Friday November 22nd, 1963. Dallas, Texas. 12.30 CST.
Whether you’re a native of the United States or not, that date and location remains one of history’s blackest days. As three shots rang out as a jubilant crowd watched on as President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s motorcade slowly turned onto Dealey Plaza, not one person could have been prepared for what happened that very day…
As a devastated nation watched on in horror as the news unfolded that their beloved ”Jack” was being rushed to Parkland Hospital in a vain attempt to save him, 30 minutes later his death was confirmed. A first bullet in the throat, a second in the upper part of his back, with the fatal shot taking a portion of skull and brain. He died younger than any US President to date and like Abraham Lincoln (16th President), James A. Garfield (the 20th President) and William McKinley (25th President) before him, Kennedy’s life was sadly taken while in office. Only three years into his reign.
Lone shooter Lee Harvey Oswald, an employee of the nearby Texas School Book Depository (and shot two days later by local mobster Jack Ruby), was the man that did it. Well, that’s what Chief Justice Earl Warren and his commission would have us believe when concluding their inquiry. However, Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone claims that’s bollocks and the majority of Americans are with him. Was there a conspiracy to have Kennedy killed and use a figure like Oswald as a “patsy”? Stone certainly thinks so and whether you believe this mad man was just making his own extreme political point (it’s Oswald I’m taking about but the term does blur somewhat with coked-up Stone), JFK is arguably one of cinemas most important films. Not because of the outlandish opinion Stone tries to put across on behalf of District Attorney Jim Garrison (merging Jim Marrs’ book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, with Garrison’s own On the Trail of the Assassins), but because it rightfully causes debate. Those dizzying events were never cut and dry. It pushes you to question them in their entirety and while our hero searches for the truth, you’re compelled to follow him every step of the way.
That “hero” is played by an outstanding Kevin Costner and his quest for “justice” is as gripping as it is absurd. The way Stone and his star convey each revelation and subsequent step forward in his investigation, you take as absolute fact. You can’t help but not. It’s an epic journey that pulls you in and doesn’t allow for breath. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, with Stone and his starry cast making no apologies for pushing you in such a direction. Allowing each and every scene to absorb and shake you to the core. Even if you’re initially doubtful of Garrison’s methods and subsequent discoveries by his supporting investigative team of Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight and Gary Grubbs, you WILL ultimately succumb.
JFK is unique. Like a moth to a flame. A viewing experience like no other. Keeping you on the edge of your seat the whole 189 minutes (or even better, a stunning 206 minute director’s cut), it flies by. One of the few epics you’ll not even bother looking at your watch to see how long’s left, no matter how many times you see it (and I’ve seen it multiple times!) Even with a seemingly never-ending all-star supporting cast driving the suspicion forward, you’ll forget Jack Lemon, Ed Asner, John Candy and Walter Matthau featured in there somewhere. All integral in Stone’s slight-of-hand complexities: Kevin Bacon. Donald Sutherland. Joe Pesci. Tommy Lee Jones. Sissy Spacek. Gary Oldman. All pivotal players in a rigged poker game with a ballsy director holding all the aces.
Do I believe in the conspiracy? Well, somebody fucked up that day because a Commander-In-Chief was murdered. However, I take the majority of what it is as poppycock. It’s ridiculous. Preposterous even. Yet…it gnaws away. Burrowing inside your brain. You’ll never once question Stone’s sanity, Garrison’s morals or theories. Rarely does any film leave you to follow a trail of mesmerising and mosaic breadcrumbs, only to come to the conclusion, feel like you’ve feasted on a whole hog roast of truth…and you want desert.
At it’s heart is Costner. He’s our shining light in a world of wrongs. While many suggest the real Garrison (cameoing here as Chief Justice Earl Warren) saw the sinister spin of Clay Shaw nothing more than an easy target for gay-bashing. Yet Jones is superbly loathsome as the man Garrison claims masterminded (alongside the US government) the killing of the most powerful man in the world. Although he’s only one of a grotesque rogues gallery.
However, for me, it’s Costner’s truly passionate twenty-minute long (and one-take) closing argument in the trial towards the conclusion that is nothing short of incredible. An emotionally-charged description by a man who believes in everything he’s built up to in that moment. It’s heartbreaking, emotionally raw and Costner delivers big style. Had he not been handed a bunch of Academy Awards the previous year for directorial debut DANCES WITH WOLVES, I firmly believe he would have walked it for Best Actor in 1992. It’s almost a scandal as big a Kennedy’s that he wasn’t even nominated. A man with little more than 16 minutes of entire screen time nabbing the Oscar instead. Criminal! Also, do not underestimate John Williams’ pressure-cooker soundtrack.
Whether its the “magic bullet theory”, those shady men on the “grassy knoll” or the key meeting between Costner and Donald Sutherland’s mysterious insider X, Stone’s JFK is purely captivating and the most fascinating cinematic jigsaw puzzle of all-time…
“Let justice be done though the heavens fall!” Those heavenly skies have have been falling for fifty years… What is past is prologue.