Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci, Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon. (1991, R, 188 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 27, 1991
Let's get one thing clear right from the start: Oliver Stone makes agitprop -- not film dramas, not documentaries. He makes heartfelt, heart stirring, heart pumping treatises which, if they don't always seem to have pointed objectives, do always seem to have bottom lines. So, too, with JFK. Here the bottom line is the demolition of the “lone gunman” assassination theory. On that score, Stone does a bang-up job. In fact, some of JFK's most riveting moments involve recreations of both the “magic” bullet's path and the shooter's vantage point from the School Book Depository. Stone makes it virtually impossible to leave the theatre convinced, beyond all shadow of doubt, of the lone gunman theory. Or, at least, he sets the stage for a good argument. And that's where JFK's real power lies -- in stirring the national debate. Stone has always had a penchant for big, American subjects (Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, The Doors, Platoon) and there's no bigger subject, no more gigantic fester than the still-in-question assassination of President Kennedy. Further, if Stone is able to convince us that there was more than one gunman, then, by definition, that proves that there was a conspiracy. This, however, is where Stone gets fuzzy. JFK doesn't advance any information or evidence that hasn't already been available (though perhaps not widely) for public scrutiny. It certainly doesn't name names. In some respects, JFK is preaching to the converted and has little to add to their knowledge. For others, its visual recreations will open up doors of possibility. This is where the Capraesque elements of JFK come in handy. Costner is an ideal James Stewart or Gary Cooper Everyman, square-jawed and driven by truth, lending a halo to DA Jim Garrison that doesn't exist in his real-life counterpart. This film Garrison gets to speechify, wax grandly about American values and even commit the sin of neglecting his family, all for the greater good of the pursuit of justice. It all may be a little much for the “already converted” but it could be just the thing to draw in the agnostics. The other element that makes this movie work are the performances, virtually all of which are good and a few of which are incredible. Include in the latter category Bacon's gay hustler (the performance of his lifetime), Pesci's volatile co-conspirator (more Oscar material) and Walter Matthau's brief appearance as Sen. Russell Long. The outstanding calibre of the acting by a whole slew of “name” actors and actresses is one of the hallmarks of this film. With over three hours of running length, JFK certainly has to have something human and recognizable to hang its barrage of information on. And though it does barrage, it never really harangues. JFK is a good movie, though not great art or drama. It nevertheless possesses greatness if it accomplishes nothing more than jump-starting a full inquiry into our national secret.