“Why was Kennedy killed? Who benefited? Who has the power to cover it up? Who?”-X
It’s hard to believe that my number 10 film features one of my least favorite actors of all time Kevin Costner. I won’t bore you with why I don’t like him. Unlike the other films on my all-time best list, this film is not about characters but centers around an event in our nation’s history. Let’s deal with Costner first. He does have to carry the film to a certain extent but the film does not sink or swim based on his performance so in this case he gets a pass. The film plays like a big screen LAW AND ORDER in its “just the facts ma’am” approach. There are a lot of characters in the film however we do no not learn that much about them and what makes them tick. The characters purpose in the film is to supply New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison played by Kevin Costner (and the audience) with information they may have about the events leading up to, during and after the assassination of President John F Kennedy (JFK). Director Oliver Stone does a good job at casting actors that we recognized in the various roles. By doing so the audience is more inclined to actually listen to what they have to say. There are a lot of big names in the picture but most only appear in one or two scenes. If there is a flaw in the film it would be the domestic scenes between Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife played by Sissy Spacek. These scenes almost seem tacked on and with a film that runs 3 hours and 25mins these scenes could have easily hit the cutting room floor. In a different film these scenes would have worked but here they do not.
What is the film about? Quite simply, it is about the obsession of Garrison to bring someone to justice for the biggest murder mystery of all time, the assassination of JFK. The film begins with narration by Martin Sheen detailing JFK’s presidency and the events that allegedly lead to his murder. This is achieved by mixing archival footage from the time period and dramatic elements added that will come into play later. This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the picture. Director Oliver Stone masterfully uses a mixture of news footage, film footage and detailed recreations to tell the story. This mix adds a sense of realism to the film as it gives the impression that we are watching a documentary and not a film. At times it is difficult to tell what has been recreated and what is real which is one of the film’s strengths. One of the most effective occurrence of this is when Garrison begins his obsession with the investigation by reading the entire Warren Report (888 pages) in one sitting. Rather than just having him read and the audience just hears what he is reading, we actually see the events that he is reading and that helps the events resonate more with the viewers. The majority of the film is done in this fashion where Garrison is introduced to someone and they tell him what they know and the audience is presented with a visual representation of the events they are discussing.
With a running time of 3 and 1/2 hours there is great deal of information covered but it never runs on information overload. With Stone’s casting of the minor characters that appear we remember who they are and more than likely remember what they said although I could be an hour or so before they are mention again. I make mention of the running time because I know that is a turnoff to some viewers but I am of the opinion that a good film can never be too long and a bad film can never be short enough. The film moves so quick that it does not FEEL like its 3 and 1/2 hours. Contrast that with DANCES WITH WOLVS that at the time ran 3 hours seems WAY longer that JFK does. It’s all about the pacing of the film. Save for the few domestic scenes I spoke of earlier just about every scene in the film plays like a climax so the audience is always on the edge of their seat.
Although this is a film where the acting is not a key ingredient, I do want to highlight the all-star cast. Most of the actors in the film took large pay cuts to appear in the film which they felt the material was important enough to be told. The all-star cast includes Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Laurie Metcalf, Walter Matthau, Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones. However the stand outs in the film are Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, John Candy and Donald Sutherland. Donald Sutherland gives my favorite performance in the entire film. He comes in about 90mins into the film playing a character simply called X and delivers a stunning 15 minute monologue detailing his work in an undisclosed government agency and what he knows about Oswald and what his role would have been providing security to Kennedy on the day he was shot. Sutherland is perfect as he lays out everything in a matter of fact way which gives the character credibility in what he is saying. We believe what he is saying because he believes what he is saying regardless of whether or not the information is true. He is not trying to convince Garrison that he is telling the truth therefore Garrison and we the audience believe him. It’s like he has been waiting years to tell this information to somebody and getting everything off his chest is a relief. His monologue serves as a turning point in the film as it encourages Garrison to continue on with his investigation and kicks off the second half of the film. If Southerland is not convincing in his delivery of the information we don’t have a reason to continue to follow Garrison. It’s the perfect performance and in my opinion the most important scene in the film. I also want to highlight John Candy who has two very brief scenes in the film playing a dramatic character. He only got to stretch is dramatic chops only one other time in PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (if you have not seen it then SHAME on you!!) and it’s too bad that he was not cast in other similar roles before his untimely death.
I’m sure you are asking yourself why this film one of my all-time greats. Well simply put it is an amazing piece of cinema. Technically speaking the film is a masterpiece of editing using the various types of archival film footage available to Stone. It won an Oscar for film editing and rightfully so. The film while entertaining also asks you to consider the tough questions and then provides several answers all of which can be true or none that can be true. JFK is not one of those films that you see and within an hour you have totally forgotten that you have seen it. The film and its questions will stay with you long after viewing. It just may inspire you to become a “Jim Garrison” and seek to right wrongs you may see in the world. Because of the film all existing assassination-related documents will be made public by 2017. Sometimes a film can do more than entertain, it can make a difference.
“All these documents are yours. The people's property, you pay for it! But because the government considers you children who might be too disturbed or distressed to face this reality, or because you might possibly lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I'm in my early forties, so I'll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then, but I'm already telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in the year 2038, he can walk into the National Archives, and find out what the CIA and the FBI knew! They might even push it back then, hell it may become a generational affair, with questions passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, but someday, somewhere, somebody will find out the damn truth.” Jim Garrison