Unsung Gems – ‘JFK’ Oliver Stone’s boldest effort
Unsung Gems is a look back and reflection on great motion pictures that often slip under the radar of public consciousness , whether as ignored relics of a previous era, standout efforts overshadowed by competition or circumstance, or simply unseen classics damned by a lack of time in the spotlight.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Zachary Sklar
Naturally, given that he has a somewhat inimitable reputation in Hollywood circles, you could fill entire cue cards with words one has described Oliver Stone with; aggressive, paranoid, searing, genius, antagonistic, childlike, ferocious. His latest motion picture is Savages, currently on release in the United States and Canada, an admittedly pointed story revolving around the hot topic of marijuana distribution. Since Stone has a confessed pro-legalization stance on the matter, it serves to make a film out of a sensitive issue. This is Stone’s remit, it would seem. A quick survey of his back catalogue shows that one particular word is always applicable when summing up one of the most revered filmmakers of the modern era: bold.
Two of the US’s most controversial presidents, Richard Nixon and George W Bush, have been given the Stone treatment, as has 9/11 and apathetic and twisted media obsession, though these efforts are still overshadowed by his bare knuckle beat down of 80’s greed culture, and his less than affectionate overview of the Vietnam War. And his 1991 Oscar Winning powerhouse regarding the assassination of John F Kennedy falls into the category filled by Nixon, W and Natural Born Killers, the second string of his CV. Unjust, almost fittingly, since it’s possibly his finest film.
Regardless of your opinions or stance on the issue, lone nut and magic bullet versus seemingly endless conspiracy theory, one cannot simply put down Stone when it comes to JFK. A star laden, lengthy and passionate recounting of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, played here by Kevin Costner, and his crusade to bring to justice the men who really killed Kennedy, it is a film that oozes significance, passion and represents a full blooded assault on…just about everything involved or allegedly involved in one of the world’s most famous murders. There are no sacred cows as the investigation into Tommy Lee Jones’ Clay Shaw, a potential accessory to the killing, leads Garrison and his team to Cuban revolutionaries, the Mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency and, eventually, all the way up to Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B Johnson and the pro-war lobbyists within the White House itself.
In fact, JFK could just as easily be described as Conspiracy Theory: The Movie. But while this may give the film a twisted image of unfocussed paranoia, it actually serves to provide an antithesis to the Warren Report, the now maligned findings of the inquest declaring that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for Kennedy’s shooting in Dallas, all while providing a cinematically stunning example of the mountainous threads and loose ends that Garrison’s work draws up. It may exaggerate the true story, best read in Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins, but does so in care of both entertainment and highlighting the farce that was the opposing argument. Manipulative? Potentially, yes. Valid? In retrospect, probably.
Even beyond the politics, which may sound impossible, an objective viewing of JFK reveals a big, big movie. Heavily plotted and busy, we have John Williams providing his least iconic and as a result possibly most definitive work for a soulful, almost tragic score. Listening to the soundtrack alone provides epic scale, as you would expect, but also evokes various emotions that tie in with the film’s mood, and its recurring theme; heartbreaking realisation and despair. This perhaps best sums up Costner’s arc as Garrison, idealistic patriot who discovers the darkness lurking behind the ideal of the land of the free. Dramatically speaking, it’s on the same level of sins of the father, the horrific find that shatters all faith. Incidentally, we also find Costner putting the work in on his end. As an actor, his career would prove to be mixed at best, with his fine work on Dances With Wolves and The Untouchables soiled by Waterworld and The Postman. Here, he showcases his best work.
And yet he’s merely the head figure at the top of a vast, prestigious line up. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Academy Award for his against-type role as homosexual businessman Clay Shaw, Gary Oldman gives a nuanced, chameleonic and authentic profile of Oswald, a man the film treats as a tragic figure. Joe Pesci’s energy gives the picture one of its most memorable scenes, his adrenaline fuelled rant in answer to the film’s burning question. Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Edward Asner, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, and Michael Rooker also turn up. Donald Sutherland’s one scene appearance as a nameless military insider is a terrifying, electrifying tour de force, while the late John Candy’s turn as Dean Andrews is a memorable and entertaining lesson in said actor’s abilities with serious material. Everyone, quite simply, is at the top of their game, sensing the importance of the material.
The real star, though, is Stone, his direction pumped up, blaring and visually astounding. The courtroom scenes are thrilling and tense, new leads and discoveries are treated with the degree of shock and awe they merit, and despite being essentially a legal thriller, the set pieces are overwhelming. A recreation of the assassination itself, as described by Garrison, is an astonishing and unforgettable sequence, powerful and definitive. Forget dry legal eagle dialogue, JFK is a film bubbling at the brim with furious, raging energy and infectious excitement. The viewer is grabbed by the lapels and slapped in the face by the material, sledge hammered by the climactic denouement and then dropped to the floor by the ironically dissonant final judgement.
It’s something of a foregone conclusion, but the expectation that Garrison will win his battle somehow rears its head from time to time. But this is not an optimistic film, though far from as cynical as it may sound also, and as such we should never really have the gall to expect the good guys to win out. Nor, as it happens, do we get to the real truth, which is left hanging as it is today. While Stone certainly manipulated some of the material he was working with in the name of creative license, he’s suitably restrained in not positing the various revelations and accusations as stonewall facts. There’s no full reveal, no crescendo of justice winning the day.
But, like any great film, there is a far simpler tale that holds the complex strands and politically heavy context together. Given that the case never wins out, the actual hunt for Kennedy’s killers could be viewed as a layered, unconventional MacGuffin. The story is that of a faithful, trustful man who slowly starts to find that the ideals and creed he has put his heart and soul into, has fought for, are in fact putrid and warped, dishonest and slanted against the everyman. Rather than be bowed, shell shocked or pacified by such a find, he instead takes up a new banner, marches to the beat of a different drummer, and invests his morality into at least trying to bring such injustice to light.
His emotional final words to the court at the film’s finale, immortalized by Costner’s very real tears, sums up JFK’s underlying themes; betrayed loyalty and the death of innocence. In this respect, the not guilty verdict for Shaw is irrelevant, because the hero didn’t wage his battle to win. He fought to make people see. And in this respect, both contextually and in real life, he succeeded.
When the final credits roll, bringing JFK to close, we find ourselves exhausted, almost demoralised by the epic we have just witnessed. From start to finish, we have been sucked into an astonishing saga, made to feel every beat like it was from our own heart, and the end result is the dawning understanding that we have just experienced something special. Even if you discount the argument presented, you have to marvel at the audacity of Oliver Stone and his determined, ruthless execution. He takes no prisoners, doesn’t flinch or hesitate for a second, and is utterly devoted to his vision. This is a statement that can be applied to every film he makes. Add to the list of words resolute and visionary.
Savages may be in cinemas right now, but its release should really serve as a reminder to check out one of his unsung entries to the cinematic hall of fame, one of the best films of the nineties. Leaving JFK, his boldest effort, in obscurity would truly be a mortal sin.
– Scott Patterson