Welcome back 90s lovin’ chums! This week Francis Fisher takes us back to 1991 to look at the longest film on our list, a film that spans an eye-water, bottom-numbing three hours and twenty-six minutes, and is based on a true story that spans… well, it’s still going on now. This week marks fifty-eight years since the events that inspired Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller – the assassination of… JFK.
Following on from a series of successful movies including the likes of the Untouchables, Field of Dreams and Dances with Wolves, it’s fair to say that Kevin Costner was already a megastar by the time he came to make JFK. Thanks to successful films such as Platoon and Wall Street, Oliver Stone was similarly well-established. Considering some of the criticism that would come their way from journalists following the release of JFK, this is perhaps just as well… Luckily, both men were able to follow up with many more successful films such as Natural Born Killers, The Bodyguard and, of course, Waterworld (I kid, I kid!).
Having re-watched this film recently to aid this write-up after seeing it for the first time probably about 8 or 9 years ago after buying the Blu-ray on a whim, in the interest of full disclosure I must confess to having enjoyed this film far more the first time I saw it than the second (I’ll go into more detail about the reasons for this later in the article).
The film opens with the infamous assassination scene itself, although cleverly we are only allowed to hear the gunshot itself here rather than see it with our own eyes, which helps the film frame its theories in a much less challengeable manner for its viewers.
The scene is deliberately shot in a primitive manner, as if to give it the appearance of a gritty documentary that was shot at the time of Kennedy’s death instead of 30 years later. This also teases the audience with the idea that they are so close to being allowed to see the most truthful/accurate version of what really happened that day – yet, by not showing the key moment here, it is kept tantalisingly out of reach. As Costner’s Garrison character would later very aptly put it later in the film: “A very great actor has given a great performance. But we are no closer to the truth”.
Indeed, the obsession of all the key characters in this film with either finding/exposing or hiding the truth depending on their aims is key in this movie, and emphasised by Garrison and his colleagues throughout (“He seeks the truth. So do we”). Much like the film’s opening scene, though, the whole film remains “a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma” (as an aside, this is easily one of my favourite film quotes ever – I’m going to try and use it daily if possible). Explanations/theories behind the assassination are only ever left implied or claimed to have happened by characters rather than be proven or labelled purely as fact.
The film’s use of colour (or lack thereof) also plays into this. While the majority of the film is shot in colour, it is, to my nearly middle-aged eyes at least, a noticeably reduced colour palette compared to other films made before, at the time and since then. Several scenes in the movie have a large amount of dreary greyness to them, making the viewer further question how truthful the film is being with its audience. There are also a number of black and white scenes included in the movie, seemingly all part of Stone’s con to lure viewers into his conspiracy-based world and further confuse them as to how fictional the movie truly is.
Is Garrison a genius and the only one who can see the truth or is he merely paranoid? It is left to the audience to decide for themselves, and Stone stubbornly refuses to nail his colours to the mast, even with his end credits message, which pointedly makes it clear that any FBI files relating to the assassination will only be released in 2029.
The casting in this film is remarkable in terms of the calibre of its ensemble. We have a young Gary Oldman playing Lee Harvey Oswald, here presented as a framed sap for the conspirators/real assassins. Michael Rooker (and if that name doesn’t mean anything to you, he plays Yondu in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) plays a key character on Jim Garrison’s investigation team, Joe Pesci (in heavy make-up) and Kevin Bacon both feature, while the main villain of the piece, Clay Shaw, is played by Tommy Lee Jones. Not to mention Costner himself playing District Attorney Jim Garrison, of course.
The release of this film was also remarkably well-timed. During the 1990s, we saw conspiracy-based cultural productions in film and TV make it to the big time, perhaps most notably in the form of the X-Files. While the film made no attempt to argue that aliens or ghosts were responsible for the killing of JFK (a shame too – I would pay good money to see that film), it still pushed its own political conspiracy theories about who was responsible front and centre of the audience’s mind, while always leaving the audience uncertain about whether what we are watching is intended to be fully fictional or not. It even includes its own ‘Deep Throat’/’Mr X’ character called X years before the X-Files even started airing on TV for good measure!
Another key scene I found particularly interesting in this film was the courtroom scene. At one point during the ‘90s (largely thanks to A Few Good Men), it felt like an unwritten rule that every great drama film had to have a courtroom scene. Unlike the majority of those other courtroom scenes, despite Garrison’s finest efforts to discredit the ‘single bullet’ theory and convince the jury that there was a group of six assassins involved in the plot, all orchestrated by Shaw, there is no big twist or shocking piece of evidence leaving Shaw with no choice other than to rot in jail for his sins — this is one courtroom scene where the bad guy in fact gets off scot-free and lives to fight another day.
Watching this film from a modern-day perspective, it holds up quite well in many ways. While conspiracy theories are perhaps not as widely believed as they once were, thematically the film links in very nicely with the new post-truth era of politics, with the election of demagogues such as Donald Trump and the events around Brexit, that we find ourselves living in. While the film’s protagonists continually proclaim the importance of truth to their quest as discussed earlier in this article, ironically the way the film purports itself as being almost a factual recounting of events is certainly a long way from being wholly truthful.
All that said, while I still found the film to be an interesting watch, I also found it much less enjoyable than I remembered. It felt overly long and surprisingly uneventful in parts. This is one film I certainly won’t be rushing to rewatch again imminently, but if you haven’t seen it before and are a keen political historian or enjoy political thrillers, perhaps your mileage will vary.
Next time… White Russians all round as Rebecca Aulburn dons the chunky knitwear and takes us to 1998 in search of a rug, the perfect bowling score and a quiet life. And if you don’t like that, as a wise philosopher once said, “Well, yeah, that’s just like, your opinion, man.”
It’s The Big Lebowski!