in documentary style, then spends the rest of the three hours unveiling the plot that killed the President and toppled Camelot, parading a cast of characters so bizarre no one could make them up – including eyewitnesses who identified suspects and heard shots from different directions, then found their testimonies falsified and their signatures forged in the Warren Report.
Oliver Stone seems to agree with Senator Russell Long (Walter Matthau), who says: “This dog don’t hunt.” And that’s where Jim Garrison comes in.
Described as a “mouse fighting a gorilla,” he took on the homosexual underworld, the Mafia, the CIA, and anti-Castro forces, pimps, government informers from the Pentagon . . . everything that served his purposes in court, incurring the wrath of taxpayers, endangering his own life, and finding himself labelled “a threat to the national security structure” in the process.
The fact that he failed to convict sleazy New Orleans subversive Clay Shaw (played with oily, reptilian grace by Tommy Lee Jones) as a co-conspirator doesn’t make the story less conclusive, only doubly shrouded in mystery.
Garrison’s end-of-trial courtroom plea for American justice is a moving speech and Costner’s marathon monologue is worth the price of admission itself.
Meanwhile, there is the joy of watching some superb actors do their stuff, including Ed Asner, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Lolita Davidovitch, Jack Lemmon, Sally Kirkland, and John Candy.
Kevin Bacon is especially fine as a gay hustler, and Gary Oldman makes a very convincing Oswald (pictured above right).
The dissidence and controversy over the film – from both sides of the political fence – was inevitable. The Warren Commission report had already been labelled a fiction and there is nothing new about the conspiracy theory.
We’ll never know the truth until the records are unsealed in the year 2029.
Tommy Lee Jones
Lee Harvey Oswald
Senator Russell Long
Jay O. Sanders
Julia Ann Mercer
Pruitt Taylor Vince
Allison Pratt Davis
Sergeant Frank Harkness
Roxie M. Frnka
Chief Justice Earl Warren
Linda Flores Wade
Odin K. Langford
Irvin F. Dymond
Bonnie Ray Williams