John F. Kennedy
Director: Oliver Stone
Production: Warner Bros./Le Studio Canal/Regency Enterprises/Alcor; color, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 189 minutes; director's cut runs 205 minutes. Released 20 December 1991 (U.S.A.). Much footage filmed on location in New Orleans, Dallas, Texas, and Washington D.C. Budget: $40 Million (approx.).
Producers: A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone; screenplay: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar, from the books On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs; photography: Robert Richardson; editors: Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia; sound: Bill Daly (sound mixer: Dealey Plaza), Gregg Landaker, Tod A. Maitland, Michael Minkler, Wylie Stateman, Michael D. Wilhoit; art directors: Derek R. Hill, Alan R. Tomkins; original music score: John Williams; casting: Risa Bramon Garcia, Billy Hopkins, Heidi Levitt.
Cast: Kevin Costner (Jim Garrison); Sissy Spacek (Liz Garrison); Joe Pesci (David Ferrie); Tommy Lee Jones (Clay Shaw); Gary Oldman (Lee Harvey Oswald); Jay O. Sanders (Lou Ivon); Michael Rooker (Bill Broussard); Laurie Metcalf (Susie Cox); Gary Grubbs (Al Osner); John Candy (Dean Andrews); Jack Lemmon (Jack Martin); Walter Matthau (Senator Long); Ed Asner (Guy Bannister); Donald Sutherland (X); Kevin Bacon (Willie O'Keefe); Brian Doyle-Murray (Jack Ruby); Sally Kirkland (Rose Cheramie); Jim Garrison (Earl Warren).
Awards: Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing (Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia), 1992; American Cinema Editors Award (Eddie) (Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia), 1992; Golden Globe Award for Best Director—Motion Picture, 1992; British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Editing (Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia) and Best Sound (Gregg Landaker, Tod A. Maitland, Michael Minkler, Wylie Stateman, Michael D. Wilhoit), 1993.
Stone, Oliver, and Zachary Sklar, JFK: The Book of the Film, New York, 1994.
Garrison, Jim, On the Trail of the Assassins: My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murder of President Kennedy, New York, 1988.
Marrs, Jim, Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy, New York, 1990.
Beaver, Frank, Oliver Stone: Wakeup Cinema, New York, 1994.
Riordan, James, Stone: The Controversies, Excesses, and Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker, New York, 1994.
Kunz, Don, editor, The Films of Oliver Stone (Filmmakers Series, No. 55), Metuchen, New Jersey, 1997.
Anson, Robert Sam, "The Shooting of JFK," in Esquire (New York), 1 November 1991.
Stone, Oliver, interview in Time (New York), 23 December 1991.
Crowdus, Gary, "Getting the Facts Straight: An Interview with Zachary Sklar," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 19, no. 1, 1992.
Crowdus, Gary, "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 19, no. 1, 1992.
Medhurst, Martin J., "The Rhetorical Structure of Oliver Stone's JFK," in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, June 1993.
Romanowski, William D., "Oliver Stone's JFK: Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1993.
Crowdus, Gary, "History, Dramatic License, and Larger Historical Truths: An Interview with Oliver Stone," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 4, 1997.
Sharrett, Christopher, "Conspiracy Theory and Political Murder in America: Oliver Stone's JFK and the Facts of the Matter," in Jon Lewis, editor, The New American Cinema, Durham, North Carolina, 1998.
Rosenstone, Robert A., "JFK: Historical Fact/Historical Film," in Alan Rosenthal, editor, Why Docudrama?: Fact-Fiction on Film and TV, Carbondale, Illinois, 1999.
* * *
Winner of two Oscars, for cinematography and editing, and nominated for five others, JFK has been praised as a film but heavily criticized as an historical account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. By 1991, when JFK was released, Stone was already well known as a maker of challenging and controversial films, notably about America's involvement in Vietnam. His attacks on the American government and justice system, for their pandering to big business over the needs of the people, are all the more remarkable given that they appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period of conservatism in Hollywood and elsewhere. JFK, arguably his most impressive work as a director, consolidated his reputation as an argumentative and politically awkward filmmaker.
The film revives New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's 1967 theory that Kennedy was killed in an attempted coups d'état orchestrated by military and industrial influences within the American government. Their motivation, Garrison believed, was opposition to Kennedy's aim of withdrawing American troops from Vietnam. Even before Stone began making the film, Garrison's theory had been shown to have little real evidence to support it, and JFK itself has since been picked over by critics eager to show the inconsistencies in Stone's account.
In attempting to provide as much detail as possible about Garrison's theory, most of it explained in Costner's deadpan drawl, Stone ran the risk of alienating much of his audience. The extreme length of the movie, which runs for well over three hours in its "director's cut," might also have discouraged filmgoers. Yet JFK was a commercial success, at least in part because of its subject matter, which also attracted many well-known actors and others to play minor roles. The most interesting of these cameos is the real Jim Garrison playing Earl Warren. Stone also extracts fine performances from his leading actors, particularly from Tommy Lee Jones, who projects a menacing sense of suppressed violence as Clay Shaw, the businessman with whose trial and acquittal the film ends. Kevin Costner's portrayal of Jim Garrison's single-minded determination to find the truth is compelling, and Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Sissy Spacek are also impressive.
