JFK (1991) – A Review

JFK movie 1991 Kevin Costner Jay O. Sanders
Jay O. Sanders and Kevin Costner in JFK

With President John F. Kennedy’s assassination now about to mark fifty years since it happened the nation is going to pause and reflect. It was one of the darkest and seminal moments in our county’s history. It was an event that shocked the world and continues to leave an impact all these decades later.

The official version is that on November 22, 1963 while visiting Dallas, Texas President Kennedy was shot and killed by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Two days later Oswald was himself killed by Jack Ruby.

Even before the President and Oswald would be buried skepticism about what really happened began to take root. Doubt set in people’s minds of how something so extraordinarily tragic could happen to our young president in the middle of a large city in broad daylight. It couldn’t simply be that one man from an open window in a building could change the direction of the nation forever. There had to be something more to this.

Oliver Stone filming 1991 controversial film JFK
Oliver Stone filming in Dealey Plaza

Conspiracy theories ran like wildfire with blame being place in every direction imaginable. The public began to become doubtful, but wasn’t sure which theory to accept or who to believe.

The Kennedy assassination became a cottage industry of speculation with countless books, investigations and documentaries. Over the years the percentage of people who believe Oswald acted alone in the assassination of our president plummeted, with the vast majority concluding it could not have been the work of one man – it must of been a conspiracy.

This is where director Oliver Stone came in and presented his own interpretation of what occurred on that November day. Using New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as his cinematic representative Stone set out on a quest to uncover the truth about the assassination and ignite a national dialogue about it.

Oliver Stone’s JFK uses a conglomeration of conspiracy theories, offers up suspects and takes a suspicious look at the events that happened setting out to to re-enforce how unlikely that ‘official’ story is and that the public has never been told the truth about the Kennedy assassination.

Garrison (Kevin Costner) is an honest, noble family man who happens to be the DA in New Orleans. The assassination affects him as much as every other American. He is saddened by the loss of the president and attempts to move on. Then one day he starts to examine it a bit closer and doesn’t like what he sees.

Inconsistencies mount, facts don’t add up, witnesses ignored and suddenly the official verdict of the Kennedy assassination in the Warren Report looks as if it skipped over many important details that would heave led suspicion away from the lone gunman Oswald (Gary Oldman).

JFK movie cast 1991
Garrison and his team of investigators

Garrison assembles his team of investigators attempting to uncover the truth. It looks like many people and organizations would have benefited from the death of Kennedy, including the CIA, Cuba, the Mafia, the Defense Department, even Lyndon Johnson. Witnesses come forward to reveal shady backroom dealings stating Oswald was setup. He was simply the patsy silenced forever by Ruby.

The famous Zapruder film is examined and the improbable ‘single bullet theory’, which would make Oswald’s three rifle shots work and prove his guilt, is taken apart and deemed impossible.

After a visit to the crime scene in Dealey Plaza Garrison determines that the assassination must of been planned with three shooters just waiting for Kennedy to arrive in their triangulation of fire. There was a reason why witnesses ran to that Grassy Knoll.

Pressure begins to fall on Garrison and his team. Wiretaps are found in his office. Witnesses are being bought off and murdered. Threats are being given warning Garrison to back off. Even his family life is being strained by his fixation on the assassination. But Garrison stays determined to uncover the truth and bring the guilty to justice, no matter how big and powerful they might be.

Tommy Lee Jones Michael Rooker Kevin Costner JFK drama 1991
Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Rooker and Costner

After getting further inside information from an anonymous government informant (Donald Sutherland), Garrison prosecutes New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for his participation in the assassination.

It is here Garrison and Stone pool together all of what they learned and speculate what really happened in Dallas and why. Garrison loses the case, but he (along with Stone) remains optimistic that the public will continue to seek the truth.

That’s a short breakdown of JFK. To go into more detail would get overwhelming, since there is a tremendous amount of information Stone packs into his film.

All of it could have easily gotten so convoluted and confusing it would have left audiences heads spinning, but it doesn’t. It is not simply delivered with actors talking to each other, but Stone crosscuts the film with the incidents of what they’re talking about, what witnesses saw, what Garrison and his team are speculating.

I was very excited to see JFK when it first came out. I was into the conspiracy theories, reading books and watching documentaries about the assassination. I was keeping up with all the controversy the film was getting when it was filming. Even back then I was into editing also, so this movie was right up my alley. And when I finally saw JFK I was in awe of how it was put together.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison JFK
Kevin Costner in JFK

It’s not just crosscutting of scenes, but it’s the different film stocks being used. Going from color to black and white. The use of archived footage with re-enactments. The changing of film speeds. The audio soundrack and sound effects. I remember thinking – they must of been sitting in the editing room for a year cutting this! I was really jazzed when it won the editing Oscar.

