Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma

By Damian Arlyn
While some might be of the opinion that Oliver Stone’s most archetypal movie is Wall Street or Platoon, I happen to think the film which holds that particular distinction is JFK (which celebrates its 20th anniversary today). It is not necessarily his greatest movie, but it is his most significant in a number of ways. In a career littered with provocative, politically charged works, it has proved to be arguably his most controversial. It marked the beginning of a stylistic period in Stone’s filmmaking (a fast, in-your-face approach to storytelling which culminated in Stone’s outrageously anarchic Natural Born Killers). Finally, it was (and still seems to be) one of Stone’s most personal projects: the result of years of research, overwhelming passion and righteous indignation. Indeed, of all Stone’s protagonists, the man at the center of JFK (who is, somewhat ironically, not the titular character) serves as perhaps the best representative of the ideals and opinions of Oliver himself. In reality, the motives and actions of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (the only prosecutor ever to go to trial in the assassination of President Kennedy) are not entirely clear nor always seem purely honorable, but in the film, Garrison — wonderfully played by Kevin Costner — is a man on a crusade, a courageous hero of the highest intentions and noblest stature crying, “Let the truth be told though the heavens fall!” He is the director's alter ego, a lone wolf fighting the establishment in the name of truth, justice and, yes, the American way.

JFK was my first Oliver Stone picture. My dad took me to see it in the theater when I was a sophomore in high school and I was, as the expression goes, blown away by it. Incidentally, he was (and still is to some degree) a major expert on the Kennedy conspiracy, so he was able to lean over and tell me at various junctures "That's true" or "That's not true" which helped orient me in the somewhat overwhelming deluge of faces, names, dates and theories with which I was being bludgeoned. My dad once owned the largest collection of books, magazines, videos and even vintage newspaper articles about that specific event which I have ever seen. After watching the film and concluding that there definitely was a conspiracy and a cover-up, I even read a few of them myself, including the screenplay to the film which contained a footnoted source for every piece of information that Stone wrote into the expository dialogue and/or imagery of the film. It gave me a whole new appreciation for a movie's potential to tell a story which, if not "true" or "historically accurate," is at least "factual." Eventually I became somewhat of an expert myself and years later, after getting married and moving to Dallas, I finally visited the sixth floor museum and Dealey Plaza (the latter of which, I was shocked to discover, is a very small, and intimately contained space). Now, however, having read multiple accounts from different writers arguing for both sides of the conspiracy debate — including this very compelling website run by Dave Reitzes, whose experience with the film is remarkably similar to my own — I have no idea what really happened on that day in Dallas (though I still think there is more to the story than we are being told). However, one thing that has not changed, is that JFK remains a seminal film in my development as a cinephile.

Much can be said about the movie's many stellar qualities, such as the performances from its immense cast (a dizzying collection of such familiar faces as Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Gary Oldman, Donald Sutherland, etc). In a nice bit of subversive casting, Stone even got the real Jim Garrison to portray Judge Earl Warren of the Warren Commission. Much could also be said about John Williams' suspenseful and emotional Oscar-nominated music score, but the main element of the film which captivated me upon my first viewing (and which I studied very carefully upon numerous subsequent viewings) was its visual aesthetic. In order to make a film which was heavy on talk into an arresting experience, Stone deftly employed various cinematic techniques that until that time had never been employed with such enthusiastic exuberance nor wild abandon in a historical epic.

His approach to shooting and editing the film was considered confusing and indulgent by some and incredibly powerful and innovative by others. I personally fell into the latter camp. Jumping back and forth (sometimes in a seemingly random manner) from authentic to recreated footage, from color to black-and-white and from 35 to 16mm, JFK creates such an apparently chaotic product that people didn't know what to make of it. The more one delves deeper into it though, the more one discovers that there is indeed "method in the madness." Stone's is a stream-of-consciousness approach to examining history, a process that makes no distinction between past and present, between what has happened and what is happening and, perhaps most controversially, between theory and fact. To Stone, history is in the eye of the beholder and he presents so many different perspectives, ideas and judgments that he was essentially, as film critic Roger Ebert proposed, fighting the official establishment myth by "weaving a counter-myth." Not surprisingly, Stone's effort garnered a great deal of criticism from various esteemed news sources. It did not help their case that they were attacking the film well before it had come out and anyone, including them, had even seen it, their zeal and hostility seemingly inspired more by fear of losing their privileged authoritative status than by supposed journalistic integrity and objectivity.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) JFK's notoriety, it was very well-received upon its release in December 1991. The film grossed more than $50 million worldwide, which was impressive considering that the film was more than three hours long, and ended up receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director and best supporting actor for Tommy Lee Jones. It ended up winning two of those awards for the experimental cinematography and editing. It also, much to Stone's delight no doubt, incited a whole media discussion about the Kennedy assassination. Much like the media circus that surrounded the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, all you could see and hear on the news for several months was talk of what actually occurred on Nov. 22, 1963. In point of fact, we probably will never know what occurred. As Pesci's nervous David Ferrie quotes Winston Churchill in the film, "It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Still, perhaps whether we ever know the truth (or, to be more precise, know THAT we know the truth since we may already know it) isn't as important as that we never give up looking for it. Maybe the real message behind the film is that the pursuit of truth is more important then the possession of it.

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This is a really solid look at Stone's classic paranoid thriller. Out of all of his films this is probably the one I enjoy watching the most and keep coming back to it.

I agree with your sentiments about this being an innovative film. The editing along is incredible. Don't even get me started on Richardson's cinematography.
I've always felt the perfect blending of Stone's over-the-top tendency and material is Talk Radio but I've heard so many people say that he really destroyed Bogosian's great play, I don't know. I do think JFK probably is the most fun you can have with a movie that runs more than three hours since It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I just wish he'd hired an actor to play Garrison instead of Costner. He grates less than usual but those domestic scenes even undermine the great Sissy Spacek "I believe you care more about John Kennedy than your own family." You could cut those scenes and it wouldn't harm the film one bit. The parts that call on Costner to really emote in any movie always are a problem — I can't see him try to react to the news of Martin Luther King's assassination and not snicker, which shouldn't be the reaction to that news. Thankfully, the rest of the ensemble more than makes up for it. My personal fave is Donald Sutherland who somehow makes all that expositional mumbo jumbo comprehensible and entertaining.
Thanks, J.D., and I completely agree that out of all of Stone's films, this one has the most rewarding repeatablity.

I've never seen TALK RADIO, Ed, so I can't really comment on it, but I like your characterization of it as "the most fun you can have with a movie that runs more than 3 hours." I even like it more than MAD, MAD, MAD MAD WORLD.
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