Lousy history, absolutely perfect filmmaking. That, in a nutshell, is Oliver Stone's JFK, one of the most contentious movies in cinema history. If only it had been about a fictional event, say, the quest to uncover a government conspiracy about aliens (man, did The X-Files ever steal both style and content from JFK), it could easily have ranked among the very finest American films of the 1990s. As it is, I think I'll have to settle for calling it the absolute peak of Stone's directing career, though it occurs to me that you can't get praise much fainter than that.
Back in the days when he was a crazy leftist, instead of just crazy, he came upon former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins, a memoir/history published in 1988, relating Garrison's efforts in the 1960s to uncover a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. That long investigation culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to convict New Orleans resident Clay Shaw as a member of said conspiracy. Both during his investigation and at the time of his book's release, Garrison had been attacked not only by those who denied any conspiracy whatsoever, but even by some (though not all) of the many assassination conspiracists, who felt that Garrison's investigation was shoddy enough to distract from the "real" conspiracy. That Stone was so impressed by this apparently ill-researched book (I've never read it, lacking as I do more than a cursory interest in Kennedy's death one way or another - whoever killed him for whichever reason, it was nevertheless a tragedy that he died, given the shrieking descent into nattering viciousness that accompanied the rise of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, neither of whom would likely have followed Kennedy's second term) does not reflect well on his reason or intelligence, although directing The Doors arguably reflects on him even worse.
Either way, I do not come here to critique JFK as an argument for the Garrison conspiracy theory, nimbly summarised by Richard L. Berke as "a cabal of gay anti-communists", no matter what Stone might have wanted the film to be, and if in so doing I'm letting my antipathy towards Boomer culture show, so be it. I'm much happier looking at JFK as the finest hour for a directorial talent whose visual skills are too often allowed to trample like water buffalo over his narratives (e.g. Nixon), in those times when he's not deliberately restraining himself in a desperate bid to be seen as "serious" but coming across as maddeningly boring (e.g. World Trade Center, or the brand-new W.). JFK is absolutely hyperstylised, and that style has everything to do with why the film turned out to be, at the time of its 1991 release, the best political thriller since the genre's heyday in the mid-1970s.
No, it is not flawless - if for nothing else than proving, once again, that Kevin Costner (as Garrison) shouldn't be permitted to use an accent in a movie if he hasn't perfected it yet, in this case a grim N'awlins drawl (see also: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or better still, don't). Great movies seldom are: ambition is only real ambition if it involves over-reaching one's present abilities, and art lacking ambition tends to look more like proficiency than greatness.* There isn't any justification for making this story, basically an unusually twisty whodunnit, last between three and three-and-a-half hours, depending on the cut you're watching (inasmuch as it matters, this review is based on the 206-minute cut most readily available on DVD), although JFK doesn't ever feel as long as it is, thanks mostly to Stone's incredible grab-bag of visual tricks. Much like the weather, if you don't like what you're seeing, just wait ten minutes, and it will change.
Using a wide range of stocks (black-and-white and color, in 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm, not to mention videotape, based on just how grainy he needed it to be), the director and his invaluable cinematographer, the magnificent Robert Richardson (who won a richly-deserved Oscar for his work on the film, though he somehow lost the ASC award to Allen Daviau, and Bugsy) concoct a user-friendly motif of "perspectives", dividing what is patently accurate from Garrison's speculations, from other people's sometimes-invented recollections, from the present-day of the framework story. Stone and Richardson didn't invent that gimmick, of course, nor were they the first to perfect it, but I daresay that nobody ever made it look prettier than they did (of course, calling a film shot by Richardson "pretty" is something akin to calling a film written by Paddy Chayefsky "wordy"). But that's only half the story.
The real magic of JFK lies in the way that Stone assembled all that footage with his editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia (who also won an Oscar, among the very best choices the Academy has ever made in eight decades of existence). This is the kind of film where if someone ever asks you, "What is editing?", you simply place this film in front of them and reply, "That". It's obvious enough how Stone and company use all that invented stock footage to enliven what ought to be, by rights, a grinding, tedious screenplay - virtually every scene consists of one character explaining something complex - by interweaving pages of dialogue with breathtaking montages cut together according to some unknown rhythm. It's the rare kind of film whose mere pacing, shot to shot, is sufficiently thrilling that it would almost certainly be more exciting to watch with the audio turned off. The famous example is the single scene starring Donald Sutherland as a CIA official who refers to himself only as "X": he talks for some eighteen minutes almost without pause (Costner occasionally jumps in with a line here and there), and what should be a tortuously long sequence positively whizzes past, as X and Garrison wander from the Lincoln Memorial to a D.C. park bench, while the various esoterica that X speaks of are dropped in as visual cues, sort of like the world's most exciting PowerPoint slideshow. If I might be permitted another moment of hyperbole, the only moment in contemporary American cinema with editing that can even be compared to this is the noted "Sunday, May 11th, 1980" sequence that Thelma Schoonmaker put together for Goodfellas.
But the less-obvious cutting is just as amazing. Take the scene in which Garrison's researcher Bill Broussard (Michael Rooker) resigns in disgust over the turns the case has taken, almost immediately followed by Garrison's firing of Lou Ivon (Jay O. Sanders). A significant portion of this scene doesn't follow the infighting amongst the three main men at all; it's focused on the reaction of the rest of the team (including quasi-famous faces like Laurie Metcalf and Wayne Knight) - take the final minute of the scene, as the realisation that Garrison has just axed the eminently capable Ivon, in which the perspective shifts around the conference table in four shots: boom-boom-boooom-boom (that longer shot is focused on two, not one, people). It's a stunning coup du montage, extending the tension of the scene by stretching it over multiple cuts, but also quickening the audience's pulse through the careful rhythm of those shots (and again, that longer shot is a particular bit of genius: we anticipate the cut coming a half-second before it hits, increasing the anxiety of that moment). And while I lack the patience to sit with a stopwatch and time average shot lengths, I'm virtually certain that the shots generally lengthen as the scene progresses from the quick-paced fight to the drawn-out terror of Garrison's increasingly fraught state.
Add in a seemingly endless parade of perfectly-acted cameos by famous people from Jack Lemmon to Vincent D'Onofrio (and John Candy!), including a shockingly good Lee Harvey Oswald impression by Gary Oldman, and JFK is just a damned great bit of movie entertainment. The only real complaint that I could imagine sticking to the movie is the one that seems to crop up the most: Stone's seeming indifference to good research. Which, given that the filmmaker's chief goal was to convince people of his argument, is a valid complaint (especially given that, by the end of the film, it's not entirely clear who Stone is actually trying to blame). But fuck Stone's intentions, that's not even the main theme of the movie. As expressed by Garrison in his own gigantic monologue (almost as famous and well-constructed as X's), the point of JFK is that patriotism in a democracy is hard work - it's not believing comfortable lies and letting the government tell you what's good and right. Patriotism is the process of trying to make your country a better place, where truth and integrity need not hide in the dark. Admittedly, due the fact that Stone's commitments to truth and integrity (while doubtlessly sincere) reek of naïvete, that line of thought has its own set of problems. But still, agree or disagree with its content, the film's best moments include some of the most stirring pro-America rhetoric I've ever heard in a movie. Nobody can claim that the director's heart wasn't in the right place.
*The list of exceptions to this no-doubt hyperbolic rule would, for me, begin with Ozu's entirely great and essentially flawless Tokyo Story.