JFK (1991)


*. No, I don’t believe the JFK conspiracy theories. Especially the ones that depend so much upon rag-tag collections of misfits and losers. I mean, if there was a conspiracy to kill the president, how would someone like David Ferrie have gotten in on it?
*. That said, I do think this is a great movie.
*. For many reasons, but I think the one that stands out the most is this: even with a running time of nearly three-and-a-half hours (for the director’s cut), it’s never boring. The only places where it starts to stick a bit are the domestic, “Norman Rockwell” scenes (Little girl: “I don’t like it when you and mommy fight”). But these are mercifully few, and brief.
*. Credit the crackling script and most of all the frantic editing. Has there ever been a movie with more cuts (remember that running time in your answer)? What is the single longest shot? Are there any more than a minute? And even in these longer shots the camera is constantly moving around, as with the very nice dolly into David Ferrie’s apartment after his suicide.
*. And it’s not just the speed and frequency of the cuts. The same kinetic visual rhythm hops crazily from black-and-white to colour to different kinds of film stock and speed. This movie was made in the editing room.


*. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was all in the casting. There’s an old saying that a movie is made when it’s cast. True or not, the casting in JFK is brilliant, using typecasting and the star system to, in Roger Ebert’s phrase “create instant emotional zones around their characters.” The stars make quick, lasting impressions, striking the screen like typewriter keys on a page. Tommy Lee Jones is supercilious. Joe Pesci is manic. Walter Matthau is garrulous. John Candy is a bubble of grease about to pop (what does his line about the ho-hos and the ta-tas mean?). Gary Oldman seems like a visitor from another planet. Kevin Bacon is dirty. Jim Garrison (that’s him playing Earl Warren) is compromised. Jack Lemmon is befuddled. Donald Sutherland is smug and deluded.


*. Sissy Spacek is wasted, I think because Stone really doesn’t understand women (he’s been accused of not liking them, but that may be going too far). Laurie Metcalf as Suzie Cox (an invented character) is good, but then she’s really just one of the boys in Garrison’s office.
*. Then there’s Kevin Costner. A cross between Jimmy Stewart and . . . a flagpole? He really relies on his props: that pipe and those serious-looking glasses that so often turn into discs of reflected light, the epitome of cool intelligence. He’s ideal, perhaps a little too ideal, for the part, but he’s not a great actor. For one thing, he has no sense of humour or even irony. David Thomson: “a man like Costner would be killed by humour.” How did he ever get cast in so many comedic leads?


*. Does a lack of humour matter? Is Stone’s tongue ever in his cheek? I want to think it’s possible. There are scenes here, like the generals nodding at each other in their smoke-filled rooms, that tingle with comedy.
*. As with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Zodiac, the hero’s obsession with uncovering the Truth puts a strain on his family life. And as with both of those movies, the hero is finally vindicated, at least morally if not in the court of public opinion. We, the audience, know he is right. Long-suffering wives take heed: stand by your man while he chases his dream, fights the system, makes his movie, etc.


*. In real life, Garrison’s wife divorced him after the events described in the movie. She may have been as unimpressed as the jurors, who only deliberated for an hour.
*. Southern accents are so redolent of corrupt authority. Their relaxing sound always puts me on my guard.
*. But let’s return to Stone’s sense (or absence) of irony. Is he a believer? In something, but I’m not sure what. There are so many theories to pick and choose from. He’s throwing a lot at the wall and hoping something sticks. But just having some belief is what’s important. I think Stone had to believe in this stuff in order to make the film work. Earnestness is essential, even when you’re admitting that a lot of the time you’re making things up.
*. What are the forces behind this coup d’état? They are, in Rose Cheramie’s prophetic voice, “serious fucking guys.” What she is referring to is Garrison’s notion of an “invisble government” of disciplined Cold Warriors holding positions of power in the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, Secret Service, White House, and even the Dallas Police.


*. Not, however, the mob. Though that’s a theory aired here as well, and Stone in the DVD commentary calls it a “lucid argument” that he wants to throw out there with everything else. “It’s your call,” he finally shrugs.
*. In case you might have missed the cues, in his commentary Stone is quite emphatic about the heroes and the villains of the piece. Here he is, for example, on Clay Shaw: “I think Clay Shaw was a handsome man, but underneath that I see brutality, brutality in every way, a very, very twisted man, a very scary man, for me.” And here he is on Fletcher Prouty (the model for Donald Sutherland’s character): “a man tall, erect, of military bearing . . . he’s a wonderful man, filled with honour and strength and dignity, and kindness and truth and graciousness.”


*. On several occasions Stone has described this film as his effort to create a “countermyth” to the Warren Report, one that would reveal the inner meaning of the assassination if not the whole truth. And while I don’t believe in the conspiracy theories, it’s a resonant myth for several reasons.
*. In the first place, it’s a story of the “little guy” taking on “the system” and being shut down. Who doesn’t identify with such feelings? Only someone who has never had any dealings with the government.


*. It also resonates because, while the conspiracy narrative is unconvincing, we feel in our hearts that it should be true. There really is a military-industrial complex, and they do wage wars for profit. Politics and the justice system are rigged games run by powerful elites.
*. “This is my Godfather,” Stone says at the end of his commentary (going on to claim Nixon as his Godfather: Part II). I think this is right, at least in so far as this is his best and most representative movie. It’s all here: the passion, the idealism, the sentiment, and the sheer energy of language and image that carries everything before it. The point is not to convince but to move. The countermyth represents an emotional truth. That’s not the province of history, but art.


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