JFK appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Should you expect any sizzling visual improvements from this fourth DVD release of JFK? Nope – this was a basic rehash of an old transfer.
JFK combined archival footage - mostly from the Sixties - and new shots that were intended to look old in addition to the expected material that appeared appropriately clear and fresh. Because of the mixture of film elements, an accurate grade became difficult to issue. Nonetheless, I thought the DVD suffered from a few more flaws than were necessary.
Sharpness was usually fine. Moderate edge enhancement gave wide shots a slightly blurry look at times, but most aspects of the movie showed good clarity and definition. I noticed no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, but artifacts created some distractions. The movie took on a gauzy look that made it look like it was shot through a thin screen. As with the edge enhancement, this wasn’t a major concern, but it wasn’t a good thing.
Print flaws largely were restricted to film grain, much of which was manufactured for the movie; whenever Stone used black and white footage, he added grain to give it that “aged” appearance. There were also some scratches and blotches placed in the new material to make it seem older. For the other scenes, however, the movie looked clean and fresh. I saw a few speckles and a tiny amount of grit, but otherwise the film was free from defects.
Most of JFK featured a fairly restricted palette; the movie mainly offered a brownish tiny that makes sense for this kind of subject. These tones looked clearly replicated and were accurate and full. Whenever the film was allowed to display brighter hues - such as during the Easter parade - the colors were brighter and bolder, with no saturation or bleeding problems. Black levels seemed dark and deep, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but usually avoided any excessive opacity; a couple of scenes looked slightly too thick, but these were rare. Ultimately, JFK mixed ups and downs to earn a “C+” for its visuals.
As for the flick’s Dolby Digital 5.1, it worked well. The forward soundstage dominated the audio, but I was pleased to hear the breadth of the work. John Williams’ effective score spread neatly across the front channels and added depth to the film. Quiet a lot of ambient audio also appeared in the forward speakers; most of this stayed fairly subdued - such as cars passing in the background - but I found the audio to seem natural and well integrated.
The surrounds largely contributed atmospheric sound, with their main impact resulting from the dramatic impact of gunshots. Some good ambiance appeared as well through music and general background effects. Split-surround usage was limited but adds occasional substance to the track.
Audio quality always appeared strong. Dialogue seemed natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects occasionally displayed some minor distortion - exclusively during gunshots - but they usually seemed clean and crisp, with good realism and clarity. Williams’ score came across best of all, as the track played it with excellent smoothness and depth. The martial drums seemed particularly good, as they beat clearly and display tight bass. Although JFK wasn’t an action-extravaganza, the soundtrack supported the material and added a nice touch.
As I alluded earlier, the audio and visual quality of this 2008 “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” duplicated what we found on the prior two releases. This was literally the same disc that Warner put out for the 2001 Special Edition. I also felt that the 2003 Special Edition looked and sounded just like its predecessor.
The only JFK with any picture or sound differences was the original 1997 DVD. If you look at my grades for that one, you’ll notice I gave it higher marks for picture and audio quality than I did for any of the subsequent releases. I hate to say this, but you have to toss those marks out the window. I was unable to rent a copy so I could re-evaluate that version, but I’m sure it looks worse than I thought when I first saw it.
I originally reviewed JFK in the late Nineties, so my standards – and those of DVDs in general – have changed a lot. The original JFK DVD came out in the very early days of the format, and I’d bet it doesn’t look too hot by modern standards. Since I can’t directly examine the disc, I can’t update my old review, but rest assured that it’s not the best-looking of the bunch, even though my grades my leave that impression.
In terms of extras, this UCE includes everything from the 2003 set along with a few new components. This means the components on DVDs One and Two are identical from those in the 2003 release.
On DVD One, we start with an audio commentary from director Oliver Stone, who offers a running, screen-specific track. His emphasis is upon the “facts” told during the film. On some occasions Stone mentions the actors and their efforts, but for the majority of the commentary, we hear Stone tell us the “truth” of the matter.
That makes the commentary a tough listen. Stone throws out tons of the usual conspiracy nonsense, which meant I worried my eyes would be stuck in a permanent roll. I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at a commentary before, but that happened here, as I couldn’t help but shout in disbelief at the idiocy spewed by Stone. The director tosses out so many lies and half-truths that I wasn’t sure I believed him when he stated his own name!
At times you might wonder if you’re in Bizarro World. For instance, Stone talks about Perry Russo – the main inspiration for the composite character played by Kevin Bacon – and refers to him as a powerful, honest man. Really? That’d be the same Russo who flip-flopped on his story multiple times over the years?
Stone also tells us that witness Jean Hill never changed her story. Really? Would that be the same Jean Hill who embellished her tale every few years, changes that made her version of events more and more fantastic? On November 22, 1963, she stated she didn’t see anyone fire a weapon. By 1989, Hill averred that she did witness shooting from the grassy knoll. That’s a pretty big change for a story that Stone says remained the same.
