With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy this week, the media is awash with the memory of Kennedy. In addition we are being plied with new films such as Killing Kennedy and Parkland. It is a good time to enjoy the masterpiece that is Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Few films create the amount of discussion that can emerge after a viewing of JFK. As arousing as the material may be, it should not distract us from some superb performances from the cast and an iconic achievement from the director. To paraphrase a number of critics; as history it may be controversial, dubious, biased and bunk but as film-making it is riveting, electric and a masterpiece.
JFK sports a supreme cast
Headed by Kevin Costner, the cast includes Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and other familiar faces.
Costner, though, is the main role. Following the flawed but immensely popular Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and his double Academy Award win for Dances With Wolves and preceding his role in The Bodyguard, Costner was in the peak of his career. He was not the only one as we shall see. But did he make the most of a substantial role in this film?
On one hand it is a little harsh to be too critical. In many a mystery, conspiracy, or crime film the main investigator is not necessarily made into a compelling character. Instead it is the story or the suspects who lead the intrigue. In literature and television, where the investigator character has the opportunity to return, there is more scope to make it an interesting character. This can follow the character into a film adaptation but is otherwise not essential.
The fact that Costner has little in common with the real life Jim Garrison – an imposing 6’7” attorney with a deep voice – may suggest other considerations, like looks and name, took precedence. (Cheekily, Jim Garrison does have a role in the film – as Earl Warren, the Chief Justice whose report Garrison sought to undermine)
That being said, the script provided ample opportunity for Costner to produce something special. Two opportunities in particular – the domestic scenes with Garrison’s wife, Liz [Sissy Spacek]; and the final courtroom scene which ends with almost a Mr Smith Goes to Washington passion. Overall, Costner is fair but not great. That being said, I certainly prefer Costner for this role over Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, who were favoured by the producers
JFK, though, is more about the superb supporting cast than the lead
Jack Lemmon has only a small role, but in a matter of minutes he shows us the ability that saw him win two acting Oscars. When we think of John Candy in a serious role most immediately think of Cool Runnings, but in this film, despite a small one, he shows how much more range he has. So nervous was he, to be in a serious role surrounded by so many big names, that he is perspiring heavily in all his scenes. For many, JFK was the first introduction to Gary Oldman who brings to life a portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald who, in this story, is necessarily contradictory and requires a powerful performance delivered in small increments.
There are three supporting performances in particular that stand out in this film. The first is Joe Pesci, also in career-prime form, who came into JFK on the back of Home Alone and an Oscar win for Goodfellas and would follow JFK with My Cousin Vinny and Casino. Pesci is superb as the paranoid, anxious, panicky, violently anti-communist and somewhat loony David Ferrie.
Donald Sutherland delivers an exciting portrayal of the enigmatic X in one of the film’s most iconic and memorable scenes. It went a long way to establish Sutherland’s ability to play the authoritarian. His future roles, whether in Commander in Chief or The Hunger Games, owe a fair bit to his performance in JFK. Even his voice carries that potential as we saw in Lord of War.
Most impressive though is Tommy Lee Jones. Coming a couple of years before the role that would establish his name – for the wider audience anyway – in The Fugitive, this is not the Tommy Lee Jones you may think you know. Here he plays Clay Shaw; a Louisiana businessman and something of a Southern dandy. The scenes of Shaw’s private party, where Jones is covered in gold paint and humiliated, reminds one of the risks and experiments actors are willing to do in their early career. Jones’ Oscar nomination for the role shows it’s benefits.
The real star of this film is Oliver Stone
With many films the key task of the director is to not get in the way of the plot or the characters, but to give them room to produce their magic themselves. A good director is often considered to be a light, invisible factor with little to say. A great director is often considered one who gently enhances the story and performances – providing emphasis or subtlety as the situation demands. It is a job that is easy to screw up, less easy to do well, but dangerously tempting to overstep and do too much. JFK is a standout as a film where the director has a strong presence; as some omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent manipulative deity; yet this influence does not overburden and screw up the film, instead it enhances it significantly.
