JFK

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Conspiracy theories, at least when they’re are at a safe distance like fifty years and countless pop culture iterations away, are kinda fun. The upheaval of the mid-twentieth century has always held a strong fascination over me and combined with the paranoia that I expected it to deliver, I was very excited to see Oliver Stone’s JFK. It ended up fulfilling a lot of my expectations, while still being a bit surprising.

JFK doesn’t really tell the story of the assassination itself in real time, rather the attempts of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to prove it was a conspiracy in court several years later. It begins with a prologue explaining the state of the country leading up to the assassination (narrated by Martin Sheen), then covers the assassination itself, then switches to Garrison’s point of view. After he learns the news, he perfunctorily investigates Lee Harvey Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) connection to New Orleans, then drops the conspiracy angle until three years later when he is not satisfied with the Warren Commission’s official findings on the case. He picks the investigation up again, and follows the evidence pointing to a conspiracy, finally charging New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) with conspiracy. He becomes very obsessed with the case, alienating some of his coworkers and his family including his wife Liz (Sissy Spacek).

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The method of the film is interesting, and I’m really surprised that it works as well as it does over the course of three hours. A lot of the film is Costner or the people Costner meets with (a sprawling ensemble cast that includes Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Donald Sutherland) going on long paranoid monologues about whatever aspect of the assassination they happen to be talking about, cut together with flashbacks or what looks like archival footage or footage recreated in an archival style.

If I heard about that going into the film, I would have guessed it would be hard to make such a long film when most of it is montages inside of regular scenes. It actually keeps the pace up pretty well, until the final trial when Garrison gives his closing arguments tying it all together. One problem with this is that it’s a rehash of stuff we’ve already seen, but also the case doesn’t actually completely tie together even though a lot of it sounds plausible on a more circumstantial level. So it’s supposed to be a wrap up for the movie, but of course, the case has never officially been solved so there isn’t one. Also, it’s a lot of Costner talking after we’ve already heard quite a bit of talking, and at the end it just felt like a bit too much. Overall though, I’m surprised and impressed the film was able to carry as much monologuing as it did.

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JFK‘s cinematographer, Robert Richardson, won the cinematography Oscar that year and it’s easy to see why. The film works in such a mishmash of styles with all the types of faux archival footage it has that it must have been a challenge to pull it all together and have the film look unified. There are black and white and color, as well as different film sizes all together in the same scenes, as well as flashbacks that are less reportative and more stylized based on the characters’ states of mind. Richardson’s signature top down blown-out lighting plays a role in many scenes as well.

If the film has any other faults, it’s that it fall a bit too much into the “obsessed man in search for the truth forgets his family’s safety” trope, which that turns into a bunch of fighting with the family and the wife into a bit of a shrew, even though she is on some level right. It happens in a ton of movies so I can’t fault only this movie for it but I wish movies would stop doing that so much, or at the very least do it like Zodiac does it.

I really did enjoy this movie. I think it does very well with the mission it sets out to do, as the chosen format was probably challenging on several levels. It keeps the pace up pretty well, so we get drawn into the search for the truth and the paranoia the movie indulges itself in. It might stumble a bit along the way, but all in all JFK is a pretty impressive film.

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“But all that ended on the 22nd of November, 1963.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
The New York Times review
Guardian article on the film’s historical accuracy

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