I subsequently went to see JFK three times in the theater and even after all the repeated viewings of it on television, video, DVD I never get tired of watching how this film moves along and presents its investigation.

And plus the score by John Williams is brilliant. It ranges from militaristic beats of taps to dark and sinister to hopeful and inspirational. It accompanies the films dazzling serpentine story beautifully. Tracks from it still can give me goosebumps today.

The cast Stone got for this movie is pretty amazing. There was such big names that show up in smaller parts it always impressed me. And they’re not just doing the showy “oh look who dropped in” gimmick, but everyone is bringing their A-game and are not slouching at all. Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Donald Sutherland. Great stuff by all these guys. I guess they either really wanted to work with Stone or had their own personal interest in telling this story. Or maybe both.

JFK 1991 assassination Dallas recreation controversy
Recreating the assassination

The movie is not only impressive with the way its shot by acclaimed cinematographer Robert Richardson, but also the detail Stone sought in recreating so many of these events and managing to film them at the actual locations. I always found it extraordinary he was able to meticulously recreate the assassination in Dealey Plaza.

There had been reenactments before, but I always thought Stone’s staging must of been the most complex and detailed recreation of the assassination ever. It must of been such a pain to negotiate it all. Everything is there, the motorcade, the witnesses, even the Book Depository redressed to look exactly as it did in 1963.

Of course Stone also adds his own conspiracy flourishes with other shooters hiding in bushes and suspicious guys on radios. I can’t imagine how they managed it and that it was agreed to in the first place. Isn’t that a working street in Dallas today? Doesn’t the city get a little tired of all the attention that plaza gets and all the requests for projects asking to close it off and film there?

JFK Gary Oldman Lee Harvey Oswald shot recreation
Oldman as Oswald in the Dallas police basement

So Stone tried to recreate all these events as accurately as possible. Or let’s say recreate them at the actual locations and how they looked at the time. Oswald’s arrest in the theater, his murder in the police basement, even Oswald’s boarding house! I actually only learned of that.

Awhile back I saw a report about how the original boarding house is up for sale, the historical significance it holds and the fact that scenes from JFK had been filmed there. The scene is mainly Oswald putting on his jacket and walking out the door. They could have faked that in any house, but they went through the trouble of redressing the house as it had been in 1963 for that one fleeting scene.

When I first listened to Stone’s commentary on the extended Director’s Cut of the film (that pushed the already epic film well over the three hour mark) I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping he would talk about how he made the film. Reveal some behind the scenes stories and talk about the actual filming, the planning, the decisions that were made. Unfortunately, he mainly talks about the assassination theories and too little of his attention is focused on the actual production.

Jack Lemmon Kevin Costner JFK
Jack Lemmon and Costner

So yes I think JFK is a pretty fantastic crime thriller or docudrama or historical drama, I’m not sure what to call it. I don’t want to toss a generic label on it since it might be misleading. I always thought of it as something in its own unique category, but I’ll get to that.

Costner does well with his white knight role. He’s always been one of the few actors for me who can sell saying some totally optimistic, sappy lines and I buy it.

The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, there’s a certain sincerity he has when he delivers that stuff that if I heard it from another actor I would be rolling my eyes. Anyone else proudly proclaiming “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” would be tough to sell, but coming from Costner I accept it somehow. So he works decently in this part. He has trouble with his New Orleans accent though.

Pesci is amusing with his wild appearance with his wig, wacky eyebrows and erratic behavior. Probably the two most memorable lines in the film are given by him and Costner. “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!” and of course the famous “Back and to the left”.

Jones gets his own silly wig and gives a very cool unflappable performance. Bacon is very good as a homosexual con ready to spill the beans. I always thought he got somewhat ignored in comparison to his co-stars.

Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK

Oldman takes on the role of Oswald and essentially becomes him for the duration of the movie. While watching it I never have the real Oswald creeping in to destroy Oldman’s interpretation of this man. I just accept him in the role, with his outbursts and odd facial ticks.

It could be that the real Oswald was such a mysterious figure and I never could make a close connection with the real person from the little footage there is of him. It’s different if someone is going to portray JFK, there’s a lot more baggage that comes with it.

