Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Favorite Movie of 1991 (Alex's Take)

Or...So, What Really Happened That Day?: JFK and the Pursuit of Truth

For the longest time, I thought JFK was an attempt to shed light on the murder of the 35th president of the United States, an uncrackable mystery that probably grows less and less likely to be revealed as each decade passes.

Were this the case, we would relegate Oliver Stone’s 1991 opus of obfuscation to the bin of “ambitious failures” we so often reference here at FTM. Viewed through this prism, the movie is a failure on almost every level of storytelling. If a person or entity was located in Dallas at the time of the president’s murder, there’s an off-chance he, she or they were complicit in some fashion, according to this incorrect reading of Stone’s tale. The Dallas Police Department? Lots of smoking guns there. The CIA? Almost definitely. The Mafia? Why the hell not? Embittered Cuban exiles? Integral. A specific network of homosexual operatives and ex-military thugs in New Orleans? Probably the brains behind it all.

Taken as a story about the absolute truth of an event shrouded in ongoing intrigue, JFK is equivalent to the cinematic exercise of throwing some ideas against a wall to see what sticks … except that everything sticks.

But over the years and upon many rewatches of this towering piece of art, I’ve realized it is not a movie about the truth. It is a movie about the pursuit of truth.
I don’t know quite when I stopped being frustrated about the fact that the version of events put forward by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) can’t possibly add up, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say it dawned on me after what is supposed to be the closest thing to this movie’s pull-back-the-curtain moment: the conversation on Washington’s National Mall between Garrison and a well-informed ex-Pentagon spook known only as X (Donald Sutherland, doing all the great Donald Sutherland things).

Up to this point, Garrison has encountered a host of mentally unstable individuals who can provide him only with fragments of a grand plot to murder the president. It’s as frustrating for the viewer as it is for Garrison. He knows he is close to something, but every question answered carries with it a new tranche of uncertainties to tackle.

And so he finally gets a prolonged meeting with a man who seems confident, levelheaded and plugged into the precise Washington backchannels he needs to crack this case. And X comes through, yielding a windfall of information about everything from Kennedy’s intent to scale back operations in Vietnam to suspicious last-minute changes to Kennedy’s security detail in Dallas.

When it’s over, Garrison asks X to appear in court to drop similar truthy bombs on to the jurors. His response? I quote, “No chance in Hell.” His reasons are essentially that he would never even make it to the courtroom because he knows too much, but I think the overarching point is that Stone has chosen to take the one source of reliable information in this impossible quest for the truth and essentially render him null and void. You’ll notice that even though Garrison has secured a healthy bounty of intelligence on the matter, almost none of it makes into Garrison’s final, sprawling courtroom monologue.

And the footage shown over the majority of that monologue? Apart from serving as a clinic on film editing from Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia and a master class in cinematography from Robert Richardson, it plays out less like a coherent documentation of one of the most chaotic days in the history of the country and more like Garrison’s paranoid fever dream. A frenetic and relentless amalgam of close-ups, zooms, wide shots, black-and-white, color, real footage, re-enactments, I’m not being bombastic when I say it’s one of the best single sequences ever committed to film.

Which of course brings us back to the central question of my assertion: does it matter that the sequence doesn’t really come together from a storytelling perspective? I’d argue that in this case, not only is it okay, it is precisely the point. Garrison himself seems resigned to defeat even as he is wrapping up his closing remarks. He eloquently implores future generations to continue to question the facts given to them in a pursuit of the truth, and even goes so far as to suggest overthrowing the government if the pursuit does not pay dividends, “like the Declaration of Independence says to.”

Structurally, this is a downright bizarre way of telling this story. But Stone pulls it off because JFK is, quite simply, a brilliant achievement of technical filmmaking. I spoke already about Hutshing and Scalia’s pristine editing job and Richardson’s daunting cinematography, accomplishments so monumental, they all secured Academy Awards in a year where the whole of the film-admiring community appeared in the tank for The Silence of the Lambs. I understand it can be foolish to point to awards as a measure of a film’s success, but I’m highlighting this because the work of these artists was impressive enough to sway what appeared to be an impenetrable consensus for Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece.
Beyond the technical achievements, Stone appears to have called in every favor owed to him by every actor in Hollywood in 1991, and they are all fantastic. For me, JFK’s who’s who of a cast never really feels like a stunt in the way that certain Garry Marshall holiday adventures often do. Stone just procured some of the best performers working at that time and put them to work in challenging and innovative roles. It is, to this day, some of the best work ever in the careers of Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Ed Asner and Sutherland, which is really saying quite a bit.

But the lynchpin is Costner, who gives a singularly great performance that’s so starkly different from just about anything else in his canon. I’ve always considered Kevin Costner to be a movie star -- that is, he's an agreeable and handsome leading man capable of holding your attention for two hours while never really punching above his weight from a creative standpoint.

