President John F. Kennedy's term in office had so much promise that it is tempting to wonder what if he had not been assassinated? Would America, would the world, be a lot different? But assassinated he was, on November the 22nd 1963, and for then-New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) he as with every other person alive on that day remembers where he was when he heard the dreadful news. He was in his office, and one of his staff informed him, whereupon he left to attend the nearest bar and watch the news on television, though he was ashamed to hear some of those cheering and clapping, as if Kennedy got what he deserved. But the case would be an obsession...
Not only an obsession with Garrison, but the entire nation, not to mention many of those around the world, the conspiracy theory that it was not lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) who murdered the President, but a shadowy cabal of his political enemies who arranged a decisive end to his policies of reform. From the counterculture, where, say, comedian Bill Hicks' routines on the subject guaranteed interest from the hip and happening, to the mainstream, where Clint Eastwood was trying to prevent another assassination in fiction with In the Line of Fire, the nineties was when the JFK murder plot came of age, and nowhere more than director Oliver Stone's account JFK.
It was a big hit just as questioning authority went mainstream too, often in pop culture like The X-Files, and parapolitics mixed with UFO yarns as the practice and study of conspiracy theories moved from the province of the left to the right wing. Stone was assuredly on the left, but his interest in the JFK saga, still unresolved even after all this time, sparked an insurrection in the head which would see Governments of all stripes, no matter how benevolent their actions, judged with deep suspicion, and now any questioning of the paranoia and cynicism was a social no-no instead of any questioning of the motives of the powers that be. Therefore, this movie had a lot to answer for.
There were plenty of critics, movie critics as well as political critics, who found fault with what even Stone admitted was a version of the facts that employed some economy and imagination, no matter how dedicated to the truth it appeared to be. For most of its three-hour plus running time it resembled less a detective story, as Garrison gathered his evidence against the authorities, and more a lecture, ignoring what now looks difficult to overlook, which is that the further down the rabbit hole of opposing theories you travelled, the less likely you were to make sense of the abundance of contradictory detail. Stone included much that was held up as dubious from the official version, from the changing of eye witness testimony in The Warren Report to the illogicality of the "magic bullet" that supposedly managed to change direction multiple times to hit both Kennedy and the local Governor.
Imagine you settle down to watch a Western and the hero in the white hat is gunned down in the opening titles, leaving a long grieving process and futile investigation into how this could have possibly happened, then that was more or less what was on offer with JFK. This gathering of evidence was presented by a galaxy of stars in supporting roles, with Tommy Lee Jones as the man who actually was on trial, though good luck working out what for exactly as he was more an excuse for movie Garrison to stage his takedown of the official conclusion. It was this sequence, the last act of a long film, that demonstrated why Stone was so revered: agree with his findings or not, this was a bravura example of his craft that illustrated him at his best. The rest of it was a lot less impressive, a barrage of information and information shortcuts intercut with Garrison being hectored by his screen wife (Sissy Spacek) who you begin to think has a point. But Stone didn't clear things up so much as muddy the waters of a mystery that was incredibly opaque to begin with. Music by John Williams.
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.