Paranoia, at least the kind stemming from a lack of confidence, isn’t the dominant sensation permeating Oliver Stone’s political-campy 1991 pledge of malignance JFK, the film that briefly made conspiracy theorizing not just socially acceptable, but practically a cornerstone of citizens’ civic duty. No, in practice, the movie is as sure of itself as any truther or Holocaust denier, setting into centripetal motion hundreds of specious theories and dancing around the logical gaps like Max Ophüls’s camera did the titular jewelry of The Earrings of Madame de… It’s the crown jewel of the small but potent bunch of films that seemingly rode the collective insanity of the cultural zeitgeist to financial reward and, more importantly, cultural cachet—two other obvious examples being Network, which explicitly “articulated the popular rage” that had more or less been building since the Kennedy assassination, and The Passion of the Christ, which disguised post-9/11 righteous bloodlust within the greatest act of love mankind has ever known.
For more than three Hard Copy-paced hours, JFK peels back the layers of one of America’s darkest onions with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as Stone’s chosen sous chef. Garrison made waves in 1968 for bringing the first criminal case to trial in the death of John F. Kennedy. Garrison centered his case against Clay Shaw, the effete businessman who defrocked priest David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) allegedly painted gold while gay hustler Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon) dressed up like Marie Antoinette. (But Stone digresses, and frequently.) As played by Kevin Costner, notably then America’s most trusted leading man, Garrison is too concerned with the bigger, sloppier picture to concentrate on building a deep case against Shaw, and consequently he loses the battle. Stone, clearly identifying with his protagonist, is convinced that Garrison and JFK itself are two steps in winning the war. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Garrison snipes during his closing arguments.
More than two decades later, and on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Dealey Plaza shooting, JFK can clearly be tarred for, well, you name it. It conflates both documented facts and speculative theories through its varied film stocks and dazzlingly edited form. (Sergei Eisenstein would’ve torn apart his popcorn box in jealousy.) Stone, as evidenced in the massively footnoted shooting script published in accompaniment with the movie, has clearly never heard the phrase “consider the source.” There are fewer people who are ultimately absolved of guilt in Kennedy’s death than are held in suspect, with extra shade thrown at Cubans, homosexuals, American Communists, recently fired intelligence-department executives, strip-club Svengalis, Lyndon Baines Johnson, faux-epileptics planted along Kennedy’s motorcade route in Dallas, moles within Garrison’s own office, and the alliance that would’ve naturally formed among the entire lot of them; everyone except Gary Oldman’s lazy-eyed patsy Lee Harvey Oswald. Even more egregious with time is Sissy Spacek grimacing through possibly the most thankless role in her career as Garrison’s dim wife, who’s meant to represent every American’s inherent skepticism when she at one point accusingly asks her husband of Shaw: “Did you ever stop to consider for once what he was feeling?”
But it can’t be demerited for offering a simple, staid history lesson. Quite the opposite, as Stone’s movie assures that no representation of the largest truths (i.e. the Warren Commission) will ever actually embody such lofty veracity (i.e. Stone casting Garrison himself in a cameo appearance as Earl Warren). That’s why it’s both paradoxical and somehow perfect that the movie’s reckless blitzkrieg of infotainment is so hypnotically engrossing as to be totally duplicitous. Never before and never since has such a high-profile appeal for seizing personal responsibility for the information the media feeds us left so little space for individual interpretation. “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma,” presumed conspirator Ferrie pathetically weeps when at the end of his short rope. Not really, little man. Through docudrama depiction, JFK spells out each and every claim as though disabusing the American public of every single myth surrounding November 22, 1963, with a full slate of familiar and comforting movie stars and character actors ready to guide them through the muck.
The movie’s centerpiece sequence sees Garrison getting the Deep Throat treatment from a mysterious ex-Black Ops official named “X,” with Donald Sutherland rasping life into page after page of exposition-heavy monologue. “X” leaves Garrison (and the audience) slumped over, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, but primed to carry the torch on his own obsessed terms, just as Stone climaxes the “X” sequence with LBJ signing the document that set into motion the Vietnam War that Stone famously endured as an Army grunt. And it all ends at square one, with no convictions, no vindication, no assurance that any given bullet can’t do magic. Though its brute persuasion, JFK reveled in the darker impulses of the American psyche (tell me how to feel, so long as it’s angry), but all it ultimately proves is that living history doesn’t have to be written by the victors. Merely the kooks who bellow with the most panache.
It seems ludicrous to suggest “less is more” when talking about a movie like JFK, one of the best cinematic defenses for excess. But it would’ve been nice if this “50-Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector’s Edition” (speaking of excessive) would’ve offered the original theatrical cut of the movie to go along with the director’s cut that Oliver Stone is still misguidedly fond of. Derided for more than 20 years as inferior and meandering compared to the comparatively tight 189-minute version, the director’s cut only adds 17 minutes’ worth of content, none of it essential, most of it embarrassing (most notably the attempt to frame Jim Garrison in an airport-bathroom sting much like Larry Craig would experience four decades later). In any case, the Blu-ray release (a recycle of the film’s 1008 DigiBook release) does fair justice to the Oscar-winning cinematography, handling the movie’s barrage of competing looks and levels of grain. It’s not a particularly sharp image, as cinematographer Robert Richardson shot the “present” scenes of the film with a healthy dose of Vaseline on the lens, but the switches between color and black and white, and between 35, 16, and 8mm film stock are generally effortless. The surround mix is about as active; the bullet that punctuates X’s monologue on LBJ signing the document that sealed America’s military escalation in Vietnam sounds like it travels straight through your heart.
If we’re to take Stone at face value when he argues on behalf of exercising the Dewey decimal system, the nature of the bonus features for this 50th-anniversary edition tell a different tale. Rather than offer up any meaty information that would’ve shaded (all right, contradicted) the claims made in the main feature, the lavish five-disc Blu-ray set mainly sticks to information that serves to bolster Kennedy’s status as the president that would’ve sent American down an alternate, far more noble path had he not been cut down before his time. The inclusion of PT 109 (starring Cliff Robertson as JFK in his soldiering years) is the most flagrant example, but the grease gun comes out in subtler ways with the addition of not one, not two, but three documentaries about JFK’s accomplishments in office. One of them is a vintage montage of Kennedy’s speeches and such that was popular enough in its initial release to make the National Board of Review’s Top 10 list in 1966, another is a new overview minted for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and the third is a chapter from Stone’s somewhat ironically titled “Untold History of the United States.” If the movie doesn’t convince you, neither will this isolated chapter—which is the only one of the three documentaries presented on Blu-ray. The same goes in spades for the feature-length commentary by Stone, which is sort of akin to hearing him read aloud the annotations from his 600-page published screenplay. The commentary and all other supplemental features from the DigiBook are recycled here, including some of the loopiest deleted scenes and multimedia essays. Turning the entire package into a true coffee-table Blu-ray set are reproductions of Kennedy’s inaugural address and campaign posters, a book of JFK quotations, and correspondence and memorabilia from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Somehow they managed to restrain themselves from including a copy of Profiles in Courage, but the set’s target audience likely already has a few spare copies on hand.
Historians may forever rue the day JFK hit movie screens (unless they’re fond of the job security it provided), but to movie fans, it’s the centerpiece for any defense of the persuasive powers of the medium.