Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Oliver Stone and Jonathan Sklar; adapted from “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison, and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs

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“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

– Sir John Harington

 

Never one to shy from a difficult task, Oliver Stone’s prolific and convoluted cinematic history mirrors his own incredibly interesting life.

The Yale dropout-turned English teacher-turned volunteer infantrymen at the height of the Vietnam War, where he was wounded twice and given a total of eight commendations and medals, went back to school in 1971 where he earned a BA in Film Studies from the New York Film Institute, where one of his instructors was Marty Scorsese, who even then was regarded as a luminary in his craft.

One of the most successful writer-directors of his time, seen by many as a successor in the vein of F.F. Coppola, Stone wrote or directed some of the most notable films of the 1980s, after establishing himself as a fledgling force majeure in the industry when he garnered a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1979 for his Midnight Express script.

Not even counting his critically-touted Vietnam War trilogy, borrowing from the worst and best of his wartime experiences (1986’s Platoon, 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, 1993’s Heaven and Earth), Stone is wholly or partly responsible for films as incendiary and diverse as Scarface (1983), Year of the Dragon (1985) with Mickey Rourke, Salvador (1986) and Wall Street (1987), a film that defined a new generation’s volatile perspective of corporate American greed on the stock exchange.

But in 1991 after stringing together a career of notably unique box-office and critical achievements, Stone created what would be his most dramatically contentious film – and the most controversial film of its time – JFK, which created an aura of debate that thrust a nation desensitized to war and scandal into reopening the question of the grandfather of all conspiracy theories.

An engrossing, thoroughly invigorating work of superior writing and editing, JFK analyzes the initial aftershock following President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, and then expands to detail the pursuit of then-New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as he attempts single-handedly, and against seemingly impossible odds, to uncover the truth.

No piece of information is too trivial, no coincidence too convenient as Garrison (a role chosen specifically for Kevin Costner during his heyday as America’s most earnest actor) and his staff of fellow hard-boiled ideologues, three years after the assassination, decides to navigate the twisted and treacherous murky waters of what he increasingly realizes – and so perhaps does the audience, as Stone intends – is a massive cover-up of truly epic proportions.

A diverse cast of the unfortunate, the repugnant, and the heroic men and women who had a part – big and small – to play in the tangled web of conspiracy help to further extrapolate and fascinate in this utterly absorbing three-hour plus Sixties opus.

Tommy Lee Jones features as the film’s most palpable – only because everyone else is so intangible – antagonist, effete and mysterious Clay Shaw, accused by Garrison of being involved in a CIA-engineered operation right in New Orleans that had unscrupulous ties to Lee Harvey Oswald.

Oswald, the disillusioned, pro-Castro, Marxist/Leninist shooter who supposedly fired three expert rounds at the Kennedy motorcade and killed the President, is played by noted Nineties acting chameleon Gary Oldman, who, acting the part of self-proclaimed patsy and hapless fall guy throughout, is a subdued triumph.

Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, and Jay O. Sanders highlight Garrison’s team of assistants and understudies, Sissy Spacek plays the idealistic and determined lawyer’s wife, who supports initially her husband’s quest for justice, but succumbs to fear and exhaustion– both of public opinion and other elements far more insidious – when Garrison’s case gains international attention, and Joe Pesci and Kevin Bacon play brash and fiery parts as cogs to Clay Shaw’s own apparent conspiracies.  Most notably, in a small – I can in no way refer to it as minor – but incredibly memorable role, Donald Sutherland portrays Garrison’s important and enigmatic nameless source, X, who meets the district attorney in Washington, D.C., under the Parthenon-like shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, and effectively pulls the seat out from under him with a vivid and unsettling fifteen-minute monologue that attacks every belief and trust he once had in the government he had served during a sequence of cinematic spellbinding for the ages.

In 2009 in my then-home in Bedford, PA I awoke in the late morning of one summer’s day with the remnants of the previous night’s boisterous good time still thudding in my head, and needed more than anything something to mollify and distract my hangover while I nursed my brain back to life.