JFK has a special place in my film memory. As a young fan it was the first real taste of what a director has the power to do, if – and it is a big if – he can pull it off. JFK is special because the absurd level of manipulation and ambition in vision does come off.
The film is full of examples of Stone manipulating the audience, but three scenes standout. The first is the iconic “We’re through the looking-glass here people” scene, where Garrison and his entourage from his DA’s office discuss the history of Oswald over cocktails at a Louisiana restaurant. The second is of Garrison meeting X who fills him in on the big picture of the activities of US military intelligence, the influence of the military-industrial complex, angry sacred cows within the Pentagon and the shift in policy for war in Vietnam. The third is of Garrison at court attempting to debunk the magic bullet theory and sharing his own vision of the assassination.
Each of these scenes are heavy in dialogue, bombarding the viewer with information. But they are well paced, using quick silent shots and scenery to break it up. Music, provided by Hollywood legend John Williams, is used variously to quicken or slow the heart rate or create mood. Sometimes sombre and haunting, sometimes pacey and suspecting. Each of these scenes combine shots of the conversation of the moment with archival footage – both historical and re-imagined, using actors of the film – shifting from colour to black-and-white.
In addition, there are insertions of images covering a plotline not currently being discussed. For example, the looking-glass scene is broken up with images of someone producing a doctored photo of Oswald. These insertions, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt; are effective in create inferences and subliminal messages in the mind of the audience. Thus, both conscious and subconscious of the audience is infiltrated, rightfully earning Stone his place as a master propagandist.
Each of these scenes rank highly in my list of favourites, they join scenes from The Silence of the Lambs, The Shawshank Redemption and a few others as those I most enjoy replaying in my mind.
JFK represents such an achievement in direction that it could possibly never be repeated. Its technique is so effectual that when viewing other films with a tense, conspiratorial or mysterious story – such as Zodiac or Zero Dark Thirty – it is tempting to think they could benefit from more of a JFK treatment. But the technique is so synonymous with JFK, parodied everywhere from Seinfeld to The Simpsons, it would be abundantly clear that that was what you were trying to do.
There was a time when I called Stone my favourite director with some confidence. This was mostly due to my regard for this film and also for Platoon (I was probably too young to appreciate Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July at the time). I also gave him dues for two films that were not well appreciated but I still had time for – Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday.
But as the years went by it was harder and harder to call Stone my favourite with conviction. Not only had many other contenders risen (or at least continued to produce good work) but Stone was clearly deteriorating. The failure of Alexander on many levels was probably the final nail in the coffin. In retrospect, JFK probably represents the peak of the three-time Oscar winner’s career.
JFK was well represented at the 64th Academy Awards with nine nominations
It only came away with two – for editing and cinematography – as these awards were a very tough contest. As well as JFK, other top contenders included The Silence of the Lambs, Bugsy, Beauty and the Beast, Terminator 2 and Thelma and Louise. It is nice to remember these awards are occasionally a difficult choice between excellent candidates. The Silence of the Lambs took out the big 5 – screenplay, actor, actress, director and picture. In the face of such strong competition you can’t complain too much and just being nominated is considerable recognition – something that certainly can’t be said every year.
As much as I love this film, in most cases I find I have to side with the Academy in their choices. Best Picture, for instance, rightfully belonged to The Silence of the Lambs. John Williams missed out on best score for JFK to Alan Menken for Beauty and the Beast. Mind you he has missed out many times for excellent work. Tommy Lee Jones could probably feel unlucky to miss out on the supporting actor award to Jack Palance – for playing Curly in the fun, but never revisited, City Slickers. Best Director is tough, but I have to say I would have given it to Stone rather than Demme again for The Silence of the Lambs, by a small margin.
Despite the controversy of its material and the decline of its director, JFK remains a modern masterpiece, represents peak performances from a number of participants and deserves to be held up as the best example of the power of the director’s craft.