On Dec. 20, 1991, Oliver Stone and Warner Bros. unveiled the 188-minute conspiratorial thriller JFK, which was nominated for eight Oscars at the 64th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
A good defense lawyer only needs to cast a reasonable doubt to get his client off the hook, we Kennedy followers have learned, and 1960s slugger Oliver Stone proves he’s a masterful litigant in this gumbo-filled historical reconstruction of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Essentially, it’s not about Kennedy but rather the tale of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison who — not believing the Warren Commission’s report that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot down JFK — launched a widespread investigation, eventually prosecuting one New Orleans citizen Clay Shaw for the crime. In Garrison’s eye, Shaw was a cog in a murderous conspiracy hatched by the CIA, the defense industry, Southern rednecks, Cuban refugees and all sorts of goose hunters.
If any cause or special interest group wanted to hire a filmmaker to document the rightness of their issue, Stone would be unbeatable. In this view of nimble bombast, it’s not doubtful that Stone could spin a masterful cinematic web linking John Sununu’s resignation with the collapse of Pan Am. Aesthetically, JFK is crafty, super-skilled filmmaking: propaganda every bit as cinematically splendid as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
Dignifying D.A. Garrison, who even in the jambalaya of this country’s screwiest state was considered a loose cannon, is the savvy casting of good-old-reliable, salt-of-the-earth Kevin Costner. As the obsessed litigant, Costner even sucks on a pipe, avuncularly a la the great wise man of the era, Walter Cronkite.
Opposing this judicious breadwinner are the wide array of “conspirators,” shrewdly chosen among Hollywood’s finest nutcase players — prominently Joe Pesci as a hypertensive co-conspirator and Donald Sutherland as a slithery CIA op. Down the French Quarter line, you’ve also got died-blonde Tommy Lee Jones as a gay Clay Shaw and Ed Asner as a swaggering redneck. Before we even present the facts, ladies and gentleman of the jury, which side would you trust: gray-suited Kevin or Joe Pesci and the boys.
In the film, Garrison quotes Adolf Hitler as saying the bigger the lie, the more people are likely to believe it; paraphrasing that cynicism, the bigger the movie, the more likely people are going to believe it, especially in this post-literate age where college kids only know JFK as the president who got laid a lot. And screenwriters Stone and Zachary Sklar present the “facts” in a stentorian wave of shrewd and sometimes dubious juxtapositions (aided and abetted by muted trumpet and staccato of the snares).
The narrative moment is thus: Garrison espouses theory, interrogates slimeball who lies to him, followed by a flashback to “reality” shot in black-and-white showing Garrison’s suppositions are correct.
Indeed, Stone’s savvy, documentary-style black-and-white footage casts an aura of truth over this theoretical treatise. Stone has built his case, starting with documentary clips of Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the terrors of the “military industrial complex,” through a winning montage of Camelot (the energy of the New Frontier, the disastrous Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the triumph of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech, to Dallas).
Throughout, Stone stretches one thread: The CIA and military industrial complex, furious at Kennedy for not providing air support in the Bay of Pigs and fearing his pulling out of Vietnam, hatched a plot.
At its most questionable, a voiceover enumerates the military/industrial types who would benefit from JFK’s death — while panning over the likes of the Joint Chiefs and LBJ. While Stone has certainly stirred up the waters, with good conscience and, in JFK’s own parlance, “with vigah,” most people are likely to regard JFK as BS. — Duane Byrge, originally published on Dec. 16, 1991