Lone Star Cinema: JFK

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JFK

Oliver Stone isn't known for subtlety. From the sledgehammered anti-greed message of Wall Street to the relentless nihilistic violence of Natural Born Killers, the director seldom is guilty of understatement.

Stone's most ambitious film, JFK, is no less over-the-top than his other works. Released in 1991, JFK is an orgy of Stone's signature style, a movie saturated (really, oversaturated) with visual and sound effects, artsy segues, and themes repeated too often. It's also one of the most important films made in Texas, a hugely successful and controversial movie by one of the most popular directors of its era.

As its title implies, JFK is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but it's less about the tragic event than the countless conspiracy theories surrounding it. The film is based on the real-life story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), whose suspicions about Kennedy's murder led him to conduct a years-long investigation.

From the day Kennedy is shot, Garrison suspects the assassination involves more than one gunman and many conspirators, some of them living in New Orleans. He begins his investigation immediately, only to drop it when the feds become hostile and Jack Ruby (Brian Doyle-Murray) murders suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman). Garrison reopens the investigation in 1966, tying Ruby and Oswald to each other and to New Orleans residents David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) and Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a prominent businessman. The plot thickens when Garrison meets with a mysterious character known only as X (Donald Sutherland), who alleges that the conspiracy involves high-ranking government officials and the Mafia.

JFK is really an elaborate whodunit, so I can't reveal much more without spoilers. (I will say that Garrison indicts Shaw, whose 1969 trial is a well known historical event.) The plot is a mix of history, conspiratorial speculation and outright fabrication, with real and fictional characters (some are a bit of both). More than three hours long -- the director's cut is a whopping 206 minutes -- JFK is a sprawling, complex story, and no doubt an intriguing one.

But this fast-and-loose blending of history, conspiracy theories and fiction makes JFK a problematic film, because it treats all three equally. Undisputed historical facts, theories both plausible and implausible, and products of Stone's vivid imagination exist in the same cinematic universe, which is very confusing to anyone familiar with the assassination (and very misleading to anyone who isn't). It also makes for an uneven story that swings wildly between believable and unbelievable plot developments. The seamless coexistence of fact, theory and Stone's brand of complete bullshit may be too seamless; JFK doesn't clearly label its crazily speculative scenes, so it sometimes plays like an overcooked murder mystery whose outrageous moments make us doubt even its most believable, historically accurate ones.

(Before I go on, I'll say that while it's tempting to pass judgment on the conspiracy theories, I'll be a good critic and review only their cinematic qualities. I'll leave the theories' real-life plausibility to the historians, journalists and assassination buffs who've been arguing about them for 50 years. For the record, I'm convinced Oswald acted alone, but am open to other knowledgeable, fact-based opinions.)

JFK also suffers from Stone's excesses. The director's blatant theatrics, clanging soundtracks and preachy moralizing work well in highly stylized films like Natural Born Killers, but they're too much for JFK, a serious film that should portray its tragic historical underpinnings with far more nuance and respect. For example, we know Kennedy's moment of death was horrifically bloody, so replaying it a dozen or more times (complete with a loud crack of gunfire) doesn't strengthen the film's impact -- it's just exploitation.

Despite these strong criticisms, there are good reasons to watch JFK. Costner and company (especially Jones) deliver great performances, although their New Orleans accents need work. Thanks to Stone's Hollywood clout, there are A-list stars (among them Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, and John Candy) in surprisingly small roles. The period details are right, and the production values lavish; Stone went to great lengths to recreate 1960s Dallas and New Orleans. While JFK's plot is uneven, the events are well paced and demand our attention. Even the extra-long director's cut didn't bore me. And for filmmakers, JFK is an interesting study in techniques for combining fact and fiction.

JFK opened to reviews far kinder than this one; many critics respected its sheer ambition and forgave its excesses, saying they put Stone's unique stamp on an often told story. (Roger Ebert was a huge fan, calling JFK one of the 10 best films of the Nineties.) Not surprisingly, it was just as successful at the box office and on video, earning $70 million (on a $40 million budget) in the U.S. and more than $200 million worldwide to date.

JFK is available online and on several DVD and Blu-ray editions. I recommend the two-disc director's cut DVD, which includes the usual extras (director's commentary, deleted scenes, etc.) and the hilariously low-rent, conspiracy-a-go-go 1992 documentary Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy. For JFK fans willing to shell out $40 or so, the slick 50th anniversary Blu-ray is tempting; it includes several documentaries and collectible printed materials.

Austin/Texas connections: JFK was filmed in Dallas, Fort Worth and the Studios at Las Colinas in Irving, as well as New Orleans, Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. Tommy Lee Jones is from San Saba. Sissy Spacek (Garrison's wife, Liz) is from Quitman. Many Texas actors (including the ubiquitous Marco Perella and Texas Chain Saw Massacre hitchhiker Edwin Neal) appear in minor roles.