The film is also very well made; JFK is a masterpiece of well-judged tension, dramatic revelation, and changes of mood. By switching between film stocks, blending documentary and "made" footage, and introducing a series of bizarre and sinister characters, Stone manages to drive the narrative along with vigor, despite its sometimes rather detached, obsessive feel. The repeated showing of the famous Zapruder home movie of the killing helps to lend authenticity to the action, while dramatic set-pieces, such as Garrison's timing a marksman as he attempts to fire three shots from a manual rifle, give a sense of documentary objectivity.
While the film is convincingly detailed and impressive as a detective thriller, its actual value as a documentary is negligible. Stone has rightly been criticized for presenting as true events for which there is no conclusive evidence. What is perhaps more worrying, however, is Stone's manipulation of evidence to prove his point. The blurring of the distinction between documentary and "made" footage is a showcase for the skills of the Oscar-winning editors, but it also obscures the point at which the real evidence begins and Stone's invention ends. Even the short Zapruder film was altered in an effort to suggest the existence of bullets entering Kennedy's body from different directions. Given the authority with which such "evidence" is presented, it is difficult to see any real difference between Stone's manipulation of the known facts and the deception his film identifies at the heart of the Warren Commission's investigation.
As a convincing alternative to the official account of the assassination, JFK has many shortcomings, and one of its more unfortunate effects has been to further mythologize the circumstances of Kennedy's death. But if Stone's intention was to challenge the American government's handling of the case, and renew public interest in finding out the truth about the assassination, JFK was a resounding success. Indeed, the film aroused so much debate and speculation that in an attempt to satisfy public curiosity the U.S. Congress passed the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, demanding the early release of almost all of the government's files on the case. Taking account of the controversy the film aroused, hardcore conspiracy theorists should note that Stone himself received no Oscars for JFK.
The film JFK (1991), a fascinating cinematic theory about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963), was one of the most controversial films of its time. Directed and coscripted by Oliver Stone (1946–), JFK fired up the decades-long debate over who actually murdered the fallen president. Was it lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (1939–1963), as was indicated by the "official" Warren Commission, which was entrusted to investigate the crime back in the 1960s? Or was it the end result of an elaborate plot, masterminded by the Mafia (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4), the U.S. government and military, Cuban nationalists, and any number of additional Kennedy-haters?
JFK is based on the obsession of real-life New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (1921–1995), played by Kevin Costner (1955–), with uncovering the truth of the assassination. In the course of his investigation, Garrison tries a businessman named Clay Shaw (1913–1974) with plotting to murder Kennedy. Meanwhile, as Garrison's scenario unfolds, Stone offers a parade of characters, some real, some made up, and some composites.
Many Kennedy-assassination conspiracy buffs have chosen to view the content of JFK as essentially factual. Their skepticism over the "lone gunman" theory was fueled by the film's explosive script, fast-paced editing, dazzlingly realistic visuals, and riveting performances. Stone seamlessly edits footage from the Zapruder film (an amateur home movie that is the only record of the actual shooting of Kennedy) with his own, made-up images. This blending of fact and fiction caused great controversy. Stone seems to present certain aspects of the Kennedy assassination as fact. His film is not a documentary, however, but a cinematic invention offering a single theory.
Much of the content of JFK is, at best, clever speculation. But Stone's intentions and the subsequent controversy aside, the filmmaker did succeed in returning the issues surrounding one of the saddest and most disturbing moments in American history to the forefront of public awareness.
For More Information
Garrison, Jim. On the Trail of the Assassins. New York: Warner Books, 1988.
Mackey-Kallis, Susan. Oliver Stone's America: Dreaming the Myth Outward. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Marrs, Jim. Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1989.
Stone, Oliver, producer. JFK (film). Warner Bros., 1991.
Stone, Oliver, and Zachary Sklar. JFK: The Book of the Film, a Documented Screenplay. New York: Applause Books, 1992.
JFK ★★★½ 1991 (R)
Highly controversial examination of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, from the viewpoint of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. Hotly debated because of Stone's conspiracy theory, it sparked new calls to open the sealed government records from the 1977 House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation. Outstanding performances from all-star principal and supporting casts, stunning cinematography, and excellent editing. Even Garrison himself shows up as Chief Justice Earl Warren. Considered by some to be a cinematic masterpiece, others see it as revisionist history that should be taken with a grain of salt. Extended version adds 17 minutes. 189m/C VHS, DVD . Dale Dye, Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Beata Pozniak, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, Vincent D'Onofrio, Sally Kirkland, Brian Doyle-Murray, Wayne Knight, Tony Plana, Tomas Milian, Sean Stone; Cameos: Lolita (David) Davidovich, Frank Whaley, Jim Garrison; D: Oliver Stone; W: Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar; C: Robert Richardson; M: John Williams. Oscars ‘91: Cinematog., Film Editing; Golden Globes ‘92: Director (Stone).