The assassination of American President John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history and one that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991) depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed puzzle complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. Stone’s film presents the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person’s point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the United States government.
JFK presents the assassination of Kennedy as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence and then theorizes that the evidence was buried deep in the Warren Commission Report. Stone’s film filters a structured examination of two conspiracies, one to kill the President and one to cover it up, from one person’s point of view — Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) — who then assembles all of the evidence at his disposal to reveal a larger, more frightening picture that implicates the most powerful people in the United States government. Stone saw his movie consisting of several separate films: Garrison in New Orleans against Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), Oswald’s (Gary Oldman) backstory, the recreation of Dealey Plaza, and the deep background in Washington, D.C.
While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison’s book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with his own money. The Kennedy assassination had always had a profound effect on his life and eventually met Garrison, grilling him with a variety of questions for three hours. The man stood up to Stone’s questioning and then got up and left. His hubris impressed the director.
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison’s life but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. To this end, he also bought the film rights to Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison book, the Marrs book and all the research he and others conducted into a script that would resemble what he called “a great detective movie.” Stone told Sklar his vision of the movie: “I see the models as Z (1969) and Rashomon (1950), I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we’re going to see it differently and with more illumination.”
Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the “Mr. X” character. To tell as much of the story as they could, Stone and Sklar used composite characters, a technique that would be criticized in the press, most notably the “Mr. X” character played by Donald Sutherland and who was a mix of several witnesses and retired Air Force colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, an adviser for the film.
Stone ambitiously wanted to recreate the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza and his producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window that Lee Harvey Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy from. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor, and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.
Filming was going smoothly until several attacks on the film and Stone began to surface in the mainstream media including the Chicago Tribune, published while the film was only in its first weeks of shooting. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner entitled, “On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland” that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for “the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison’s book and Stone’s rendition of it.” The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and claimed that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw’s homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Other attacks in the media soon followed. However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because he had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, “He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts.”
The film depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination as a densely constructed story complete with jump cuts, multiple perspectives, a variety of film stocks and the blending of actual archival footage with staged scenes dramatized by a stellar cast of actors. This blurring of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage makes it difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Stone does this in order to create what he calls “a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation” and simulate the confusing quagmire of events as they are depicted in The Warren Commission Report. Stone creates different points of views or “layers” through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. Stone has said that he “wanted to the film on two or three levels — sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback . . . I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence.
Kevin Costner acts as the perfect mouthpiece for Stone’s theories. The auteur’s infamously forceful directorial approach to his actors pays off here as he reins in the actor’s usual tics and mannerisms. Stone was no dummy — he knew that by populating his film with many famous faces, he could make the potentially bitter pill that was his film, that much more palatable to the mainstream movie-going public. The rest of the cast is phenomenal. Gary Oldman’s delivers an eerily authentic portrayal of the enigmatic Lee Harvey Oswald. Tommy Lee Jones is note-perfect as the refined, self-confident businessman, Clay Shaw. Even minor roles are filled by such name actors as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau.
The film throws many characters at us and it is easier to keep track of them by identifying them with the famous person that portrays them. Stone was evidently inspired by the casting model of a documentary epic he had admired as a child: “Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962) was one of my favorite films as a kid. It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars…the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods.” Future biopics with sprawling casts, like The Insider (1999), and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), and The Good Shepherd (2006) would use this same approach.
Seeing JFK now, one is reminded that first and foremost, it is a top notch thriller. There are so many fantastic scenes of sheer exposition that would normally come across as dry and boring but are transformed into riveting scenes in the hands of this talented cast. For example, the famous scene between Garrison and X (Sutherland) where the mysterious man lays out all the reasons why Kennedy was killed and how is not only a marvel of writing but also of acting as the veteran actor gets to deliver what is surely one of the best monologues ever committed to film.
JFK is an important film in the sense that it accurately portrays the assassination of Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. It presents a main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d’état. Stone paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images. JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Based on the excitement that surrounded Stone’s film, the American public is still greatly interested in the event with more and more people believing in a plot to kill Kennedy.