There’s something almost quaint about JFK now. Director Oliver Stone’s once-controversial view of the fundamental dishonesty of the American government now seems, in light of eight years under Bush II, less cynical than obvious, and the film’s groundbreaking formal techniques have since been co-opted by everything from television ads to shitty action movies. Yet, viewed today, JFK still retains a primal power; no number of derivative, headache-inducing CSI episodes can blunt the impact of Stone’s aggressive visuals, and the film’s plea for accountability and honesty in government is as vital now as ever.
Based on the real-life investigation of Louisiana District Attorney Jim Garrison into the Kennedy assassination, JFK represents the swirling paranoia that gripped the country in the wake of the president’s death as a Godardian mélange of crosscutting, inserts, dissolves, superimpositions, and shifting film stocks. As Garrison (Kevin Costner, in his finest dramatic performance) delves into the mysteries and contradictions surrounding the assassination and the conclusions of the Warren Report, he finds himself caught up in the middle of warring groups of CIA agents, Cuban ex-nationals, militant rightists, and Communists—groups unevenly portrayed by the film’s sprawling celebrity cast (Tommy Lee Jones, way overdoing the swishy queenery of businessman Clay Shaw, is the worst offender, whereas Gary Oldman, as assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, makes an indelible impression without doing much of anything at all).
Even for those of us who, like this writer, have a hard time believing the Warren Report’s conclusion that Oswald was the lone gunman, some of the film’s conspiracy-mongering stretches credulity (is Stone really suggesting that Jack Ruby was given cancer by the U.S. government?). But whether or not Stone buys some of these more batshit conjectures, it’s hard not to get caught up in Garrison’s crusade for the truth, which climaxes in a huge courtroom finale in which Garrison lays out the details of his theory. It’s quite possibly the best scene in Stone’s entire filmography, both in its formal qualities (it’s no wonder that some critics have called JFK the best-edited film of all time) and in its passionate call for citizens to question and hold accountable their governments. Jim Garrison may have been an obsessive or a nut, but in JFK he represents some of the finest traits of American citizenship, and Stone rightfully praises him for it.