Never a stranger to controversy, Oliver Stone followed up his powerful post-Vietnam movie Born on the Fourth of July (1989) with a film that angered and amazed people in equal measure - his questioning, overwhelming, urgent conspiracy movie JFK.
Of course, many people believe that we don't know the whole truth about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Do we really think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? Does the Warren Commission report, which attempted to come to a conclusion, really provide the answers? Although many people have debated whether there was more than one person that day who pulled a trigger, Stone went one further and committed some of the many theories to celluloid, and in doing so delivers a fascinating film that raises even more questions than it answers.
At the picture's heart is Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the real-life New Orleans district attorney who had his own theories about who shot JFK and conducted an investigation into the matter from 1966 to 1969. Stone quite rightly doesn't buy into all of Garrison's theories - some believe he was a loose cannon who couldn't distinguish real clues from crackpot conspiracy ideas - but instead the director uses him as a push-off point, the symbolic center of a film simply because he is the only man in America who even attempted to bring anyone to justice for what must be the most famous murder of all time (and one that remains incompletely solved, shocking when you realize how many witnesses were present that day).
Using documentary footage - including the infamous home movie shot by Abraham Zapruder - as well as flashbacks, reconstructions, quick editing, and a skillful use of words and music, Stone weaves many ideas and theories together using the huge mountain of evidence and witness testimony without ever confusing or hoodwinking his audience. We don't get a result by the time the end credits roll three breathtaking hours later, but we do know - as if there was any doubt in our minds previously - that it was impossible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have acted alone.
And for those who were not alive or weren't old enough to remember the events of 1963, they are all here - the shooting of Kennedy during a cavalcade through Dallas, Jack Ruby's murder of Oswald, and so on. We see them as Garrison does, and Stone cleverly shows us what would convince this ordinary man to wade through so many reports and stories to seek out conspiracies that may have involved the CIA, Castro supporters, or various fringe groups. He would not succeed in getting us to care so completely about this search for truth without a strong central performance from Costner, who holds your attention throughout the film despite the numerous heavyweight actors who stroll in and out playing small roles - from Tommy Lee-Jones as suspect Clay Shaw to Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman (as Oswald), Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and Sissy Spacek, all of whom are superb. A truly astonishing piece of filmmaking from a one-of-a-kind director.
"The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it" was a Nazi quote, but this concise version did not belong to Adolf Hitler; it was spoken by Josef Goebbels.
Many actors waived their usual fees to appear in the film.
Getting permission to film in the Texas School Book Depository proved to be very difficult. The Depository demanded $50,000 to put someone in the window where Lee Harvey Oswald had stood. They were only allowed to film at certain times of the day, with only five people allowed on the floor at any one time. Co-producer Clayton Townsend said that the hardest part of the whole process was getting permission to transform the building back to the way it looked in 1963. That took five months of negotiation. Scenes of interior action on the sixth floor were actually filmed on the fifth floor, as the sixth floor is a museum exhibit. But all point of view shots of the motorcade were filmed from the actual sixth floor window, as well as all shots of the shooter behind the window as seen from the outside.
Making Dealey Plaza look the same as it did in 1963 cost $4 million.
The real Jim Garrison never made the speech that Costner makes at the end of the movie. It was taken from several speeches the he gave and some of it from his book.
The Angola prison scene was filmed entirely on location with the real guards and inmates.
Senator Long: One pristine bullet? That dog don't hunt!
Jim Garrison: The FBI says they can prove it through physics in a nuclear laboratory. Of course they can prove it. Theoretical physics can also prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy! But use your eyes, your common sense.
Jim Garrison: "Treason doth never prosper," wrote an English poet, "What's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
Jim Garrison: "One may smile and smile and be a villain."
Jim Garrison: It's gonna be OK, Dave. You just talk to us on the record, we'll protect you. I guarantee it.
David Ferrie: They'll get to you too. They'll destroy you. They're untouchable, man.
Lyndon B. Johnson: You just get me elected, and I'll give you your damned war.
Jim Garrison: The war is the biggest business in America, worth $ 80 billion a year.
Stone's film is hypnotically watchable. Leaving aside all of its drama and emotion, it is a masterpiece of film assembly. The writing, the editing, the music, the photography, are all used here in a film of enormous complexity, to weave a persuasive tapestry out of an overwhelming mountain of evidence and testimony. Reviewed by: Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times.
The movie will continue to infuriate people who possibly know as much about the assassination as Mr. Stone does, but it also shortchanges the audience and at the end plays like a bait-and-switch scam. Reviewed by: Vincent Canby of The New York Times.
I get a lot of flack for proclaiming JFK as one of my favorite films ever, but I'm sticking by it. Sure it's long and includes some dubious conjecture, but JFK is one powerful movie, even if you don't believe a word of it in the end. And it's hard to find nothing in the film which you can grab on to. Reviewed by: Christopher Null of Film Critic.
Parents need to know that in its attempt to convince the audience (and the world) that President Kennedy was not killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, this film shows disturbing footage of the actual shooting over and over again, sometimes close-up, sometimes in slow-motion, heightening the effects of the bullets. Other scenes show brutal beatings, dead bodies, and a re-creation of the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Language throughout is coarse, filled with sexual expletives and racial and homosexual insults. There are party scenes that show licentious gay behavior. A stripper is briefly seen dancing suggestively while nearly nude. Reviewed by: Common Sense Media.