New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison brings about the only public prosecution for the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy through his investigation of the New Orleans underworld.
JFK is without question one of the most important films of the 20th century and an exquisite control case of a work created by a filmmaker who understands every aspect of his craft. The editing is impeccable, the cinematography is accomplished and the non linear story structure is pitch perfect for the material. In this article I am going to explore JFK as a work of art, a piece created by one of the most adept dramatists working today.
Although the themes of this movie are incredibly sinister, it’s an absolute must-see for any film aficionado and a must-study for any student of the medium. Regardless of your personal politics or opinion on the real world event, the film is an amazing achievement of nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft. Anytime I get around to watching JFK, I tend to develop a sympathy for the filmmaker because of the dark place that working on this film must have sent him. This is not easy material to handle, not for anyone, and for achieving what he did with this project, I kindly ask that all of you have an open and appreciative mind when indulging in it. This is a work that deserves our utmost respect, from a man of great character and an impressive catalog of work to boot.
Directed by Oliver Stone, JFK is inspired by the true story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. The plot follows Garrison’s investigation and eventual prosecution into the murder of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Much of the script is based off of Garrison’s book, On The Trail of the Assassins, which is a must read for anyone interested in the subject. Other elements of the script are dramatized accounts and fabricated scenes derived from hundreds of interviews, government papers and other documents and media pertaining to the assassination.
Stone bought the rights to On The Trail of the Assassins with his own money and spent several years researching the topic. He worked closely with Zachary Sklar, the editor of Garrison’s book, as well as 24 other researchers to ensure all the details of the story were accurate. The script is piled high with factual information in addition to educated speculation, none of which is used inappropriately. Nearly every important moment is responsibly sourced from publicly available media. The film was greenlit by Warner Brothers, who subsequently guaranteed $20 million to the initial budget in a “handshake deal” that awarded the studio full rights to the completed film. This allowed Stone to push through to production without having to shop the script around Hollywood.
Historically, Garrison’s investigation is the primary catalyst for the conspiracy theories pertaining to the event and he was one of the few involved in the investigation to have thought outside the box about it. Costner, who had originally turned down the role, approached Garrison as real and human as possible, bringing attention to his passion for the law, his love of country, his humanity and even his dry sense of humor, all of which are important character traits to get right when dealing with such an important and historically relevant story. In reality, Garrison wasn’t always a Kennedy admirer but came to truly appreciate him during the period of his investigation. Costner’s development of the character allows this change to become evident throughout the course of the film and his portrayal reaches far beyond the screen and pushes the audience to feel that same appreciation.
The film opens up with a white title on a black screen:
“To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” -Ella Wheeler Wilcox
This title is followed by a tightly edited sequence of historical footage from the late fifties and early sixties, all clips pertaining to events in post-war America: the election of John F. Kennedy, the cold war against communism, the intelligence war against Castro and Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis and so forth. Appropriately narrated by Martin Sheen, we get a concise summary of the key events of the era. Some of Kennedy’s famous home movie footage is spliced in over audio of his speech at the American University: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
As the sequence progresses, the documentary footage becomes staged, (although still in documentary style). The most effective moment features actor Sally Kirkland as Rose Cheramie. She is thrown out of a car by a couple of Jack Ruby’s associates and winds up in a hospital. Delusional, she warns the authorities that “they’re going to kill Kennedy” and that “these are serious fucking guys”. This is a real prediction that Kirkland portrays and it is from this moment we can gauge the dark area where the film is headed.
The opening sequence continues with the infamous parade through Dallas. Stone inserts staged shots of Dealey plaza with real footage of the day. As tension builds, we see a shot of an actor portraying Abraham Zapruder with his movie camera, quickly followed by Zapruder’s famous film footage and as the President’s limo rounds a corner, we see a girl in a red skirt waving to get the president’s attention, followed by a close-up of Kennedy waving and looking straight into the camera, at us… we hear the caulking of a rifle followed by a hard cut to black… we hear the gun shots fired and then the picture cuts to footage of pigeons flying from a rooftop. The shots echo and we get the sense that these are indeed, shots heard around the world. Stone ends the sequence with the real CBS news bulletin on the shooting.
From here, the cinemascope movie begins.
The main plot of the story takes place in the late sixties – at the moment when the Vietnam War was raging at its peak and the country was in shambles. Stone’s depiction of America in this period is that of a country at Civil War, with its most peace oriented leaders being executed one after another: John Kennedy, Martin King, Robert Kennedy… all for the purpose of maintaining a divided war culture. One of the most prominent themes that audiences have taken from this film is the concept Stone postulates that Kennedy’s assassination was a “coup d’etat”. It’s not material for the faint of heart, but Stone’s predilection toward the “coup” concept doesn’t let up, even when our heroes hypothesize other scenarios.