Sissy Spacek leaves the least impression in the movie, mainly because she’s saddled with the thankless ‘wife’ role. So she pops in to offer encouragement to her husband, then when things gets tense she argues with him about not spending enough time with the kids. The obligatory domestic scenes are the weakest part of this movie and don’t feel special at all, but it’s a minor fault in a terrific film.

JFK grave Kevin Costner
Costner pays a visit to the fallen president

Oh how about all the theories that Stone and JFK presents to audiences? Well, now this is where my apprehension comes in with categorizing the movie. I always viewed it as ‘Oliver Stone’s JFK‘, not ‘The Definitive JFK’.

Whether you accept any of the numerous conspiracy theories the film postulates or not viewers should be aware this a movie made by Oliver Stone with his own agenda and his own opinion on the Kennedy assassination. It is what he believes and it is an incredibly one-sided film. Which I’m fine with. But if someone watches it and is willing to accept everything depicted as fact they should be aware they’re only getting Stone’s facts.

I’m not even going to begin to go into the selective way the film plays with evidence and characters. I’m sure there are many websites and books that go over every detail Stone presents in the movie and disputes them. One not familiar with the assassination at all would find it hard to determine where facts end and speculation begins. Along with the creative leaps of logic, the quick glossing over of evidence and the shaky reasoning at how Garrison comes to some of his conclusions. I think there’s a lot of ‘making the pieces fit’ playing going on.

JFK movie School Book Depository investigation
Garrison in the sniper’s nest

I have come to view the film as a hypothesis. It is a movie that theorizes what so many conspiracy believers subscribe to. The film takes a bunch of them, tosses them in a blender and sets out to connect them to make one big complicated conspiracy that there seems to be no hope of finding an answer to.

When you think about it, the movie becomes so far outreaching with who it believes supposedly conspired behind the death of JFK the only innocent people we can be sure of is Garrison and Jackie Kennedy.

I can understand the controversy the film got upon release. Boy did it get a lot of attention when it came out in 1991. Audiences are sometimes way too willing to simply accept what they’re shown. Perhaps Stone was a little too blasé about how he told his story and all the flak he got was warranted.

I always thought he could have avoided all of it by just opening the film with a title card saying ‘what you are about to watch is an interpretation of the events that the filmmakers believe, but not everyone else does. Many things in here have not been proven, but they are theories that Mr. Stone accepts as fact. Make your own decision.’ By saying that upfront perhaps that would have alleviated some of the criticism.

For a long time I was receptive to these conspiracy theories. I believed there was something much more ominous than just an angry ex-Marine working in a building in downtown Dallas. I continued watching every conspiracy documentary I could.

It became so routine seeing me watching something about the assassination, one day my father walked through the room seeing I was tuned into yet another investigation about the assassination and sarcastically said to me, “so did you solve it yet?” Dad can be a wiseass sometimes.

Oliver Stone directing Kevin Costner in JFK 1991

However, as time went on and the more I read about the assassination the more I became convinced that Oswald was the one who shot the president. He did it all by himself. With only a cheap rifle he ordered through the mail and an ideal opportunity he altered American history in a few seconds.

It’s hard to accept, but it was that simple. I still enjoy watching all those conspiracy documentaries, but I don’t place much validity in them anymore.

Despite me not agreeing with Stone’s assessment I still love his film. I guess I just admire the artistry and passion he used to make this movie. I still consider it a great achievement in filmmaking and it’s my favorite film he’s directed. But do I agree with the conclusions it makes – no.


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5 Responses

  1. Capt Nemo says:

    I go back and forth on this film.

    The part that offends me is the treatment of Clay Shaw. Shaw, by all accounts, was innocent of the crime. He was a victim of a out of control prosecutor named Jim Garrison who was a nut.

    And this movie makes him out to be a hero. And tainted Shaw's name for generations.

    But I agree that the film is a work of genius. It's a 2 hour+ info dump that never feels forced. Stone was definitely at the top of his game here.

    A word about Stone and your idea of a disclaimer. I don't think he ever would have done it. Even if you had a time machine, went back and warned him about the controversy to come. Because he knows that controversy sells. The more people he offends with his theories, the more people will come to see his film. He's a savvy showman and he knows how to sell a product.

    • Yeah the portrayals of Garrison and Shaw were presented very black and white. Unfair in a lot of way and not accurate, but I suppose that was the easiest way for Stone to tell the story he wanted to tell.

      You might be right about the disclaimer. The controversy the film generated did get the film a lot of attention. I was watching Fort Apache: The Bronx last week and noticed that it contained a disclaimer that I believe was meant to curtail some of the criticism the movie was receiving all ready during filming. It didn't really help much though. So maybe even if Stone did include one he still would have caught some hell.

