It took me several years to revisit Stone’s film. For years I never understood the point, but after reading a few things over the years and readjusting my perspective on the picture, I watched it with a new angle in my mind. And what I found was that Oliver Stone wasn’t concerned with the facts surrounding the assassination for a few reasons. The biggest reason Stone skirted the facts is because the facts and the fiction have been polluted so greatly in the years following Kennedy’s death. The conspiracies and the theories and the rumors and the lies have blended into an amazing cocktail of false leads, wild-goose chases, and stories piled upon stories so heavily that there is no way the truth could ever be shown, namely in a film. So what Stone decided to do was to try and convey a mood with JFK, a mood and a feeling that the country had and has had since the assassination. And through the sensationalism surrounding the event, Stone adapted two books and used one of those authors, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, as his guide.
Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the emotional and obsessive center of Stone’s film. Garrison was always orbiting the Kennedy assassination, trying first to learn as much as he can about Lee Harvey Oswald’s ties to his district in New Orleans. But when Oswald is killed by Jack Ruby Garrison stops his investigation. It is not until three years later, as Garrison is flying to Washington D.C. and has an intriguing conversation with a fellow passenger (Walter Matthau), that the seed of conspiracy is planted in Garrison’s head. He begins snooping again, and reopens the assassination case.
And thus the conspiracies begin flying in from all angles. Garrison follows leads that bring him a shady character named David Ferrie (a fantastic Joe Pesci), a well-to-do New Orleans community man named Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), and a prisoner (Kevin Bacon) who spent some nights with the two men doing drugs, having sex, and spitting out hate and rhetoric about Kennedy. Garrison follows leads that dead end, and leads that cause his office to be bugged, but none of them get him closer to the truth. With the help of his aides and fellow attorneys, they work tirelessly to try and iron out an impossible narrative. Information leads Garrison to D.C., where he meets a mysterious man named Mr. X who explains that the assassination was not at the hands of a few pro-Castro cronies, but the federal government who wanted Kennedy out of the way so they could get involved in Vietnam. But none of it matters in the film. None of the information is more valid than the other. What is important about the exposition is the mood and the paranoia of the conspiracies and the misinformation. Garrison becomes obsessed with the story and nearly ruins his career and personal life with his wife (Sissy Spacek) and children.
JFK captures the feeling of the country through an overwhelming bit of stories, none of which answer questions. They only create more. Stone conveys the chaos of information through the use of every film medium that was available in 1991. He uses black and white, flashbacks that tell a story while another story is unfolding, and layers upon layers of exposition that seemingly overlap each other until they come to a feverish boil on the lips of these actors. In these aspects, JFK is a masterpiece. Stone also uses a star system unlike any other films at the time. There is a fantastic actor at every turn, playing an important role; Gary Oldman looks uncannily like Lee Harvey Oswald. The performances, although many never cross paths in the reality of the story, all feel like the same part of a narrative arc.
After watching JFK again, I am convinced that it is Oliver Stone’s best work. It would be hard to find a film so completely engrossing as this, a film that relies solely on people explaining things more than doing things. Who knows what really happened and what didn’t, that isn’t the point. What is the point is how out of control the information became in the decade following the assassination. The event itself is still an engrossing talking point, one that never will be answered because nobody can be trusted to tell the truth. Just ask Jim Garrison.