Many techniques are used to give the audience multiple scenarios as to what could have actually happened on November 22, 1963 and the events leading up to the infamous date. Some scenes are shot over and over again, with different tweaks to give the audience a sense that something is off or uneven. In some of these reenactments, Stone uses different actors to play different versions of the same part. One example of this approach is a sequence of flashbacks where Stone used a “Lee Harvey Oswald look alike” rather than Gary Oldman, who had prominently portrayed the character throughout the course of the film. In this flashback, we see the double going around town, buying up ammunitions and making crackpot comments about killing the President of the United States. “I thought I was shooting at that son of bitch Kennedy” he says at one point. This solidifies Stone’s preference to portray Oswald as the patsy he claimed to be..
Another fascinating example of his approach in dealing with these multiple scenarios is his decision to show multiple versions of Kennedy’s execution. Early on – the assassination is portrayed as the official story tells it: three shots from the book depository. As the investigation unfolds, the assassination is portrayed according to the most plausible conspiracy theory – with the kill shot coming from behind the fence near the overpass (aka: the grassy knoll).
Stone tackles a series of “patterns” that he regards as a “mission impossible” kind of environment where everyone is an actor playing a different role than their real life counterparts, giving us an angle on American history we wouldn’t have otherwise considered: nothing is what it seems. Stone geniusly opens up the faux, outer shell of America and reveals to us an era of James Bond, with weapons hidden in everyday objects like umbrellas, and illegal intel operations on American soil. These depictions are mere ideas, thrown in as aesthetic to strengthen the spine of the story, which is largely the private detective’s speculation, contrived from uncovered facts and circumstances not previously known or popularly discussed.
One of my favorite moments in the film is the incredible scene with “Mr. X” played by Donald Sutherland. Mr. X is a composite character, as Stone describes in his audio commentary for the film. “A composite of the knowledge”. In the film, Mr. X approaches Garrison to explain his “cold war theory”, which Stone acknowledges as his own personal theory and that of technical adviser L. Fletcher Prouty, former Chief of Special Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an approximation of Stone’s feelings about Prouty when he met him. Prouty was well versed in military and intel operations and was liaison officer between the Pentagon and CIA during the Kennedy administration. The asymmetry between Mr. X’s theory and the official history isn’t easy to handle, even with subsequent screenings.
Stone takes a bit of liberty in certain aspects, which he has received an enormous amount of criticism for. Although he acknowledges this is a sort of murky area, he insists that sometimes it’s necessary to get a certain point across. This is not a practical feature film by any measure, it is a complicated and highly abridged telling of an important and understudied moment in history. This is a film that could easily be riddled with exposition and boredom – as many “research movies” tend to be. Stone gets around all the exposition by telling the facts in unique ways, using mechanisms that transcend the medium. There are a lot of choices he could have used to tell nearly every aspect of this story and somehow, some way, he managed to hit the nail on the head at every turn. Stone regards himself as a military person and uses his natural instincts and his military training to compose the version of the story that is most obvious to him.
There is a lot of atmosphere in the film, largely created by smoke filled sets, odd angles and irregular lens choices. From fractured edits to shifting lights, fades and dissolves, every film shooting and editing technique has been employed to deliver this story as efficiently as possible. Through editing, Stone achieves incredibly effective results in dealing with the multiple layers of time that this required for such a story. There is one subconscious “hit” after another, on and on again. Case in point: when we first see footage of Oswald exiting the movie theater where he was arrested, Stone employs the “fractured edit” technique, insinuating that Garrison subconsciously recognizes something is wrong with the scenario. Later in the movie, when he explores the moment of Oswald’s arrest with the court, we’re hit with the details of what is wrong with the scenario.
A prominent scene that features Jack Lemmon giving off the record testimony to Garrison is of particular interest. Stone’s decision to have these scene set at a race track allowed him the opportunity to insert horse racing shots in over the dialog, planting the seed in our subconscious that Garrison is in a race, a race to win and subvert the powers he’s working against. This technique is mirrored later on in a scene with Kevin Bacon as he talks about all of his associates in the New Orleans underworld. Here, Stone inserts shots of mice and rats: rodents to reflect the quality of the characters Bacon had been involved with.
This is a film that clearly has a lot of excess material we’re not seeing or hearing, but the remnants of which we feel. There is no practicality and no luxury – you are expected to think for yourself and accept Stone’s aesthetic disposition as is.