And so on, and so on. When Stone talks about the film’s creation, the commentary becomes more involving and purposeful. Unfortunately, those moments emerge rather infrequently. Instead, Stone regales us with his pathetic defense of his idiotic, radically inaccurate film. It’s entertaining in a sad way, but you shouldn’t take it as anything remotely close to the truth.
The first disc includes a few other minor extras. We find a Cast and Crew section that provides filmographies for actors Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Jay O. Sanders, Sissy Spacek and Joe Pesci plus a brief biography of Stone. Awards details some of the prizes taken by the film.
On the second DVD, we find a slew of Deleted Scenes. There are 12 in all - half of which are actually extended versions of existing scenes - and they run for a total of 54 minutes and 40 seconds. Not surprisingly, the completely new segments are the most interesting, as a few of the extensions are rather brief and don’t add much. The fresh scenes are more fascinating, especially an odd dream sequence that features a dead Oswald. This may be hard to believe, but had these snippets appeared in the final film, they would have made Stone’s theories even more clear; with shots of the government poisoning Jack Ruby and Oswald’s near-deification, the propaganda factor ratchets up another notch.
Nonetheless, it was interesting to view the excised footage, especially since all of the scenes can be watched with or without commentary from Stone. His remarks here expand upon the same topics covered in the feature track, though he focuses a bit more on the filmmaking process since he discusses the reasons the various clips were left out of the movie.
“Multimedia Essays” presents two different video features. Meet Mr. X: The Personality and Thoughts of Fletcher Prouty offers interviews with the man upon whom the film’s Donald Sutherland character was based. This 11-minute piece was surprisingly dull. Prouty mainly discusses his career and some aspects of the assassination, but I didn’t learn anything new or informative from his comments. It’s interesting to see the real man, but I didn’t gain anything from the experience.
Assassination Update - The New Documents takes a look at the aftermath effected by the film. For all its flaws, JFK did create renewed interest in the assassination and put pressure on politicians to open up sealed films. This program discusses the actions of the Assassination Records Review Board, a governmental group put together in the mid-Nineties to examine and release much of the previously unavailable records.
If you’re looking for any revelations, you’ll need to search elsewhere, as the material covered here seems pretty unspectacular. Narrated by conspiracy buff Jim DiEugenio, the 29-minute and 40-second program rehashes some of the same old material under the guise of fresh and exciting new details. To quote from the film, that dog don’t hunt, and I found this piece to be disappointingly drab as well.
After the film’s theatrical trailer, we find a documentary called Beyond JFK: A Question of Conspiracy. Created around the time of the film’s theatrical release, this 89-minute and 55-second piece combines movie clips, archival footage and photos, and interviews with a long roster of participants. We hear from Stone, Jim Garrison, Marina Oswald, Col. Fletcher Prouty, actors Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Ed Asner, New York Times writer Tom Wicker, newsmen Walter Cronkite, Robert MacNeil, assassination witnesses Jean Hill, Ed Hoffman, Beverly Oliver, Malcolm Summers, authors Jim Marrs, Zachary Sklar, Dan Moldea, Mark Lane, Major John Newman, John Davis and David Lifton, reporter Ike Pappas, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, media critic Jerry Policoff, forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, assassination researchers Mary Farrell, Wallace Milam, JFK Assassination Info Center chief Larry N. Howard, Oswald friend Ron Lewis, LBJ friend Madeleine Brown, author and photo analyst Robert Groden, Jack Ruby’s brother Earl, investigative report Jonathan Kwitny, journalist Rosemary James, political analyst Carl Oglesby, former FBI agent William Turner, assassination expert Jim DiEugenio, trial witness Perry Russo, Garrison assistants Numa Bertel and Lou Ivon, Shaw trial judge Edward A. Haggerty, politician David Duke, former CIA officer David MacMichael, former Kennedy aide Richard Goodwin, historian Stanley Karnow, and assassination archivist Jim Lesar.
The program attempts to cover many facets of the assassination controversy. It looks at the shooting itself, Garrison’s prosecution, Oswald, possible causes for the assassination, the aftermath, and other elements. While the show includes some dissenting voices, those who believe in a conspiracy heavily outweigh these. “Question” doesn’t take any particular viewpoint, but it never really opposes the conspiracy theories, and it accepts Stone’s notions without any qualifications.
That means you can forget about finding an even moderately objective examination of the subject from “Question”. It may cover different thoughts about the conspiracy, but it never doubts that one existed, and it accepts virtually every possibility as equally possible or probable. Some interesting notions appear in the documentary, but the absence of balance and an attempt to investigate the sources and differentiate between makes “Question” a flawed and not terribly useful program.
