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|This movie won Oscars for Best Cinematography and Editing.||
‘JFK’ (R)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1991
The first order of business concerning "JFK," Oliver Stone's movie about the Kennedy assassination, is entertainment. As such, Stone creates a riveting marriage of fact and fiction, hypothesis and empirical proof in the edge-of-the-seat spirit of a conspiracy thriller.
It doesn't hurt matters that his subject -- who really killed Kennedy -- is the most fascinating whodunit in modern history. Of course, the Warren Commission has entered its conclusions: Gunman Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president -- and did it alone. Whether or not this is true, it's apparently not enough for most Americans -- 73 percent, according to one Gallup poll. Too many unanswered questions remain. They've been posed, and re-posed, by conspiracy theorists for nearly 30 years.
Another reason to disbelieve the Warren Commission is dramaturgical. As with other tragic fellings, from Robert F. Kennedy to John Lennon, Oswald the loner is too banal to accept. Dramatically speaking, Kennedy deserved better. This was the end of Camelot, a classic tragedy. It needed Morgan le Fay and Mordred. Or Brutus and Cassius. If you believe Stone, it also needed the entire military-industrial complex. Stone also throws in the CIA, the FBI, the military, Time magazine, the Justice Department, the Mafia, Cubans, right-wingers -- oh, and a certain "General Y."
"JFK" is actually about real-life New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who charged businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) with conspiracy to kill the president. As Stone has publicly stated, the Garrison plot serves as a mere conduit for the director's vision. "JFK" also incorporates findings by other researchers, Stone's own research, as well as Jim Marrs's book, "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy." Stone adds countless fictional elements, including Kevin Bacon as a call boy who knew everyone; a group of shady, anti-Castro Cubans; and Donald Sutherland, who functions as the movie's Deep Throat, a savvy intelligence officer who advises Garrison to find out why, not who.
In "JFK," the why is this: Kennedy angered right-wing elements by trying to pull out of Vietnam and by not liberating Cuba during the Bay of Pigs incident. Messing with the war machine was his fatal flaw. This wasn't just a conspiracy. It was a junta.
The most stunning element in "JFK," without question, is bystander Abraham Zapruder's real-life, home-movie record of the fatal incident. Stone uses the actual film to maximum advantage. The real Kennedy starts his final motorcade ride. He waves at onlookers. They wave back. The car slows. Then things change forever.
As Costner makes his case against Shaw, the film's played and replayed with eerie effectiveness. Stone also reenacts the scene from different vantage points, to pose the unanswered questions. Were there only three shots? How could the bullets follow such impossible trajectories? How many gunmen were there? Was there a shot from the nearby grassy knoll? Fiction or not, it makes compelling viewing.
On the downside, many of Stone's dramatic efforts are dulled by Costner. As Garrison, he's a dead, vacant performer. Perhaps the milquetoast casting is ironically appropriate; the real story's about Kennedy. Someone with a personality would only get in the way. Stone has suggested this is the case. But was it also the director's intention to build a second-rate domestic subplot? In his zeal to pursue smoking guns, Costner ignores wife Sissy Spacek and his children. "You're missing most of your life," she whines. "And you don't even know it, honey."
But behind Costner, there are strong supporting performances, most notably by Joe Pesci as Oswald's toupee-toting associate David Ferrie. Jones is also highly memorable as Shaw. There are smaller successes, by Bacon, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon and Gary Oldman, who makes a believably nutsy Oswald.
Despite its three hours, "JFK" is almost always absorbing to watch. It's not journalism. It's not history. It is not legal evidence. Much of it is ludicrous. It's a piece of art or entertainment. Stone, who has acknowledged his fusing of the known and the invented, has exercised his full prerogative to use poetic license. He should feel more than mere craftsman's satisfaction at the result.
Copyright The Washington Post