Just a few years ago, in Bull Durham, Kevin Costner played a bush leaguer who declares, “I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone,” by way of expressing support for the official story about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Now Costner shows up in JFK as New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, who believes the Warren report is a lie. Costner’s about-face is only one of the surprises sprung in Oliver Stone’s exploratory, compulsively watchable attempt to explain why Kennedy was gunned down as his motorcade passed through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963. For its reliance on a grab bag of conspiracy theories, Stone’s three-hour, $40 million JFK is drawing fire from political pooh-bahs:
“Paranoid” – the New York Times.
“Absurdities” – the Washington Post.
“Twisted history” – Newsweek.
These aren’t exactly money reviews, but the winningly fractious Stone is used to a thrust-and-parry relationship with the press. “The dirty little secret of American journalism,” Stone recently wrote, “… is that it’s generally wrong. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot, but wrong.”
Funny, that’s also the dirty little secret of Stone cinema. Whenever you watch a Stone war treatise (Salvador, Platoon, Bom on the Fourth of July) or a Stone morality tale (Wall Street, Talk Radio, The Doors), even a Stone horror flick (The Hand), it’s generally wrong. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot, but wrong. Even when his intentions are worthy and backed with skilled technique – as they are in JFK – Stone will fudge any fact, hype any situation, pull any stunt to make his case.
JFK is the best and worst of Stone in one volatile package. The movie is often tremendously exciting; Stone and co-writer Zachary Sklar put three decades of frequently conflicting conspiracy research into the mouths of dozens of characters. Donald Sutherland, as a military deep throat named X, spews out horrific tales at warp speed, with an additional goose from John Williams’s pumped-up score. And the information overload continues when Stone mixes in the real (newsreels, photos, the shocking home movie of the murder taken by Abraham Zapruder) with the imagined (reenactments staged on actual sites and shot from different angles and in varying speeds and tints). The camera work of Robert Richardson and the editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia are outstanding, creating a vast cyclorama that sets the mind reeling with possibilities and provocations.
Still, those Sixties pundits who fear that Stone will corrupt the young moviegoers of America with a false view of history seem both hysterical and gallingly patronizing. Those who weren’t born until after the assassination can still tell a muckraker from a historian. JFK is as much a documentary as Hook. Clap your hands indeed if you believe in conspiracy, but look elsewhere for a balanced view.
Stone doesn’t balk at simplifying complex issues. The bad guys are the CIA, the Mafia, the Dallas police, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ, Castro, anti-Castro Cubans, the military-industrial complex and any other faction that wanted to get rid of Kennedy because, in Stone’s debatable view, the president was about to withdraw from Southeast Asia, end the cold war and push hard for civil rights and nuclear disarmament. Especially vile is the Warren Commission (Garrison does an ironic cameo as the former chief justice who was its chairman), which Stone believes covered up a coup d’êtat by reporting that lone gunman Oswald (Gary Oldman in a robotically eerie portrayal) killed Kennedy when evidence points to the involvement of a cabal of right-wing homosexuals, led by businessman Clay Shaw (a chilling Tommy Lee Jones) and mercenary pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci in rare form). Kevin Bacon also shows up in the invented role of a male hustler who joins Shaw and Ferrie in a gratuitous and luridly staged drag orgy that has provoked justifiable ire among gay activists.
The good guys are headed by Kennedy – shown in selective clips as the martyred king of Camelot. Even more saintly is Garrison, the DA who charged Shaw with conspiracy to kill the president. Garrison’s reputation as an eccentric careerist who reportedly bribed and coerced witnesses is glossed over; Stone based most of his movie on Garrison’s 1988 book On the Trail of the Assassins. Casting the heroically soothing Costner as an agitated man who dances with facts is a cunning stroke. Costner puts the audience in Garrison’s corner from the get-go. And Stone is shameless in exploiting Costner’s appeal: When Garrison’s wife, Liz (a shrill Sissy Spacek), nags him for neglecting his family in favor of bringing evildoers to justice, Garrison has a cuddle with his kids on the porch swing, evoking Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
In the final court scene, Garrison becomes a noble Frank Capra hero arguing for a lost cause. The scene’s a real barn burner, with Stone’s marshaling his evidence persuasively and Costner’s underscoring the DA’s sincerity with emotion-clogged catches in the throat. It’s too bad the scene never happened: Garrison’s assistant made the closing argument at Shaw’s trial, and the DA wasn’t there to hear the swift verdict that cleared the defendant. Stone bathes Garrison in a golden light that befits the lonely warrior. Perhaps Stone bends the facts to achieve a larger emotional truth. But like the Warren report, that dog don’t hunt. As speculation, JFK is riveting. As proof, it’s bunk. Stone has turned what he considers the crime of the century into a disturbing anomaly – a dishonest search for truth.