John F. Kennedy was traveling by motorcade in Dallas when he was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. Or so some think at least. One of the most tragic events in U.S. history, Kennedy's assassination has sparked hundreds and thousands of theories. Was Oswald working alone? Was it a government conspiracy to kill Kennedy? Maybe no one will ever know for sure, but the conspiracy theories abound. Enter stage right, 1991's JFK.
The district attorney in New Orleans, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is stunned like so many Americans when news of President Kennedy's death hits the airwaves. He watches with morbid curiosity and a desire for answers as Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is arrested for the murder and summarily shot by Jack Ruby two days later. Several years pass, but by 1966, Garrison is bothered more and more by the details of the assassination. With help from his staff, Garrison begins to do his own investigation, and the results are startling. What exactly happened in the days and months leading up to Nov. 22, 1963? More importantly, what happened after? The more they find out, the more Garrison smells a government cover-up.
From director Oliver Stone, this is quite the ambitious project. For starters, because it involves such a touchy subject as the JFK assassination, everyone has at least somewhat of an opinion on the subject. More than just viewer opinions, the amount of info, theories and evidence involving the assassination is endless. Type in 'JFK Conspiracy' at Google, and see how many results you get. So walking through a virtual filming minefield, Stone takes on a gargantuan task. The end result is a thought-provoking, somewhat meandering (at 206 minutes) story that throws a lot at the viewer, but if you pay attention, it's not a difficult movie to keep up with.
The goal from the beginning is simple; Stone intends to put that bug in your head that the lone shooter theory -- Oswald shooting Kennedy -- just isn't the way it happened. Recent studies show that some 60% of Americans believe there was a conspiracy involving the shooting. Stone has always had an aggressive shooting style, but it's a positive here. The entire movie is basically one interview after another -- quick cuts, fast editing, flashbacks galore -- as one piece of evidence piles up one on top of the other through Garrison and Co.'s investigation. The story is based on the true-to-life efforts of Garrison and his staff (with some tweaks here and there), but it plays like All the President's Men or any number of other films detailing an investigative report.
Ready to be impressed? This is one doozy of a cast, starting with Costner who delivers a likable, human performance as the D.A. driven to obsession to find out the truth. The subplot with his family (including wife Sissy Spacek) is one of the few weak points the movie has. Seeing him only in flashback, Oldman is frighteningly good as Oswald, and a dead ringer physically to boot. Garrison's investigative staff includes Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight, Michael Rooker and Gary Grubbs. Don't go anywhere. I'm not to the halfway point yet. There's also Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Brian Doyle-Murray (as Jack Ruby), Walther Matthau, John Candy, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Tomas Milian. Some are nothing more than a scene or two cameo, but their presence alone legitimizes their scenes. Jones, Sutherland, Bacon and Pesci are the most memorable of the group.
Presenting all sorts of what ifs and could bes, the movie builds to a courtroom scene where Garrison puts someone on trial for conspiring to kill JFK. The scene is a gem, capping off all we've heard, sene and learned through their investigation. Costner is highly effective in this scene, both pointing out the flaws in the lone shooter theory (later referenced famously in Seinfeld with the Magic Loogie, watch HERE) but also addressing the jury for what they should do. It shows one man's frustration at what he believes the government has been up to, doing something for extraordinary amounts of money rather than what's good for the country. The whole movie is enjoyable and extremely polished, but the court scene (about 35 minutes at the end) is the best thing going.
So did Oswald shoot Kennedy? Were there other shooters? We'll probably never know. But I have to give Stone's film credit. Say what you want about your own thoughts on the assassination, but Stone cleanly lays out the potential for at least one possibility. Maybe Oswald was a patsy, one man set up by larger forces at work. It's something you will have to think about yourself, but as a director, Stone does an admirable job at least making us question what really happened.
JFK (1991): ***/****