With that, we head to the UCE’s exclusive materials. On DVD Three, we get a documentary called The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings. In this two-hour, 14-minute and 58-second program, we follow the roots of JFK’s family as they come to America from Ireland and find their way in the US. We follow JFK’s father Joseph as well as other family developments that mostly span the 1920s through JFK’s presidency becomes the main focus of the show, though it also looks at the post-JFK careers of RFK and Teddy as well as aspects of other family members.
To my surprise, “Kings” eschews any interviews with historians or others. While it features a narrator, the majority of the program focuses on archival footage. We hear a lot from JFK himself as well as his siblings and others who knew him through those moments.
That concentration on historical material makes “Kings” worthwhile. When it uses its narrator, it feels like something intended for a middle school history class; the show lacks sophistication and comes across as simplistic.
Nonetheless, the treasure trove of archival material makes the program more than worthwhile. We find many valuable clips, such as a 1960 campaign stop in which JFK discussed how his Catholic faith would – or wouldn’t – affect his presidency. Many more moments of that sort emerge here. “Kings” never pretends to be an objective history of the Kennedys, as it glosses over controversies, but that doesn’t matter. It provides a fascinating collection of historical footage that makes it quite stimulating.
By the way, you’ll find a minor extra inside the third disc’s case. It includes a reproduction of a JFK campaign button.
A bunch of non-disc-based pieces finish the UCE. Perhaps the most interesting are the reproductions of historical documents. We find some letters JFK sent to his parents as well as one he mailed to French President de Gaulle and an assessment of the space program LBJ sent to JFK. We also find a typewritten copy of JFK’s inauguration speech. These are pretty cool to see, especially when we check out the letters to JFK’s parents. All are intriguing.
The least useful part of the set comes from a 44-page book of production photos. The pictures themselves are fine, though none of them impress me as memorable. The problems come with the text that accompanies the images. The cast and crew biographies are benign, but the book loses me when it works overtime to defend Stone’s interpretation of the assassination.
The book throws out lines like “Stone, armed with the courage of his convictions and the support of his cast, crew and studio, fought tooth and nail to bring the truth to the public.” Gag – I nearly vomited when I read that. It also paints Stone and Jim Garrison as unfairly persecuted heroes. The book proves depressingly self-serving and tries very hard to convince us that the movie’s lies are true. Sigh.
A mix of Photo Cards complete the package. Six of these depict cast members, and they also offer biographical information on movie characters. We find notes about Jim Garrison, Marina Oswald, Russell B. Long, Clay Shaw, L. Fletcher Prouty, and Lee Harvey Oswald. For the most part, these are fairly dry and factual, though they still attempt to deify Garrison. Bizarrely, the text claims that “history will always remember him as the only person who attempted to uncover the truth in what remains one of America’s most puzzling – and more devastating – political assassinations.” While Garrison may be the only person to bring anyone to trial for conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, he’s clearly not the only person who’s tried to find the truth behind the murder. That’s a weird statement.
20 more photo cards focus on JFK. We get shots of the president in office and with his family. We also see one shot of his brother Joseph and another from the funeral of brother Robert. These are pretty good and worth a look.
To date, Oliver Stone has yet to make a better film than 1991’s JFK. His investigation of the Kennedy assassination makes for an absolutely riveting and thrilling experience that manages to compress almost three and a half hours of material into a timeframe that seems much shorter. However, Stone abuses his power so egregiously that I have a difficult time appreciating JFK because it’s such a load of hooey; the film combines fact and fiction in a reckless manner that turns the movie into a reprehensible assault on the truth.
The DVD offers average picture and good sound plus some fine extras. Ultimately, I have to recommend JFK just because it’s such a strong film, but I urge you to check out other sources of material on the assassination and not just accept Stone’s blather without question.
For those who already own a prior JFK DVD, the question of “upgrade” comes into play. For the most part, this 2008 Ultimate Collector’s Edition is the same as the 2003 Special Edition. Its first two discs are identical to the ones in that set; the differences come with the UCE’s third DVD and its many non-disc-based materials.
So if you want any changes in picture or sound from the 2003 – or 2001, for that matter - JFK DVDs, you’ll not find them in the UCE. Only the extras change here, and they will make a purchase worthwhile solely for those most fascinated by the film and the assassination. The majority of people will be happy with either of the two prior special editions, especially since they’re less expensive than this $39.95 UCE. Even if you own no prior JFK, it’s hard to justify the cost of this set since you can get the 2003 set for only $26.98.
This means a double – or triple, or quadruple – dip will be even more difficult to recommend. Objectively, the UCE provides the best release of JFK simply because it has all the supplements from the prior versions along with some new materials. However, its semi-high price makes it a tough sell. If you really, really dig JFK, I’d say go for it, but I think the 2003 SE remains the best compromise between quality and price.
To rate this film, visit the 2003 Special Edition review of JFK