The durable cottage industry created by the events of November 22, 1963 (six hundred books, just for a start) has never seen anything quite like the Coming of Oliver Stone - or the $40 million Warner Bros. poured into his three-hour epic, JFK. To hear the self-appointed guardian of the Sixties tell it, Kennedy conspiracy buffs lined up by the dozen to plead for inclusion of their pet theories. Meanwhile, others worried aloud that the moviemaker would mangle the "facts" with his notoriously broad brush. Johnny-come-lately simply took up the unlikely role of tormented pioneer on the assassination frontier.
In a way, he's right. The state of American literacy is such that a whole new generation will gets its first (perhaps its only) ideas about this persistent national trauma from one well-advertised movie. Luckily, JFK is not the disaster many predicted. Working from two books - former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs's compendium of scenarios, Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy - Stone has cast the dogged Garrison (Kevin Costner) as his hero, then outfitted him with the whole grab bag of conspiracy theories. Believers in the lone-gunman fiction perpetrated by the Warren Commission (do such people still exist?) will find Stone indigestible, and so may fundamentalists adhering only to the J. Edgar Hoover theory or the Carlos Marcello/Mafia theory or the maverick-intelligence-agents-theory or the Anti-Castro-Cuban theory, etc.
For the rest of us, this is a survey course. Stone doesn't try to solve Kennedy's murder; with all the red herrings on the trail, it's unlikely anyone ever will. Instead, he assembles the buffs' homework, then calls Dallas a coup d'etat engineered because cold warrior JFK had seen the light in Vietnam and was about to pull the plug. That would have left the military/industrial complex (eight billion a year) high and dry, so somebody in its service killed him. From the Grassy Knoll, of course, not Oswald's sixth floor window.
The evidence supporting Kennedy's dovish change of heart remains thin (one peace speech in June, 1963), but not as thin as any evidence of Costner's acting ability. Once more, this bland Southern Californian shows the verve of a boiled crawfish. Even his setpiece, a fifteen-minute dissertation amid the Clay Shaw trial on the grave threat to government by the people, comes off as if Costner were reading his lines underwater. For Stone, the journey from Jim Morrison to Jim Garrison hasn't paid dividends.
It falls to the director's usual bold style moves and an array of supporting players to give JFK its palpable sense of tension and nightmare. Among the winners: Tommy Lee Jones' fey, fine-mannered New Orlean-native Clay Shaw, the only man ever tried in the JFK murder (he walked); Gary Oldman's sweaty Lee Harvey Oswald, nerves always too close to the skin; Joe Pesci's creepy David Ferrie, the hypertense ex-pilot with intelligence connections and a crib in New Orleans's gay underworld; Donald Sutherland's mysterious "Colonel X," the "deep throat" of the piece.
Stone examines the Byzantine moves of two dozen shadowy characters in harsh black and white and startling color, splicing a horrifying clip of the Zapruder film here to a bit of re-created courtroom drama there, marrying back-room intrigue in New Orleans to vintage puffs of smoke in Dallas. He leaps around in our worst memories. As a technical piece of moviemaking, this is probably better than anything in Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July or The Doors. Same decade, firmer grip.
In the end, Stone's agenda includes not just his "search for truth," but the reinvention of Camelot, an attempt to restore the old Kennedy glamour in the face of tainted Willie and tipsy Ted and the widening disillusionment growing from JFK's fabled infidelities. Broad-brush revision? Had Kennedy lived, it says here, everything would have been different in America. Everything. But that's another of the things we'll never know, isn't it? And in just that kind of mystery beats the heart of legend.
Directed by Oliver Stone; script by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar; with Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Oldman.
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