Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The FIlms of Oliver Stone: JFK (1991)

JFK (1991)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar based on books by Jim Garrison and Jim Marrs.
Starring: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw), Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald), Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison), Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon), Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard), Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox), Wayne Knight (Numa Bertel), Donald Sutherland (X), Edward Asner (Guy Bannister), Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin), Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby), Walter Matthau (Senator Long), John Candy (Dean Andrews), Kevin Bacon (Willie O'Keefe).

Oliver Stone’s JFK is not a documentary, and it is not journalism. It doesn’t aspire to be either of these things, and shouldn’t be held to that standard. The massive conspiracy theory that the film lays out about the assassination of JFK can be debunked at least in part, and some will argue completely. You can lots of places online that will rip the film to shreds of historical grounds – and if that’s what you’re interested in, than have at it. The hero of the movie is Jim Garrison – who remains controversial – and whose prosecution of Clay Shaw as part of the conspiracy, was at best ill advised – even though certain things he accused Shaw of have proven to be true in the years since.

So why then is JFK a masterpiece? If the film fails at being historically accurate, and if the nearly three and half hour long film is almost completely made of exposition – of men (and a few women) sitting around in smoke filled rooms, slowly building the case that JFK was assassinated by a vast government conspiracy, comprised of the FBI, CIA, the military, the Mafia and Cuban activists, as well as others. There are two long monologues in the film – one at around the halfway point where Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) explains to Garrison everything that was wrong with the way the government protected – or more accurately did not protect – JFK on that day, and the reasons behind the assassination that runs nearly 20 minutes, and one, at the summation, where Garrison makes his closing argument, where he lays out everything he thinks is wrong with the official story, which runs even longer. This probably sounds like JFK is a boring movie. It is anything but. In fact, there probably isn’t a three and half hour movie that movies so quickly, and feels so short.

JFK is a masterpiece, even if you think both Stone (who says his own theory of the assassination actually goes farther than what is presented here) and Garrison are both paranoid nut jobs. It is a masterpiece because what Stone has done here is explore a national tragedy that has haunted America for decades – that will probably never be adequately explained, and will forever cause heated debate between those who believe in some sort of conspiracy and those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. That question will probably never be adequately explained, because the investigation was flawed, and now it’s too late. JFK is about that national obsession, and the emotions behind that obsession – that continues to drive people to debate.

As a President, JFK wasn’t able to accomplish all that much – because he didn’t have the time. What we do know is that things in America would have been vastly different had he lived, and Lyndon Johnson never became President. Could the national tragedy that was the Vietnam War been avoided had JFK lived. It’s entirely possible. JFK represented hope for America when he was elected – hope that a different kind of politician was coming to power, and may actually be able to change things. America didn’t experience that wave of hope again until Barack Obama was elected – the difference being that Obama failed to change America (at least not as much as hoped), but at least he got a chance to try. JFK was snatched away from America before he even had a chance to try. Stone has explored the loss of innocence numerous times in his career – in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July where idealistic young men signed up for the Vietnam War and end up disillusioned with the war, and feel like they were lied to. In Wall Street where Bud Fox wants to make a lot of money, and ends up selling his soul for his chance. JFK takes this theme, and explodes to a national level. America had hope when Kennedy was elected – and the decade that followed his assassination, ending with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation plunged the country in one of the darkest periods ever, turning the nation cynical and paranoid. JFK understands that transformation on a national level. It’s an amazing film because it has such a huge theme, such massive ambition, and it pulls it off.

It’s also a masterpiece for more traditional, film specific reasons. The film won two Oscars – for Cinematography and Editing (and should have won a lot more), but those are elements are both masterful. Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson use pretty much every type of film stock imaginable, and the masterful editing cuts between them with effortless, propulsive rhythm.  There is real news footage here, and stuff shot to look like news footage. While the film is made up of those men in rooms talking, the film itself can cut to anything at any time. The film is never bound to those rooms. The dialogue – from a screenplay by Stone and Zachary Sklar – has a rhythm all its own, and it is delivered by one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. Some only have a scene or two –but you don’t forget them. You don’t forget Jack Lemmon as a man too scared to talk, or a sweaty John Candy, speaking what sounds like gibberish, or Kevin Bacon as gay hustler, a motor mouthed Joe Pesci as the most paranoid potential witness, or Sutherland delivering his monologue, or Ed Asner as a violent ideologue, or Tommy Lee Jones (in an Oscar nominated turn) as Shaw himself, so different in his official interviews, and the flashbacks Stone shows us, or Gary Oldman, bringing humanity to Lee Harvey Oswald, pathetically complaining that he’s nothing but a patsy. As Garrison, Kevin Costner delivers one of his best performances – the calm center of the storm, who is, by necessity, a little less colorful than everyone else, so he provides a perfect anchor for the film.

This was the film that Stone was born to make. There isn’t another filmmaker in history who would attempt a movie like this, let alone pull it off. Sadly, a film like this would never be made today – it would simply cost too much money, without enough of an upside for studios to take the risk. It is a film that challenges the audience intellectually, while at the same taps in some deep seeded emotional turmoil. By all means, attack it if you want to on historical grounds. That’s you’re right – but in doing so, you completely miss the point of the movie. This is one of the greatest films ever made.

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