by J.D. Lafrance
The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history. For Baby Boomers and beyond, it has been the fuel that provoked them to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair, there is still a myriad of uncertainties that surround the “actual” incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991), depicts the events leading up to –and – after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle, complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a structured examination of the conspiracy from multiple points of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture, implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.
JFK presents his assassination as a powerful event, constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence – then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person’s point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that points the finger at officials and branches of the highest caliber in the American government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C., so deep the American people knew little, if anything, about them.
The film depicts the events surrounding the assassination as a grim story, complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks, and the blending of actual archival footage, with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast. This blurring of reality and fiction makes it dizzyingly difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create a countermyth to what he perceives as the myth of the Warren Commission and simulates the confusing quagmire of events as they are reported in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of view/layers through the extensive use of flashbacks-within-flashbacks. This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within “evidence.”
For example, the incident between Oswald and the Anti-Castro Cubans is initially depicted as a simple event, becoming obscured by multiple interpretations. Stone begins the scene in 16mm, black and white film stock…then switches to Super 8mm in color with Garrison narrating the scene. Stone is presenting three distinct points-of-view in this scene; one in 16mm black and white, one in Super 8mm color, and Garrison’s own God-like narration over it all. The change to Super 8mm symbolizes a different view or reading of the event as reconstructed in his mind.
One of the major sources of this intentionally scrambled data stems from the Warren Commission Report. This encyclopedic tome is a microcosm of the assassination itself. It takes simple facts and scatters them about to create a convoluted path that Garrison must navigate in order to find the truth. As he explains, “It’s all broken down and spread around and you read and the point gets lost.” He begins to interview people who testified in the report only to find that, as one witness points out, “It was a fabrication from start to finish.” Within the report there are contradictions and forged testimonies, supporting the government’s theory that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. Like the assassination itself, the Warren Report contains all the facts but distorts and presents them in such an unorganized, unrecognizable fashion that any attempt to piece together a coherent narrative or conspiracy is akin to drowning. It is up to Garrison to make sense of this mess and establish a linear narrative, which he does at the conclusion of the film when he presents his case in court that is inarguably one of the most epic courtroom scenes in the century-old history of cinema.
Another intriguing aspect of the conspiracy that JFK presents is how the conspirators create figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, who are ambiguous in nature. From the start, the conspirators plan to put together multiple Oswalds to support a lone assassin theory. By doing this, the conspirators effectively create a metaphoric room of mirrors where the real Oswald cannot be separated from the many fakes. Garrison and his team sort through the multiple Oswalds. Stone shows them in several places at the same time while also cross-cutting footage of an unknown person piecing together a photograph. This, in turn, is injected with real photographs of Oswald and staged shots of Stone’s Oswald. As the mysterious photograph is completed, it is revealed to be the famous Life magazine cover of Oswald with the rifle that supposedly killed Kennedy and that “pretty much convicted Oswald in the public eye,” as one character observes. This mixing of footage, both real and staged, symbolizes Oswald’s various pasts, both real and faked. By showing the damning Life photograph being doctored, Stone used that as a metaphor for Oswald’s past. On the surface it looks believable, but upon closer scrutiny there is a more complex story, as Garrison wisely notes: “They put Oswald together from day one.” This is true both figuratively as the fake Oswalds montage demonstrates and legitimately as the construction of the infamous photograph illustrates.
The depiction of the assassination in JFK is both visceral in its impact and complex in its ghoulish presentation. Stone mixes real footage of Kennedy’s motorcade with his own footage, while also using various film stocks, each showing the multiple interpretations of a public event that was viewed by people country-wide. Stone jumps from Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas to his motorcade heading for Dealey Plaza with several quick edits. He also cross-cuts footage of a clock at Dealey Plaza to show that time is running out for Kennedy. He will soon be killed. This quick rhythm of editing creates an anxious mood…the tension increases. The film cuts to black followed by the sound of a gun being cocked and fired.
Kennedy has been shot.
A black and white shot of a rooftop, birds flying into the sky, appears with the sound of the gunshot echoing into the distance. Stone goes from the assassination to the shockwaves that rippled out by introducing the film’s protagonist, Jim Garrison, and showing his reaction to the heinous act that has happened.
Kevin Costner does his best Gary Cooper as he portrays Garrison as the last honest man going up against the U.S. government, acting as the supreme mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is pitch perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such noteworthy actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, John Candy, and Walter Matthau. The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them by the famous person they portray. Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.
Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top-notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring on film but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Donald Sutherland) – where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how – is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film, which is impressive considering JFK is chock-a-block with expertly delivered monologues and soliloquies.
JFK is an important work in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Stone’s film presents an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing. JFK contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d’état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. His film takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy – and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone’s film, the American public was still greatly interested in the event, with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.