But as Garrison, he is bold, passionate and perhaps a little unhinged. None of this whole “pursuit of truth” malarkey I’m espousing here holds the slightest bit of water if you don’t give a damn about the pursuer. It all comes together in the aforementioned closing arguments. Costner, with ever-building desperation and passion, experiences what resembles a deeply personal emotional catharsis more than a nuanced legal argument before the court. Haunted for years by the atrocity he believes the government committed against its citizens, this is his unfurling of all the strands of justice he could muster from his dogged pursuit of justice.

It's a brave performance in a fantastic movie. It's a movie that would almost be disappointing if it presented itself as the definitive encyclopedia on What Happened That Day, Nov. 22, 1963. If you accept that gaining that knowledge is practically impossible, isn't one man's quest for that knowledge all the more fascinating?


  1. Great write-up of my favorite movie of 1991 Alex (as seen on this site recently: http://www.fthismovie.net/2013/01/weekend-weigh-in-whats-your-favorite.html).

    On my latest viewing of "JFK's" Director's Cut the pull-the-curtain moments were 20 or so minutes before Garrison goes to trial when (a) he appears on a fake-to-avoid-a-lawsuit 60's version of "The Tonight Show" (John Larroquette's Jerry Johnson even mentions he works for NBC), (b) is subject of an apparent assassination attempt in an airport bathroom (!) and (c) comes back home to Sissy Spacek (whose performance I really appreacited this time as the sane, common, average 60's person that's sorry JFK is dead but doesn't want to trade her life or lose her husband & father of her children to the lunacy of the conspiracy ideas) and sees Robert Kennedy being shot live on TV. Liz Garrison, unlike Jim's staff assistant and conspiracy enabler Susie Cox (Laurie Metcalf) with whom Garrison spends more time with than his wife, is as close to the human soul and "average" person in "JFK" as they come.

    The Garrison trial segment that closes "JFK" is a ton of fun (notice the movie doesn't even bother to show Clay Shaw's defense attorney summation) because it's totally unrealistic from a legal POV but it's the catharsis Jim needs to end the movie with as close to a heroic high as the narrative would allow. I love it when, halfway through what appears to be Garrison's summation, Jim points to the stand and says 'Doctor, then we cut to some expert testifying who couldn't have been possibly sworn-in and sitting all the time Garrison was talking. As played by Costner, Garrison (who appears a couple of times as Earl Warren, which if you think about it is hilarious) on this latest viewing struck me as the type of person that today has the internet and news outlets with whom to share and vent his frustrations, something Jim didn't have back then to placate the frustration average citizens felt toward their government because of the Warren Commission's too-tidy wrap-up. I really like that, if you feel so inclined, you can read "JFK" as the tragic but righteous quest of a flawed character to pursue the truth as he perceives it.

    I disagree somewhat though that the movie's version of Dallas events doesn't add up because that's precisely the point Stone's trying to make: that the supression of facts by all parties involved, particularly the federal government (whom, to "JFK's" credit, will release Kennedy assassination documents ahead of the original timeline partly due to the heat Stone generated), is what forces its citizenship to fill in the gaps with supposition and learned guesses. I have no doubt, based on his stated opinions and follow-up work ("Nixon" and "W." plus his just-concluded Showtime miniseries), that Oliver believes most of his own movie's conspiracy theories. Even if you disagree with the truth the movie arrives to at the end, Alex, you have to admire that "JFK" had the balls in '91 to state its strong conclusions as facts about who really killed JFK and why. No wishy-washy maybe's in Oliver Stone's movie version of the truth.

    And, as someone that worked editing TV stuff for a living up until last year, this movie is the best-edited piece of filmmaking I've ever seen. Even Stuart Baird and Michael Kahn would be proud to have worked on it (which they didn't). :-)

    1. To me, the narrative version of the events he lays out doesn't really come together at all. As I wrote, it is more of a man's desperate attempt to force some sense upon these people. But even if we disagree on that, I think we are simpatico on the fact that the overarching point is that what drives those moments is the conviction with which Garrison presents his version of the facts, yes?

    2. Absolutely. It bothers my "Law & Order" loving ass that Garrison breaks about 2,000 rules during the trial's cross examinations and final summation (and that's saying a lot since prosecutors are given ample latitude in their closing arguments) but, since at this point we're at the "JFK's" three-hour mark, it's on Costner's shoulders to convince us not only that Garrison believes what he's saying but that his triumph (bringing to trial a case he's almost certain from the start he's going to lose) sets him free. He gave voice the voiceless (which was truer in the 60's than now) and, like Oliver Stone making the movie, got it out of his system for the sake of his family and (as personified by his son in the courtroom) future generations.