  2. spaceodds says:

    Before I go on, I'm going to talk about the film, and not the facts or theories that have surrounded the event and the repercussions of it.

    Oliver Stone for me is a director whose body of work has aged as he has. At the beginning of his career, his films were filled with anger, cynicism and were critical of the U.S. Take a look at Salvador, a brilliant and no holds barred look at the civil war that took place in the above mentioned country. That film was filled with a seething outlook. It didn't hold back its criticism at how horrid the contras (who were allies to the U.S.) were towards their people, and also it didn't shy away from the horrors that took place. Not to mention the film had a career best performance from James Woods.

    After Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July; films that Stone successfully addressed issues of American and Western history and ideology, he reaches the pinnacle of his anger with JFK. I like JFK, the film is very well edited, has brilliant performances from everyone (for me Sutherland is the stand out, that guy was born to play the unnamed retired air force colonel) and its a film that keeps the audience entranced with its uncovering the facts about an event that shocked and nearly divided a nation. The second time I saw this film, all that I admired from the first viewing disappeared, and the the film became a bloated exercise. All I cared so much about on first viewing, has long evaporated and all that was left was a brilliant crafted and uninspiring film.

    After JFK, Stone went onto direct films such as Natural Born Killers (which was his most insane and horrid film) U Turn and Any Given Sunday. The latter represented the moment when Stone took a step back and has started to age, since then his films have been calm and forgiving. Just look at Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, comparing it to the first film, its as almost as if Stone has lost his energy, gone is the in your face criticism of capitalism and instead its a far more dull and by the numbers look at the financial crisis. Stone tried to replicate the energy he once had, ala Natural Born Killers, with his recent film Savages, and it turned out to be a complete disaster.

    Like Capt Nemo mentioned Stone used to be a savvy showman who courted controversy and I give him credit for being good at it (his cameo appearance in Ivan Reitman's satire Dave being one example) But time does no favors to anyone and Stone is a victim of this. Gone is the cycism and anger of his films to be replaced by trying to tell the story from the horses mouth, like his documentaries have done. Some were great like Comandante, whilst others were laughable and humiliating like South of the Border.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Just found this! I watched JFK a while ago and became obsessed with the assassination after it. No matter it's loose use of the facts, it's a terrific film. I read lots of articles on it, even the full warren commission! I was astonished at the lengths the authorities appeared to going to cover it up…..I don't know what made me change my mind, I guess most of the inaccuracies coming from the conspiracy side done it! I believe it was Oswald acting alone now.
    I read Garrisons book and another book that was basically a rebuttal of that. I think it's safe to say Kevin Cosner's portrayal of Garrison was very sympathetic to put it mildly and I feel it's a little unfair that he's gone down in popular folklore as some sort of patriot. I find it very difficult to watch the film now due to glaring inaccuracies however still agree its great film with a sepia toned nostalgic feel to it. All I would say to anyone, conspiracy theorist or not is check his magic bullet demonstration, the positions of the seats etc compared to the diagrams etc of the actual theory. Stone must have known he was playing fast and loose with the truth during the making of this.

  4. Anonymous says:

    An excellent movie. I recognize that Stone played with and altered facts to satisfy the narrative he wanted to tell, and, honestly, I have no problem with that – because solving the mystery was never the intent of the film. The intent of the film is to show that we don't really know what happened, and we need to start asking questions. That's what the (fictional) character played by Donald Sutherland tells Garrison. You will never get the big confession, and X will never mark the spot. However, your job is to shake the bushes, light fires under people's toes, stir the pot… until people start talking. It doesn't matter how outrageous your theory of the assassination is, as long as it starts getting other people to ask questions as well. And when everybody demands it, then – maybe – enough pressure will be brought on people to reveal the truth.

    In the DVD/Blu-Ray documentary, Stone overtly states that he doesn't feel that the film provides the "answer" to the assassination. There are things in the film that Stone himself doesn't agree with. But Stone's purpose is for the AUDIENCE to start asking questions again. Even if you disagree with him. Heck, one of the problems I have with the film's theory comes from the film itself when Michael Rooker tells Costner: How can you believe this theory? For it to work, literally hundreds of people in different cities and professions across the country had to be working in concert. And no one is talking about it? You think they ALL wanted to murder the President? How can a conspiracy this large and complicated be contained, when we can't keep a secret between ten people in this room?!

    Very good questions. Maybe I should look into this…

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