Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Director's Cut DVD
Warner, widescreen 2.35:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], subtitles: English, French, Spanish, double side-single layer, no chapters, "17 minutes of additional footage", rated R, 206 min., $24.98, street date 4/29/97.
Academy Awards: Winner of Best Cinematography-Robert Richardson, Best Film Editing-Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia. Nominated for Best Picture-A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone, Best Director-Oliver Stone, Best Screenplay-Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar, Best Supporting Actor-Tommy Lee Jones, Best Original Score-John Williams, Best Sound, 1992.
Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman.
JFK, Oliver Stone's powerful film about the shots heard round the world and the mystery that still surrounds them is one of the most provocative movies of our time. In addition to its box-office success, critical acclaim and awards, it played a major role in the national debate that led to the passage of the 1992 Assassination Materials Disclosure Act.
For this exclusive DVD edition, Stone has added 17 minutes of footage to the Academy Award-winning movie, lending new excitement to the mosaic of Jim Garrison's turbulent investigation of John F. Kennedy's murder.
Of all the films I've reviewed, JFK probably offers me the most difficult dilemma. Is this because it's a bad film? Heavens no - it's a tremendously effective piece of cinema. I've never liked Oliver Stone but this is one film of his that I felt worked; it's well-paced and so powerfully done that you almost never notice that it's almost 3 and a half hours long.
My problem stems from the fact that it's a piece of propaganda akin to the work of Leni Riefenstahl. That may sound like hyperbole but it's not. From start to finish, Stone weaves a web of lies, half-truths, and questionable data that all sounds great but doesn't stand up to the historical record for longer than the blink of an eye. To call JFK historically irresponsible is a vast understatement; it offers a view of the Kennedy assassination much more flawed than that of the conspiratorial "establishment" he seeks to discredit.
Not for a second will I pretend to be any kind of expert on the Kennedy assassination. For the most part, my knowledge swirled around the usual bits and pieces; grassy knolls, magic bullets, etc. When I first saw JFK during its theatrical run in 1991, I was quite impressed; I was one of those "if even half of this is true, it's obvious Oswald didn't do it" kind of people. I got my thimbleful of knowledge and away I went!
Unfortunately, I've since learned that the thimble contained poison, not knowledge. I've done some reading - primarily Gerald Posner's terrific book Case Closed - and virtually every "fact" touted in JFK can be fairly easily refuted. Most of the witnesses it and other pro-conspiracy works use to support their theories have changed their stories repeatedly over the years; Stone and the others conveniently choose the tales they find most pleasing. And despite all the "data" Stone cites to prove the "impossibility" of many of the events of November 22, more reasonable sources DO confirm the reality of these occurrences.
Facts mean little to Stone and others of his ilk. In reality, it's virtually impossible to prove them wrong because they so selectively pick and choose what they will believe; all that's important is that it supports their conclusions. Throughout JFK we hear how corrupt and evil the US government has become, and he tells us that the Warren Report was simply a cover-up. Yet at the end of the film he offers the fact that the House Select Committee on Assassinations - using some very questionable data - concluded in the 1970s that a second gunman probably was involved. This is Stone's MO from beginning to end; use what he likes, discredit what he doesn't, no matter how irrational and subjective these choices may be.
Sometimes you tell a lie often enough that you ultimately accept it as truth. The sad irony of the Kennedy assassination is that the lies about it have gained so much wider exposure than have the facts that they've gained status of virtual common knowledge. It was a conspiracy, the Warren Report was a cover-up, etc. Insidiously, Stone and many of the others have worked to almost make Oswald a martyr, a tool of the military-industrial complex; just as Oswald says in the movie: he was a "patsy."
Bullshit. What the conspiracy buffs neglect to tell you is that Oswald really was a pretty screwed-up guy. He quite perfectly fit the now-clichéd model of the quiet loner who goes off, except he offered plenty of warning signs. Does JFK notify us that Oswald attempted to shoot a right wing leader only a few months prior to the Kennedy assassination? Or that the SAME GUN was used in that attempt? Of course not - these might actually lead some people to - gasp! - think that Oswald did it!
Interestingly, the whole experience of examining the assassination has made me extremely wary and skeptical about any sources of material. While I certainly liked Case Closed and thought it made a great deal more sense than the conspiracy theories - Posner does an excellent job of establishing just how absurd and virtually impossible such a far-reaching plot would be - I nonetheless have to question it; if theories I don't agree with are open to doubt, then so should be ideas that make sense to me. The only truly rational response to the assassination debate is one of agnosticism; I can state that I think Oswald very likely acted alone, but I find it hard to believe that all doubt will ever be removed from the issue.
As I mentioned earlier, it's almost impossible to get conspiracy theorists to acknowledge facts that refute their beliefs. These assassination buffs have become a virtual Flat Earth Society; all evidence that contradicts their thoughts must be tainted. Check out the reader comments about Case Closed on Amazon; many of those who didn't like the book believe it to be CIA/FBI/pick-your-evil-agency propaganda. The feelings of the true believer cannot be altered.
