A New Orleans DA discovers there's more to the Kennedy assassination than the official story.
At one point toward the end of JFK, Jim Garrison (Costner) shows Abraham Zapruder's home movie footage of Kennedy's assassination to a courtroom full of appalled jury and spectators: as the fatal bullet strikes Kennedy, Garrison observes the president's head snaps, "Back and to the left... Back and to the left... Back and to the left." Blown up on the big screen, the surreal image of an exploding head is not only the case's key evidence — "The smoking gun" of Kennedy's death according to Stone — but a true embodiment of JFK's obsessive, hypnotic power.
Stone's raison d'etre in creating JFK was simple: to present "the counter-myth to the myth of the Warren Commission report". In tackling the huge canvas of Kennedy's death and the subsequent reverb around American history, Stone started small. Zero-ing in on New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's investigations of "patsy" Lee Harvey Oswald's movements during the summer of 1963 and his growing awareness that this small town mystery had global repercussions, Stone's screenplay found a human way of negotiating
the minefield of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy.
Part documentary, part Capra-esque-little-man-struggles-against-the-system flick, part whodunit, part art film, JFK is also a courtroom drama where the verdict is redundant, where, rather than move to a blinding revelation, we move to something ever more illegible. What is important here is the investigation. For all its reputation as the ravings of a conspiracy theorist, JFK is meticulously constructed and coolly argued. Some of the strongest moments involve Garrison's team demolishing the inanities of the Warren Commission findings: from noticing the photograph of Oswald in Life has been doctored, to Garrison staking out the book depository to see if it is possible for a lone assassin to get off so many shots in the time.
Borrowing a lick from The Longest Day (1962), Stone populated the cast with celebrity cameos to help the audience navigate the maze of characters and attitudes. Although Stone was turned down by some famous faces — Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum both said no—JFK is still peopled with great supporting turns; Jones' suave sinister Southern socialite implicated in the conspiracy to kill the Prez, Pesci's paranoid-as-fuck anti-communist (sporting the most infamous rug in movie history), Bacon's wired rent boy. Stone also finds wit in his casting: Guy Bannister, the fascist FBI agent who gloats over Kennedy's passing is played by Ed Asner, an actor renowned for his liberal sensibilities, and Earl Warren is portrayed in one brief scene by Jim Garrison himself.
Yet, the film still finds a real centre in Costner. An engaging conduit for all the free-floating theories and complexities, Costner displays something in JFK he rarely gets to show on screen: intelligence. The casting remains canny in other ways; like John Williams' stirring score, Costner's all-American presence in the middle of an attack on everything that the US of A holds dear makes the film's "radicalism" all the less subversive, more palatable to a mainstream audience.
The subterfuge and corruption of JFK takes place, not in a seedy noirish milieu, but in a world so bleached out that its brightness hurts the eyes. Stone knits together the searing imagery with rapid-fire editing that simultaneously scrambles then invigorates the brain (for all its visual pyrotechnics, the director plays out his most important points — Sutherland's informant X spilling the beans to Garrison—with just two men talking on a park bench). Much of Stone's visual and aural fireworks were laid out in his screenplay. Naturally, faced with a 158-page document filled to the brim with flashbacks, execs at Warner Brothers were confused, so Stone presented them with a simpler blueprint for the film and then rebuilt the current prismatic structure in the edit suite.
"I wanted to do the film on two or three levels," ran Stone's erudite and convincing argument. "Sound and picture would take us back, and we'd go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback. I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission report is like drowning."
JFK — which was awarded Empire's Movie Masterpiece in 2000 — makes a mockery of the idea that courtroom dramas have to be stagey affairs. Throughout the film, different formats and film stocks offer competing versions of truths; real and recreated news footage, 8mm home movies, still photographs, diagrams, black and white drama and colour all add to the fractured nature of the storytelling. Occasionally, it looks like a pattern is emerging from the intensity — monochrome seems to be the idiom for "speculation" — but there never is a formula. The razzle-dazzle editing is meant to enliven dry testimony, but it also sits at the core of JFK's theme: what we held true about the pastwill always be just a collage of conflicting histories.
Engaging, perfectly played and audaciously assembled - a bona fide masterpiece.