Historical Circuit: ‘JFK’ Remains Oliver Stone’s Crowning Directorial Achievement

ACCA 1991: An historically questionable paranoid thriller about the assassination of a President that runs over three hours, there’s no reason why “JFK” should work. And yet, it’s arguably Oliver Stone‘s masterpiece. Positively electric filmmaking on the part of Stone pushes this one to iconic status. Much has been written about it over the years, so there’s not too much to add. That being said, some further appreciation is certainly in order. One of 1991’s most nominated films by the Academy, it would fall short in Best Picture, due in part to going up against another classic. Having to choose in the big category between “The Silence of the Lambs” and this one? Not to mention “Beauty and the Beast” as well? Voters had a hell of a choice that year.

“JFK” introduced us to Stone’s love of conspiracy theories. It remains his most successful attempt at translating that into a satisfying film. Even if you don’t agree one iota with his conclusions, the filmmaking here is so outstanding; you shouldn’t care. Stone is at his best. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, three of which went to Stone himself, the flick is brilliant. Looking at it as cinema is essential though. As a history lesson, that can be a mixed bag. If you look at it as an all-time great political thriller, you can tell why it has the reputation that it does.

We all know the facts. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. According to the Warren Commission report, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Tons of evidence suggests that there had to be some level of a conspiracy, though Stone doubles down on it. Watching the film, you’ll be hard-pressed to back Stone’s view of things, as he indicts just about everyone, including Vice President and then President Lyndon Johnson. At the same time, his case is so compelling; you’ll be drawn in from start to finish.

A sprawling epic, the movie begins with Martin Sheen narrating a history of how President Kennedy got to Deeley Plaza. Then, the shots ring out, and the President is dead. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is stunned, though plenty in his town is thrilled to be done with Kennedy. When suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is captured, his dealings in the Big Easy lead Garrison to look into him, just in case. What he finds is that Oswald was involved with some unsavory characters, ones who had reason to hate the President and virtually set Oswald up as an easy mark. This leads Garrison to suspect a conspiracy and begin investigating under the radar, with the assistance of his team.

As things progress, Garrison begins to become obsessed, neglecting his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) and their children. Then, his investigation goes public after targeting businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) as a person of interest. The media focus is intense, with many in power seeking to discredit Garrison. Still, he presses on for the truth, or at least answers to his questions. Eventually, he takes Shaw to court, representing the only time a case has been made in regards to the assassination. Historians know how this turns out, but it’s riveting to watch unfold.

Kevin Costner turns in one of his best performances here. The head of an all-time great ensemble, he’s asked to a lot and doesn’t disappoint. His initial scenes are a mixed bag, but he gets better as he goes along. Once we get to the trial, it’s just aces. His famous “back and to the left” speech, involving the magic bullet, is iconic for a reason. Sissy Spacek is underused as the long-suffering stock wife, but she makes the best of it. Better is Tommy Lee Jones bemused that Garrison would be coming after him Jones would be Oscar-nominated for the role, showing just how much he lingers in your memory. Then, there’s Gary Oldman, who is fantastic as Oswald. His scenes are captivating. Jones and Oldman are just two examples of how this is one of the all-time best ensembles. “JFK” stands alongside any of the greats. The ensembles of David O. Russell have nothing on this one.

No matter the content of the film, a supporting cast like this is worthy of acclaim. It’s to the further benefit of “JFK” that everyone lends top-tier support. Edward Asner, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bob Gunton, Wayne Knight, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, and Donald Sutherland are just some of the supporting players here. Metcalf, Pesci, and Rooker stand out, though Sutherland is the best of the bunch. His lone scene where he details the military aspect of the conspiracy is believable, haunting, and slightly terrifying.

This is a clinical example of master direction at work. Stone correctly makes his case, speculative as it may be. His nominated direction is masterful, as is his screenplay, also cited, co-credited to Zachary Sklar. Cinematographer Robert Richardson mixes in stock footage with recreations brilliantly. Richardson won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and rightly so. The score by John Williams is one of his most underrated and perhaps his best non-Steven Spielberg output. Then, there’s the editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. The way they keep the pace moving is beyond acclaim worthy. They took home the Oscar for Best Film Editing, and it’s as deserving a win as the category has ever seen. Everyone works together to craft “JFK” as the compulsively watchable film that it is. Every sequence depicting a new aspect of the conspiracy is given room to breathe, which is so rare. Over three hours go by in the blink of an eye.

“JFK” holds up. It stands the test of time. In fact, the years have only given more credence to some of what Stone is purporting. Did things happen exactly as he suggests? Almost certainly not. That being said, some form of a conspiracy seems obvious. After all, if more than one person planned the assassination, which seems undeniable, then by definition it’s a conspiracy. 1991 had some terrific films. Without question, “JFK” stands tall with them. It’s a classic, plain and simple.

Grade: (★★★★)

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