  2. I think JFK is my favourite film of '91 as well.

    As a Canadian, I don't have much romanticism toward notable American presidents but John Williams opening theme coupled with Martin Sheen's naration works gangbusters on me for creating that feeling for John Kennedy. It totally makes me care about the investigation that follows.

    I think it's easily Stone's best film but perhaps his undoing as he seems to misuse many of the techniques he used so brilliantly here in his subsequent films.

    1. Between "JFK" and "The Doors" 1991 is the year that Oliver Stone completely changed his directorial/editing style, which reaches the apex of borderline-unwatchable crazy in "Natural Born Killers" (which I can't stand) and "Left Turn." He has gradually toned down the cut-a-second pace and weird shit but, like the Tony Scott aesthetic, you have to give credit to Stone as a filmmaker for not staying in his safe zone after the hit it big in the 80's.

    2. The most recent Stone film I've seen is Alexander. Like so many of his films it has interesting things about it but is kind of a mess. I admire him for recutting it 3 times to try and salvage it. I want it to be good too, Oliver.

      I'm glad to hear he's since reeled in the excess. It's great to innovate but it should serve a function.

  3. Darren, I'm so glad you brought up that opening sequence. The whole newsreel intro set to Williams's drum march communicates a very specific kind of patriotic nostalgia, which is immediately rocked when the first digression from that technique is of a hooker being dumped out of a car in he middle of a field (and later a hospital bed) screaming about a bunch of “serious fucking guys” plotting to kill Kennedy. The movie masters juxtaposition that way, balancing between a somber valentine for a fallen idealist and a chaotic conspiratorial mystery.

  4. Somehow I've never seen this but your essay makes me want to check it out!

  5. This is one of the greatest films period.

    It also includes one of my favorite flubs too, in the director's cut form.

    In the script, Garrison and Lou travel to Dallas to test out the rifle much later in the film. But Stone moved it up because it just works better structurally.
    However, in the director's cut, Stone added another few minutes to the tail end of the scene where Garrison discusses Clay Shaw.
    However, a couple scenes later, it is Michael Rooker himself who lets them know that Bertrand is Shaw. Until then, Garrison and his crew had no clue.

    One of the greatest casts ever, delivering exposition lines as if it was Shakespeare. Very quotable too.

    Moves at an amazing pace for a 3.5 hour film.

    1. I saw the director's cut of "JFK" over the weekend and it just freaking flies: fastest 205 minutes I've ever had watching a movie. "The Hobbit" was another movie that I dreaded the prospect of sitting through but those 165 minutes just flew by. "Uncle Roger" Ebert is right: "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

    2. Has anyone seen "Movie 43" yet? Apparently there is a second version that opened in England. Yikes!

      This film will go up there with Oogieloves as must own blu rays to turn on in order to stop the party.

  6. Replies
    1. The ghost of Richard Nixon's secretary did it! I know, I saw it in the deleted scenes section of Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (the "Hitchcock" of its day). :-P

    2. Hey... "Nixon" is an amazing film. Truly Shakespearian.
      "Hitchcock" is little more than a snotty injoke for regular film goers. However, I was still entertained despite ALL the flaws inherit in the piece.

    3. I really like "Nixon" too (theatrical version though, not the super-long Director's Cut out on Blu-ray... mmm, I'm getting ideas! :-P) but Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of "Tricky Dick" has always felt off to me. It's a testament that I like "Nixon" even with a miscast Hopkins at its core, but Hopkins is the main reason I say "Nixon" was the "Hitchcock" of its day (though I buy Hopkins more as a Hitch than as a Dick).

    4. I like the director's cut of "Nixon", primarily beause it fleshes out Bob Hoskins' portrayal of Hoover as less of a cartoon.

      Like "J.F.K.", this film is wonderfully written, amazingly acted by top notich actors and directed like Oliver Stone was pouring his heart and soul into it.

      At the time I heard the Academy overlooked it because they were still p.o.'d about "Natural Born Killers".

      Little did they know that "U Turn" was around the corner.

      I still really enjoy Oliver Stone but ever since the release of (no less than three versions of) "Alexander", he has pulled back his style and while not playing it entirely safe, does not want to go out in a blaze of glory either.

      Although the Oliver Stone between 1986-1994 would have been thrilled to do just that.

      As a side note, "Natural Born Killers" came out while I was in college.

      I happened to go to the first test screening and you know those cards the executives give out to see what the audience thought of the film... well, I took an extra one home.

      If you would like to see what it looked like:

  7. I have never seen JFK but I have seen CB4

  8. @ Cameron...I saw Movie 43. It's got maybe 2-3 laughs in it. The rest is ehh to truly uncomfortable to watch.