After all the controversy, the question of whether JFK is a good movie seems irrelevant, and for that reason alone the film can be considered a success. But Oliver Stone’s boldest film is impressive for other reasons. He has compressed 28 years of criticism, surmise, and evidence about the Kennedy assassination into a three-hour kinetic palimpsest of data. The period from Eisenhower’s 1961 speech warning of the “military industrial complex” to the countdown to that fatal moment on November 22, 1963 he covers during the opening credits alone.
Kevin Costner in JFK
It is also one of the most proficient pieces of propaganda since Eisenstein or Riefestahl, gleefully manipulating the audience toward Stone’s shocking, radical conclusions. A feast of technical brilliance charged with passion, JFK is like a cruise missile or the plot to kill the president itself, a masterpiece of finesse without subtlety that hits the target and lays it to waste. Despite and because of its failings, this is the most important movie of the year. It will stimulate a demand to reopen the files on the crim of the century. And it should restore faith in film as a viable political force and not just a commercial product.
After the jolt of the credit sequence, the film stumbles into a series of stodgy scenes of people in bars watching TV bulletins about the assassination. One of these is New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who in the midst of his grief notes a report that the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman), had spent time in his city. A check into Oswald’s New Orleans connections turns up the name of David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a bizarre character who has ties to the CIA and the Mob, and who had driven to Dallas on the day of the shooting. Ferrie fails to account for his actions, and Garrison turns him over to the FBI. They release him; surprised but unsuspicious, Garrison returns to business as usual.
Three years later, after the murder of Oswald and the inconsistencies of the Warren Commission report have deepened doubts about the tragedy, Garrison wakes up in the middle of the night with a mission. Something is rotten, and he’s convinced the source is right at his doorstep. The trail that began with Ferrie resumes with such lowlifes as former FBI man Guy Bannister (Ed Asner) and rummy PI Jack Martin (Jack Lemmon), then descends into a decadent fascist demi-monde of anti-Castro Cuban mercenaries, petty mobsters, covert operatives, and flamboyant homosexuals. Sensing that “if you indict them, they will come,” he prosecutes respected merchant Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for conspiring to murder the president of the United States.
Intentionally or not, Stone’s characterization of the conspirators as mostly sinister queens is sadly homophobic. Despite the stereotyping, however, they remain the film’s richest characters – Pesci’s Ferrie is a hairless, deranged clown in a bad rug and painted eyebrows torn between his priestly vocation, his lust for power, and his taste for boys. Jones’s Shaw is an elegant fop with an edge of menace and melancholy, and even Kevin Bacon as Willie O’Keefe, a composite of several of Garrison’s gay witnesses to the dark secrets of Shaw and Ferrie, gets a fetching turn dolled up as Marie Antoinette.