Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. This week’s topic is Oliver Stone’s historical drama from 1991, JFK.
The First Viewing
I first saw JFK in theaters as a high school sophomore early in 1992. I was 15 years old at the time. My high school history teacher had offered extra credit to students who went to the theater to see it. Moreover, it seemed an obvious movie choice for a kid intrigued by the political swag and life of Kennedy. Two aspects jumped out at me. The first was the huge cast. I noted that it starred John Candy, “Bill Murray’s brother, that guy from Caddyshack” (Brian Doyle Murray), Kevin Bacon, “that chick who plays Roseanne’s sister” (Laurie Metcalf), and “Moonlight Graham from Field of Dreams” (Frank Whaley). These were the actors who made an impression on me at the time.
The other notable aspect for me, at age 15, was the seemingly loony nature of the conspiracy that Stone was putting forth. To say it seemed outlandish is an understatement. At various points of the film, characters expound on the theoretical involvement of the mafia, the CIA, the FBI, Cuban revolutionaries, Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover, and Lyndon Johnson. It was a lot to swallow at the time, and I’ve never particularly been one to go nuts over conspiracy theories anyway. I’ve watched bits and pieces several times since, but I hadn’t sat down and re-watched the film from start to finish since that day in the theater in 1992. Going back (and to the left) to re-watch it, what changed this time around?
Obviously, I’ve gained a much more profound appreciation for the colossal cast. Guys like Ed Asner, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau didn’t mean a damned thing to me in 1992. I was familiar with most of them on a very basic, surface level, but not much more. I also knew next to nothing of Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, and Gary Oldman. This brings me to my first point about JFK– the cast is phenomenal from top to bottom. It’s almost impossible to imagine a film with that much acting skill and name recognition crammed into a movie today, much less all cast so perfectly into their respective roles. With that cast as a launching point, the movie might have succeeded even with a poor script.
Thanks to interviews with Oliver Stone since the movie came out, I’ve also adjusted my opinion a bit of the outlandishness of the conspiracy scenarios put forth. Mind you, I’m not saying that they necessarily have weight on their own merit. But the more you hear Stone speak, the more you realize just how personal this film was for him. He poured himself into it, heart and soul. In doing so, it enabled him to weave together a LOT of heavy concepts, and to do so flawlessly. At various times as Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) makes like Alice going down the rabbit hole, the film rails against the military-industrial complex; the death of idealism in America, punctuated heavily by the use of news footage of the subsequent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the balance of power shifting to the government, away from the people; and a distracted populace too interested in the surface level to bother with digging deeper.
Stone’s film does a wonderful job of making Garrison human to us. At times, the focus on Garrison and his family life feels a little disjointed, shoehorned in needlessly. But it’s imperative to the success of the film. Without seeing some of the personal cost of his crusade- a crumbling marriage and family life- Garrison would be a conspiracy nut, someone to make the audience roll their collective eyes. It never reaches this point thanks to the focus on his family life and the believable performance by Spacek as Garrison’s wife.
JFK works on an impressive level as a period piece. Not once do you doubt that it’s the 1960’s, it’s Louisiana and Texas, and it’s filled with shady dealings and smoky backrooms. Moreover, Stone uses a deft touch weaving together a lot of interesting visuals and themes. When I first saw the film, I thought the Clay Shaw/Danny Ferrie/Willie O’Keefe orgy scene was… well, I didn’t know what the hell it was. I thought it was insane, whatever it was. In retrospect, given the numerous references to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Stone was invoking the Roman orgy. All of that is mixed in with news reports, grainy 60’s footage (including the Zapruder film), courtroom drama, black and white scenes featuring conspiring military men, and sepia-toned re-imaginings of how various important events may have happened. Stone’s pastiche of styles enabled him to convey a great deal of ideas and concepts. Doing it another way would have made the task much more difficult. It’s all wrapped up in John Williams’ Academy Award-nominated score, an aspect of the film that can’t be overlooked.
It boils over in the final act- the Clay Shaw trial- which is compelling, moving, harrowing, and frankly makes you angry about the way the assassination was handled, posthumously, by the various people involved. To echo an early line from Costner/Garrison, you feel ashamed to be an American.
I gained a lot from the re-watch. In retrospect, I think it’s more deserving of a spot in the AFI Top 100 than Stone’s other masterpiece, Platoon (1986), because it’s more complete stylistically and has more ambition. I wonder if it was passed over because of the controversial conspiracy theories, a shitstorm the AFI likely would have wished to avoid.