May 23: JFK | A Movie From Your Birth Year
In the category of a Movie From Your Birth Year, Scott selected JFK (1991), written and directed by Oliver Stone, and starring Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Bacon
1991 was a really solid year for film looking back. I had lots of interesting choices, and weirdly enough I hadn’t seen most of these movies. The first thought was Silence of the Lambs, which is one that I inexplicably haven’t seen, but I want to save for something else. Others I considered included The Fisher King, Boyz in the Hood, and My Own Private Idaho. I also thought about rewatching Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a movie I have seen a number of times and have not ever enjoyed… but that’s a bigger can of worms for me to unpack. I settled on Oliver Stone’s JFK for a few reasons; the first thing that got me interested was this cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci and more. While I’ve seen some pretty similarly loaded ensembles flop before (Aloha and Bobby come to mind), I have a lot of confidence when you pack all these guy’s together. Oliver Stone is known for his political/controversial subjects, and I think JFK is one of his most touchy subjects. Conspiracy theorists flock to this assassination and this movie certainly didn’t do much to dissuade them. It’s a lot to unpack here and I was excited to watch it.
Let me tell you though, it’s a tough nut to crack. It’s daunting; lots of characters, a runtime well over three hours, and a lot of information to take in. I won’t lie, I couldn’t get into it in my first pass. About 40 minutes in, the couch got really comfortable, and I dozed off. I quickly found out that JFK is not a lay down and cuddle with the puppy movie. It’s an upright, full-bodied pay attention or you’re gonna miss it kind of movie. Once I got in the right mindset I was able to take it all in more, and it’s quite compelling, especially in the second half when they get closer to the trial. Now I won’t lie, I don’t know much about the conspiracies around the assassination, so I was pretty suckered in by all the theories. The “magic bullet”, the “grassy knoll”, the way it’s all presented seemed sort of compelling. I did some research afterward and found out… pretty much everything in this movie is very easily disputed. Jim Garrison, the main character, is painted as a tragic hero, the only man speaking for truth in a muddy nation trying to cover it all up. In reality, Garrison is regarded as… misguided, and maybe a little bit off kilter. Many of his critics said he was reckless and lose with the validity of his evidence. Stone gives no indication that anything Garrison does is out of line or untrue. I find it a little disingenuous to show such a slanted side of the story without any indication that there is room for interpretation.
Where the film succeeds is in it’s craftsmanship; the cinematography, the editing, the music, the costume & set design is all superb. Pacing is a tough thing to nail in movies this long and epic in scope, and there are portions of JFK where it gets lost on details that don’t end up coming up later in the movie and it’s hard to stay engaged, but the second half of the movie in particular, as the pieces come together, it becomes very engaging. Costner is great throughout, but a lot of the rest of the ensemble falls to the wayside. There is no other character that is prominent throughout the film, outside of maybe Gary Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald, but he’s only shown in flashbacks. The flashback sequences are where the film shines the most, often narrated by Costner’s Jim Garrison, and showing the pieces fall together and describing their theories in detail. They really aid the storytelling.
The difference-maker for most viewers is all going to hinge on if you can accept the theories and the implausible conspiracy as cinema storytelling, and not try to get too engaged. I almost wonder if a fictional story based on the John F. Kennedy assassination would have been better for dramatic purposes, but you definitely lose the impact of the iconic moment it’s based off of. Oliver Stone knows what he’s doing making the movie so controversially, and it does make it interesting, but knowing the facts and how he abuses loose theories to aid the storytelling makes it hard to stomach and feel cheap. There’s no cathartic payoff at the end as the end of the story, despite Jim Garrison losing his case, still believes his theories, and the film still paints him as the agent of truth.
But overall, the film is so solidly well-made that as long as you take its story with a grain of salt, you can still definitely enjoy it. It’s eight Oscar nominations are well deserved, and it still shines through to this day. Good filmmaking ages well.
Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.