Friday, September 18, 2009

Target #281: JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

TSPDT placing: #492
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Jim Garrison (book), Jim Marrs (book), Oliver Stone (screenplay), Zachary Sklar (screenplay)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jack Lemmon, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland

Oliver Stone's wildly-speculative conspiracy theory epic JFK (1991) opens with a montage of archival footage depicting the presidency of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, up until 12:30PM on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. However, even before this historical prologue has come to an end, Stone has already introduced his own dramatisation – a beaten prostitute, dumped on the side of a road, pleads that Kennedy's life is in danger. Her agonised cries play over familiar documentary footage of the Presidential motorcade. Already, Stone is defiantly blending fact and fiction, speculation and dramatisation. On its initial release, the film stirred enormous controversy due to its flagrant disregard for historical fact, but that's not what JFK is all about. Oliver Stone may (or may not) genuinely believe all of Jim Garrison's conspiracy theories – which implicate everybody up to former President Lyndon B. Johnson – but his film nevertheless offers a tantalising "what if?" scenario, an unsettling portrait of the fallibility of "history" itself.

Having undertaken some light research, I don't feel that Garrison's claims hold much water. However, that doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. Crucial is Stone's more generalised vibe of government mistrust, the acknowledgement that political institutions are at least conceptually capable of such a wide-ranging operation to hoodwink the American public. JFK also paints a gripping picture of its protagonist, torn between its admiration for a man willing to contest the sacred cow of US government, and its pity for one so hopelessly obsessed with conspiracy that it consumes his life, family and livelihood. Kevin Costner plays Garrison as righteous and stubbornly idealistic, not dissimilar to his Eliot Ness in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987). The only difference is that Garrison is chasing a criminal far more transparent than Al Capone – indeed, a criminal who may not exist at all. Costner is supported by an exceedingly impressive supporting cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and John Candy.With the Director's Cut clocking in at 206 minutes, JFK is an epic piece of work. However, the film is so dazzlingly well-constructed that watching it becomes less of a choice than a compulsion. Stone frenziedly throws together seemingly-unrelated puzzle-pieces, systematically peeling back layer after layer of conspiracy until all that remains is what Jim Garrison believes to be the naked truth. Beneath the sordid details, Stone speculates on the nature of history itself. Archive footage blends seamlessly with dramatisation – but what is recorded history but a re-enactment submitted by the winners? Not even the witnesses to Kennedy's assassination, clouded by subjective perception, can know for sure what exactly took place on that dark day in Dallas. Perhaps Zapruder's 486 frames of grainy hand-held footage (combined with that of Nix and Muchmore) represents the only objective record of the event – but Antonioni's Blowup (1966) argued that even photographic documentation is unreliable through the inherent bias of the viewer. In short, nobody knows what really happened that day. JFK is Oliver Stone creating his own history – or merely correcting it.

Currently my #3 film of 1991:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
2) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
3) JFK (Oliver Stone)
4) Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola)
5) Barton Fink (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

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