Pulling out JFK from the smooth paper lining of its Netflix sleeve, I thought maybe I would get a start on this giant film I had been wanting to see for quite a while, perhaps fall victim to a blessed nap – the instant salve to that post-inebriety condition – and finish it later.

I had underestimated the film’s effect, however, and like Garrison listening numbly to X discuss the dire manifestations of public officials, the betrayals of Kennedy’s inner staff – “Like Caesar, he is surrounded by enemies, and something’s underway, but it has no face, but everybody in the loop knows…” – describing the makings of a hideous coup d’etat, I was likewise mesmerized by JFK.

The film’s power lies not in the rabid, frenetic gallery of witnesses and villains and shadowy military personnel providing window dressing for a cheap whodunit, but in the potency of its delivery.  Stone’s film will not sway everyone who watches that the post-assassination Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald acted alone was a myth of shocking proportion, that President John F. Kennedy was brutally murdered by a hit team organized and executed with gruesome precision by the CIA; given the green-light to kill our country’s highest elected official by cabinet members in the upper echelons of our government, and their financial elite puppet masters, in the final effort to halt Kennedy’s stubborn objection to prolonging the Cold War and fueling the powder keg about to explode in Vietnam, the apparent culmination of the country’s post-World War II flame-fanning of the military/industrial complex.

No, you don’t have to believe every facet and word, and you’re not expected to.  But you will be galvanized.  You will do research, maybe just a quick Google search later that night, or maybe you’ll read a book on it.  But, in the end, you will be unable to hold true to the same complacency.

And that’s the whole point.

Make no mistake, JFK is a horror story.  It grabs your hand firmly and takes you down a road no modern patriot wants to believe, and can’t rightly stomach.  The dissonant and uncomfortable strings of John William’s score follows you down a turgid tributary of unnerving questions and palpably convincing conjecture, the needling understanding that maybe it’s possible, that perhaps the soulless and immoral machinations of our very government can hide, fabricate, subdue and pervert justice, that one shadowy figure in shadowy office can make a phone call to another and in its ghastly simplicity murder is made on America’s first citizen.

Doubt in a long-held view is distressing, but once freed can be contagious.  In this era a shockingly large and growing amount of Americans believe that the events of September 11, 2001 were partly or wholly created by the Bush Administration to justify and escalate our undeclared conflicts in the Middle East, a quagmire that our infantrymen’s boots are still in to this day.  Our complete trust in the government is a long-faded dream, and any semblance of astonishment at the nefarious capabilities of it register little on our collectively desensitized and often bitter scale.

Did the film JFK and its mainstream success assist this dubious legion of conspiracy theorists, so reviled for so long, into coming out into the light?  Because of, or despite, it was lambasted immediately when media discovered its subject and its slant.  To quote Stone himself, “never before in the history of movies has a film been attacked in first draft screenplay form.” But, as he would probably also be the first to say, JFK became a national hot-button issue and a social phenomenon.  Then-President George H.W. Bush was asked on its merit, as have many other politicians during and since, while journalists who had been in Dealey Plaza in Dallas at the time of the shooting appeared out of the woodwork to discredit, and all the while tens of thousands more tickets were sold to those that wanted their own private piece of the controversy.

JFK was also the first film in seventy years to affect federal legislation.   The “President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992” was passed, allowing new assassination-related documents, some un-redacted, to be released in 2017 – I for one can’t wait – a begrudging concession by the government directly attributable to the power of the film’s effect.

But with all the intrigue and polarizing hullabaloo aside, people go to the movies to see and hear a good story, and there is no doubt that Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning (Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, richly deserved) JFK is just that.

A far-reaching achievement of myriad interweaving cross-currents, not sprawling but cogent, not emotionally indulgent but empathetic and pure, it is still to this day the electrifying Richter scale of engrossing epic cinema to me that I judge most every film, and the same experience that forcibly roused my mind and body out of its hungover stupor those years ago, and hasn’t let up since.

 

 

 

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