• JFK is one of the most ambitious films of the 1990s. I’ve seen it mentioned that that there are 3000+ shots that comprise the film The cast is massive (at least six Oscar winners by my count), the running time is 3+ hours, it features the work of both John Williams and Robert Richardson, and… oh yeah… Oliver Stone is essentially making a controversial argument about one of the most important events in the United States in the 20th century.
  • I almost wish the film were not about JFK—but about a fictitious (President/Monarch/leader) and it was a work of complete fiction (some may argue it already is a work of complete fiction) because so much of the discourse about the film is about the “truth”- Stone’s thesis.  The controversy surrounding the film distracts from Stone’s artistic achievement. From Ebert, “…I have no doubt Cronkite was correct, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my assignment is different than his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares.” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991
  • At the top I mention the ridiculous ambition (apparently making Dealey Plaza look like 1963 cost millions) but Stone, indeed, pulls it off- he puts it all together. In some ways too, Stone mirrors what Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner) is tasked with doing- which is a vast amount aggregating (shooting) of assembling (editing).

most of the discourse surrounding the film was about the content, not the form

  • JFK is a major artistic landmark when talking about the history of film editing. I think the obvious comparison is Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. These are both political films—arguments for their cause—and undoubtedly the dedication to the montage aesthetic is something they share. In JFK, Stone uses film stock, video, 8mm (Zapruder film), 16mm, black and white footage. It is such a gigantic and varied collection. I would love to see a Bordwell (the great Bordwell talks about JFK often) formal narrative breakdown—but it would almost be impossible to compile.

Robert Richardson would win best cinematography at the 1991 Oscars

in 1991 both Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner were at the height of their powers

  • I’ve certainly asked myself how a film like this could happen (and it was financially successful as well). You have to look at the two big power players in 1991. Oliver Stone (his resume at this point included Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July– all within the last five years leading up to 1991) and Kevin Costner (right off his Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves triumph in 1990) were just about the biggest actor and director on the planet. I believe it took that level of juice to pull this off.
  • As I mentioned previously, it isn’t just the sublime cast assembled. Stone had Robert Richardson shoot the film (winning best cinematography at the Oscars for this work). Richardson worked with Stone in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and then would work with Scorsese (Casino, Shutter Island) and Tarantino quite often (Kill Bill, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). John Williams (no resume needed here) does the score. It is a complex score with at least four separate and very different themes. One has the military drums, the other this haunting thriller melody with the words “KILL” infused.

Stone’s collage includes black and white footage mixed with color– from sources like video, 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm

  • Martin Sheen provides the opening voice-over (who better to deliver the opening than the voice-over behind Apocalypse Now?).
  • Varying aspect ratios- starts with the boxy television archival footage.

Costner’s Garrison is built off Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is given a great closing monologue, he is a patriot, a believer, he has a temper (you could also see Costner’s Garrison going around town taking swings at senators) and even has a heartfelt trip to the monuments in DC. The 1960’s costume design work in JFK is terrific- the pipe, the seersucker suit (we’re in New Orleans) and the ronsir glasses).

  • The supporting cast is one of the best ever assembled. I think there are six Oscar winners (Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Joe Pesci). Kevin Bacon is good in his role, and I think Donald Sutherland (historically just about as good as anyone else here) is spot on as well. I even like the sort of stunt casting with John Candy playing the sweaty Dean Andrews. Stone captures him in these fantastic extreme close-ups at the dinner scene with Garrison.
  • I thought of a hummingbird’s movements as Pesci’s David Ferrie zips around his apartment in a drug-infused rant—but I think that hummingbird description applies to Stone’s montage work as well- extremely low ASL (average shot length).

The low ASL helps the film from getting stagnant—both Costner and Sutherland have pages and pages of dialogue. But Stone never sticks in one spot for too long. He jabs and moves quickly. There is a great long shot of the two actors on the park bench in DC with the Washington Monument in the background that is used multiple times.

  • The script is the equivalent of a page-turner. It is one I would gladly read. Stone got his start as a screenwriter (Scarface, Midnight Express) and this is just enthralling with the balancing act between the material, the assembly line of characters, the grassy knoll, the magic bullet, the “back and to the left”.

Ends with the eloquent and passionate  monologue from Costner’s Garrison and his “It’s up to you” breaking the fourth wall looking at the camera.

  • Stone has never been subtle – and subtly is not a criteria for great art.
  • A masterpiece