JFK doesn't limit its distortions and lies to Oswald and the technical aspects of the assassination. We also get the deification of sleazy crackpot Jim Garrison and additional scorn heaped upon an innocent man, Clay Shaw. All of this is well and good for a movie, but unfortunately it completely distorts the historical record. It seems fairly clear that Shaw did not have any involvement in anything other than having the wrong first name and sexual orientation, and that Garrison was not quite the earnest truth-seeker he seems as played by Kevin Costner; most reports depict him as a fairly obsessive paranoid nutbag.
Not much sign of that in JFK, however. Actually, we do get the occasional glimpse of other opinions of Garrison and his witch-hunt - for instance, bits of an NBC TV special are shown - but these notions are quickly discarded by the audience because we've seen the "truth." Stone depicts fact and fiction so that they are interchangeable. An irrefutable fact such as Kennedy's drive through Dallas is not distinguishable from wild-eyed conjecture like LBJ's possible involvement in the "plot"; Stone never offers the audience any caveats to know the difference between levels of reality.
Why would he? He wants to present his insane case, and he does so remarkably well. JFK honestly is something of a masterwork. It's tremendously entertaining and compelling and displays terrific craftsmanship in all areas. Never does it stop to intrigue the viewer. Obviously, the film works better if the audience lacks knowledge about the assassination, but even a semi-educated viewer such as myself still found it fascinating. I knew it was all a crock, but it was a damned watchable crock.
Stone's style clearly helps him establish his theories, since the viewer rarely gets time to catch his breath and consider what has been posited. So much information gets aired during JFK that it really takes two or three viewings to absorb it all. Actually, if you want to best study the ideas Stone raises, you do need to watch the movie a few times so you'll better be able to remember his absurdities when you learn the truth.
Much of the credibility of JFK is bolstered by its terrific cast. Costner plays a variation of his usual bland self, but in this case, that's probably a good thing; since Garrison was such a mess in real life, Costner's Gary Cooper routine gives the character a grounded presence that he sorely needs. On the other hand, I found Tommy Lee Jones' flamboyant portrayal of Shaw to be excessive; we are told early on that Shaw was a "butch" homosexual, one you'd never suspect of being gay, but that's certainly not in line with Jones' swishy performance.
The remainder of the cast work well in roles of varying size. Subliminally, the number of well-known actors present works to support Stone's version of the events; it gives the piece much more credence than it would otherwise possess. Sissy Spacek plays Garrison's wife, and she's adequate, but it's a poor role that leaves her little to do other than whine at Garrison as he neglects his family. (Okay, "whine" is probably unfair, since she's right, but Spacek doesn't really earn the sympathy of the audience.) Probably the best portrayal in the film comes from Gary Oldman's turn as Oswald. Oldman possesses an extremely strong ability to lose himself in a character, and rarely has he done so as completely as he does here. He fully inhabits Oswald to a degree I wouldn't think possible.
I guess it's pretty clear I have very mixed feelings about JFK; while it's a good movie, it's a rather insidious mistelling of the facts. So how does it fare as a DVD? Decently. The picture for JFK appears very erratic. For the most part it looks pretty good, and some scenes - such as the climactic bits in the courthouse - seem quite crisp and deep. However, at times the image appears hazy and artifacts pop up on occasion, especially when lots of camera movement occurs. Since Stone used so many quick cuts and a variety of different film styles - all in an attempt to make the movie look more like a documentary - these problems are largely minimized; the faults become much harder to spot. Still, they do interfere with the overall quality of the image.
More consistently satisfying is the film's Dolby Pro Logic 2.0 sound mix. Although a Dolby Digital soundtrack would have been nice, this rendition works quite well. Dialogue and music always sound very clear and natural, and the rear channels are used surprisingly well; although the mix doesn't offer many showy rear effects, it does effectively offer a very good surround atmosphere. The mix supports the onscreen action, which is ultimately a soundtrack's main goal, so I found the audio to be very satisfactory.
Much less pleasing are the DVD's supplemental features. For all intents and purposes, there aren't any. We get the standard Warner Brothers cast and crew biographies - which Warners continues to stupidly insist on calling "production notes" on the DVD case - plus a brief recap of the awards for which JFK was nominated and/or won. It doesn't really qualify as an "extra," but I do appreciate the fact that the chapters in which additional material was added to the director's cut are noted on the inside of the case with asterisks.
As I started this review with a dilemma, I end it the same way. I'm supposed to offer the reader some sort of guidance - should you buy this DVD or not? That's a tough question for all the reasons I previously listed. In the end, I'd say to avoid it unless you can find it for very little money. It's a well done film, but it's just such a crock that your money would probably be better spent elsewhere, such as on a copy of Case Closed or other books that detail the Kennedy assassination. JFK effectively piques one interest in the affair, but it otherwise does more harm than good as it spreads its absurd lies.