JFK is also a collection of some of the best performances from some of Hollywood’s most talented actors. The cast includes top notch talent in all gamut of roles, large and small: Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Jay O. Sanders, Kevin Bacon, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Laurie Metcalf, Jack Lemmon, Brian Doyle Murray (Bill Murray’s brother, who plays Jack Ruby in the film), John Larroquette, John Candy, Sissy Spacek, and in an interesting reversal of roles, the real Jim Garrison plays Earl Warren, the Chief Justice appointed to head the “official” investigation into the President’s murder and from whom the Warren Commission is named. This impressive cast was possible because many of the actors waived their usual fees to appear in the film.
Of the entire cast of characters included in the film, there are two performances that give me goosebumps and peak my curiosity as a creative artist. The first is Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Oswald. Unlike the deranged lunatic he’s often perceived as when we’re taught about the assassination in grade school, Oldman chose a much more human and heartfelt approach. We never really sense that there is a sinister plot brewing in his mind, ‘nor do we see any sociopathic or psychopathic behavior with the character. Even with the depiction of Oswald unloading the three rounds from the book depository, there just isn’t any kind of hatred in his eyes. The second performance is that of the late John Candy, who is in the film for a few fleeting moments. The core moment for him is early on in Garrison’s investigation when his character, Dean Andrews, is being questioned at a local New Orleans restaurant. Candy’s character is sweating profusely as he talks in classic New Orleans jazz dialect. The sweat isn’t from the high anxiety material ‘nor is it called for in the script, it’s actually from his own personal nervousness from being involved in what he described as a “real film” with “real actors like Gary Oldman.”
As a matter of historical importance, Stone’s movie unit recreated the scene at Dealey Plaza more accurately and more times than any other entity, including the authorities that investigated the murder and the different news organizations that tried to debunk some of Garrison’s theories. They did it over and over again, filming it on multiple film stocks and multiple types cameras. Stones regards the experience as “rare” and a “privilege to see it from so many different angles”.
The latter half of the film is the trial Garrison brought against Clay Shaw. It’s highly abridged, but you get the gist of it in that you get why you need to understand the importance of this trial. It isn’t about the trial as much as the summation of possibilities. It is not the prosecution of Clay Shaw as much as it is an appeal to think, to question, to defy! The trial is highly technical, breaking down all sorts of different aspects of the investigation, the most famous aspect of which is the “magic bullet theory” sequence, which I’ll spare you the details of as you could find multiple other articles on this and a rather humorous reenactment on an popular episode of Seinfeld.
The most touching moment is when Garrison presents all the letters, money (in change) from people from all over the country, people who cannot afford to send money, but care about the truth and their country and want to help fund his investigation. It’s a very Capra-esque moment for a film that largely deals with a dark and blurry corner of history. Although not originally planned, Costner was apparently truly touched by his words and the tears he sheds in this scene are 100% real.
The final image is of him and his family walking down a corridor in defeat. A parallel to the defeat of the American people and ultimately, the free world at large. While the film doesn’t come to a solid conclusion about who killed Kennedy ‘nor the precise reason for it, it does proudly reject the lone-gunman theory as completely implausible, a conclusion shared by 90% of Americans polled.
John Williams scored the film and according to Stone, Williams had strong feelings about the subject. The music isn’t as overpowering as one might expect from a star studded Hollywood period piece, but tends to “ ghost in” at specific moments, subtly suggesting the direction Stone wants us to go… inviting us to open our minds to a different side of the story. At certain points we hear the military beating of drums, implying a military connection to the sinister plot in downtown Dallas.
George Lardner, the National Security Correspondent for the Washington post, was quick to attack the film, writing up a scathing article before the film was even completed. Ultimately the American press went after the film and its director, attempting to debunk it at every turn. Journalists who wrote positive reviews often found their editors rejecting the content, as is the case with Pat Dowell, who submitted a review to The Washingtonian. Editor John Limpert considered JFK “treacherous” and refused to publish any article that talked about the film in a positive light. In response to this, Pat Dowell resigned. Roger Ebert praised the film, only to receive public criticism from Walter Cronkite.
The film shot for 72 days and was incredibly organized. Stone and his crew shot on location in Dallas, New Orleans and Washington. Many far less complicated films typically shoot for more than a hundred days. Stone and his editors brought the film together in record time. Working fast allowed for less chance of interference and considering the scope and precision of the edit, the fact that this film was successfully “sped along” is an indication of the talent and dedication of the people involved. The film screened on Capitol Hill in 1991 to all the members of Congress. This screening led to the 1992 Assassinations Disclosure Act, which forced specific government agencies to release previously locked up records pertaining to the event.
This is a film with a lot of tension because it’s an ideal example of the “poet warning the people”. Stone regards JFK as his “Godfather”: a work that he’s proud to hold up as the sum of his career as a dramatist. If you haven’t gauged it already, JFK is among my top choices, should I ever have to choose a favorite movie of all time.