Friday, December 02, 2005
From the Vault: JFK
Seldom has reviewing a film proved so problematic as Oliver Stone's JFK. So much has been written about what is — and what isn't — accurate in this film that I went in desperately trying to view it merely on a movie level, ignoring the fact that it concerns that fateful November day in Dallas in 1963.
That sort of objectivity ends up being impossible because JFK demands evaluation and analysis and obliterates any chance of passive viewing with its strange hybrid of thriller, murder mystery and documentary.
Kevin Costner plays the lead role in Stone's story, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who launched a full-fledged investigation into the conspiracy he believed left both John F. Kennedy and the country mortally wounded.
"Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth," Donald Sutherland's Deep Throat-type character tells Costner at one point in the film. While it remains to be seen whether Stone's version contains more truth than the preposterous idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, fascination with the assassination keeps this three-hour film compulsively watchable.
Problems plague the film other than the ones that sparked so much debate. Whether the movie is homophobic (I see why that charge has been leveled) or nothing more than propaganda (could be), it fares fairly well. Stone keeps the pace speeding along most of the time except for a middle section that lags. His editing and jump-cutting mixture of real footage, re-creations and original material triumphs, especially in the film's very good opening segments.
The film's demerits include John Williams' score, which nearly overpowers important scenes like Sutherland's storytelling, and, of course, Costner. While he manages to be fairly consistent with his Southern accent, he still can't emote effectively. He's a star, not an actor.
Much of the popular opinion about the real Garrison refers to him either as someone seeking publicity or a crackpot. Regardless, Costner can't convey his obsession or possibly unstable nature. In Dances With Wolves, an overrated film, his lack of acting skills presented a similar problem. Both JFK and Dances would be better served if they'd cast a performer who could really portray people losing control. Lt. Dunbar tried to commit suicide and then asked to be placed on the frontier, but Costner didn't pull off that conflict any more convincingly than he pulls off Garrison's drive for the truth.
Thankfully, able supporting performers abound to pick up the slack, notably Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon, Kevin Bacon and Tommy Lee Jones, who gives a good performance despite the possible perception of his character as an offensive stereotype.
Structurally, the film weakens in its final act by climaxing with Garrison's prosecution of Clay Shaw (Jones). While this conclusion comes naturally to a film focused on Garrison, it seems anticlimactic to the film's real subject — dealing with the demons of the past.
Stone's obsession with the Vietnam era equals Garrison's with Kennedy's murder. What separates the two men is Stone using cinema as his rosary to drag the audience kicking and screaming into his personal confessional. With JFK, that's not altogether inappropriate.
Even people born since 1963 always have had the myths and the facts of the case as part of their lives. Knowing what happened to the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King shortened the attention span of shock when John Lennon, Reagan and Pope John Paul II encountered bullets with their names on them. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger seemed to affect us for only an hour or two instead of the lifelong effect JFK's assassination had on an earlier generation.
Personally, I don't know if I buy the revamped Garrison theory that Stone offers. I don't see how anyone can believe Oswald acted alone or all the shots came from behind — watching the Zapruder film enlarged on the big screen makes the "back and to the left" motion of Kennedy's head unmistakable. However, Stone can't quite pull off the idea that the reason Kennedy was killed was so the Vietnam War could happen.
In that respect, JFK plays like a murder trial where you are only allowed to see the prosecution's case. I'm certainly no apologist for Oliver Stone and I think most of his films grow weaker on subsequent viewings. Indeed, his tendency to pass off fabrication as fact can be troubling when most viewers are either too lazy or unable to tell the difference. Reservations aside, Stone has made a film that holds one's attention firmly and deserves a look.