USA / 1991
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Cast: Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, and Tommy Lee Jones
Director Oliver Stone has never shied away from exploring the emotional carnage of people’s lives, particularly in the context of bigger events that are meaningful to Americans. Be it the Vietnam War, President Nixon or The Doors, Oliver Stone is a director with an opinion he’s not afraid to put forth. So it seems only fitting that JFK, a film that challenges the conclusions of the Warren Commission, has Stone at its helm.
Based on hypotheses contained in books by Jim Marr and Jim Garrison, Stone presents JFK as an exploration of the various high power agendas that were at play in American politics circa 1963. It is the service of these agendas, and not the crazed psychosis of “lone gunman” Lee Harvey Oswald, that were responsible for the demise of one of America’s most compelling presidents.
JFK begins in 1966, when Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is a New Orleans District Attorney that can’t get the inconsistencies of the Warren Commission’s conclusions out of his head. He assembles a team and begins an investigation.
As the investigation unfolds, it reveals a litany of disturbing facts: witness accounts of the assassination have been omitted or altered; Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were apparently acquainted; witnesses were found dead from mysterious circumstances; and standard security procedures at the highest level were changed for President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas on November 22, 1963. As the team uncovers more information, it becomes horrifyingly clear that what they are discovering are the inner machinations of a coup d’etat.
Costner is at his best as Jim Garrison. It’s a superb piece of casting. Costner’s performance reminds us that when put to the test, he is capable of bringing brilliant understatement to a role. His Garrison is earnest and unrelenting. He will sacrifice whatever it takes to expose a truth he feels is being hidden from an American public that has a right to know. Yet, Costner also reveals the other side of Garrison by showing us a man genuinely scared by what he’s learned and the danger it presents.
Gary Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald adds a distinct counterpoint to Costner’s steadfast Garrison. It’s typical of the emotionally infused, frenetic and unnervingly imitative performances that have become the basis of his career.
Around the bedrock portrayals by Costner and Oldman, other notable actors are able to deliver well-honed performances in atypical roles. Tommy Lee Jones is outstanding as Clay Shaw, a prominent New Orleans businessman whose homosexuality is just barely concealed. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau make remarkable cameos as a seasoned private eye and Washington senator respectively. Joe Pesci is a ball of kinetic misery as David Ferrie and John Candy does a decidedly sleazy turn as Dean Andrews, one of Clay Shaw’s legal lackeys.
The ensemble cast carries a script that is well wrought and covers an astonishing amount of detail. Kennedy is presented as Caesar-like; a man surrounded by intimate betrayal and a malevolent plot. However, we’re also continually brought back to the sheer horror of his assassination, and this prevents a full descent into false sentimentality.
JFK is a brave and compelling film. If half the events that it asserts are actually true, we can only shake our heads in pity for the nation that let them happen.