Oliver Stone’s JFK: More Than An Assassination

Anyone who was around in the sixties remembers where they were when JFK got shot. It was a monumental event, much akin to people remembering where they were at 9/11. The date is 22nd November 1963 and the place is Dallas. Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was arrested for the murder and was then shot by Jack Ruby, in a blissful act for revenge for the dearly departed. An investigation resolves that the two shooters acted independently in their crimes, but Louisiana DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is open-minded and skeptical. Putting together a group of his most trusted individuals, he conducts his own enquiry, bringing around a backlash of powerful government and political figures telling him to stop stirring the pot.

Garrison (Costner) is highly doubtful of the official story presented by the FBI. Who trusts the FBI, right? Even more so with the prickly J. Edgar Hoover in charge? His suspicions add to what he already knows leads him think that there’s more to this story than meets the eye. This movie is a mixture of fact and speculation of the death of America’s golden boy, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The investigation files are reopened and with Garrison, we the viewers, take a critical look at the “facts” given by the FBI in addition to Garrison putting his nose in unwanted places by ruffling feathers that shouldn’t be ruffled and rattling cages that shouldn’t be rattled. It gets to the point where he puts his family’s lives in danger. But he follows the wire which leads to the Vietnam War.

Kevin Costner is the rigteous force of justice in Oliver Stone's JFK (JFK, Warner Bros.)

Kevin Costner is the righteous force of justice in Oliver Stone’s JFK
(JFK, Warner Bros.)

The JFK Assassination is one of the most subscribed conspiracy theories in the history of conspiracy theories. One man is a rogue, well two guys, that might well be a conspiracy. And it seems not completely out of the question that Hoover had him whacked because of his stances on Vietnam, Civil Rights, The Cold War as the space race with Russia. Though, that’s none of my business. Perhaps I should shut up now. When ever you sit down for an Oliver Stone picture, you know you either going to be mentally stimulated (Wall Street, Nixon), question the system (Salvador, The Doors) or end up feeling sad but feel glad you watched it (Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July). His movies are an acquired taste as they aren’t mindless blockbuster movies. Even if parts are fictionalized for the movie, that’s not necessarily bad because they make you think. That’s something that can’t be said for a lot of cinema-released movies these days.

Stone’s JFK is often exciting, purely from the dialogue and characters. Donald Sutherland (MASH) plays a military whistleblower named X who tells the tales at the speed of Michael Pena in Ant-Man, often when we get a dosage of John Williams’ (Star Wars) awesome musical score. The cinematography from Robert Richardson with the editing from Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia are first-rate, deservedly winning academy awards for their work. I think this is one of Kevin Costner’s best performances of his career, along with Elliot Ness in the classic movie, The Untouchables. He seems to be the only person in the country with any values, morality and ethics. He is committed to upholding the law, even if it is against those who make them. He’s investigating the government as quietly as possible. Ha! As if that could ever happen, right? Only the most engrossed viewer will be able understand all the story. As history, it’s open to interpretation because we all know it is a story written by the victors, who tend to be men, hence “his story”.

Gary Oldman, one of the most versatile actors of his time; here he plays Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK, Warner Bros.)

Gary Oldman, one of the most versatile actors of his time; here he plays Lee Harvey Oswald
(JFK, Warner Bros.)

Movies like this tend to be murky in who is good and who is evil. But this is a politically active Oliver Stone movie where the bad guys are always obvious. The good guys are Garrison and his team with the villains quickly pointed out as the government, The Mafia, J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, Dallas cops, anti-Castro Cubans and anyone else who has anything against Kennedy. Kennedy is depicted as the hero king of England, quite like Richard Lion Heart. Basically, the bad guys are anyone who wanted Kennedy gone and anybody who thwarts Garrison. He’s not a complete martyr as his antics against the government have domestic repercussions. He’s portrayed as a “do-no-wrong” good guy but his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) is constantly telling him that the case is having an effect on the family unit. He spends so much time on the case, that he forgets he is married with kids.

In the final courtroom scene, Garrison turns into a noble Atticus Finch from the critically acclaimed book and then film, To Kill A Mockingbird, a noble hero fighting a lost cause. Garrison knew he’d lose the case but it wasn’t about winning, it was about sending a message to society that these high officials are crooks. They are crooks and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. Costner is portrayed as this messianic figure. All he’d now to be even more righteous is a golden halo. Even if it does skate over historical inaccuracies, this is my favourite Stone picture, purely from the great: dialogue, acting, editing and cinematography. Historical inaccuracies are not a new thing in Hollywood movies but I think he did that to make audiences appeal to a deeper brutal and emotional truth.

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) with anonymous whistleblower X (Donald Sutherland) (JFK, Warner Bros)

Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) with anonymous whistleblower X (Donald Sutherland)
(JFK, Warner Bros)

Even from a non-historical standpoint, the one hundred and ninety-one minute film makes for wonderful storytelling. Thanks to the excellent performances and Stone’s second-to-none directing style. What I found captivating was Costner’s great summarization of the unfairness and corruption of the system during his film-stealing courtroom speech. It’s no secret that the system stinks, and it really begs the question, “Who really killed JFK?”

“Pay attention to the fine print. It’s far more important than the selling price.”