When the assassination of John F. Kennedy took place fifty-four years ago on November 22, 1963, the nation lost perhaps one of its greatest statesmen and leaders. While the story of the madman Lee Harvey Oswald shooting the President who led the nation through the darkest days of the Cold War is the widely accepted by most people—myself included—theories exist to this day about what really went on that tragic day in Dallas, Texas. Among such theories include involvement by the Mafia, the Soviet Union, Cuba, a coup d’état from the military, and a multitude of other plots which could fill volumes. According to Vincent Bugliosi—former Los Angeles County District Attorney—some forty-two groups, eighty-two assassins, and two hundred and forty-one people combined have been accused of being involved. In perhaps the greatest depiction of one of these theories in action, film maker Oliver Stone in his 1991 film JFK examined in detail the mission of Jim Garrison—the former District Attorney of Orleans Parish in Louisiana—which was to investigate the murder of President Kennedy.
The film stars Kevin Costner as Garrison, Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw, Joe Pesci as David Ferrie, Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Donald Sutherland as ‘X’, Michael Rooker as Assistant District Attorney Bill Broussard, and many more minor roles in a surprisingly start-studded film. John Candy just three years before his death appears as Dean Andrews Jr., and Wayne Knight, John Larroquette, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Metcalf, and a narration role by Martin Sheen all add to the nature of this film. Each of these actors have their own role in the complicated situation at hand as Garrison is at first stunned by the death of the beloved President, and as the years pass is slowly overwhelmed and enmeshed in investigating a multi-part and multi-faced conspiracy theory. Oliver Stone asks many questions about the conspiracy, but provides few if any answers throughout the long run-time of the film.
During any tragedy like this, the basic questions are who did it, and as the film continues Stone asks a more important question, which was why they did it. As Garrison is taken along in a journey that includes mysterious contacts with people involved in the conspiracy, from the flamboyant and anxious David Ferrie and the mysterious G-Man ‘X’, the puzzle of the assassination continues to fill. While no people are named as responsible for the assassination, Stone concentrates on attempting to answer why the assassination even took place against an otherwise popular President. To my surprise Stone continues the thread that took place in his other film that examines this era—Nixon—which like JFK explores the ramifications of the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
If you like having definitive answers to a mystery, then this film is probably not for you, but JFK offers a unique perspective of this situation. In addition to that it also brings to light a chapter of our national history that has went unexplored. Outside of the conspiracy to murder the President, the film is an excellent period piece that goes through the life of Jim Garrison throughout the tumultuous 1960s. Outside of the excellent sets and attention to detail that is often common in Oliver Stone films, the acting brings to life exciting characters who might not be in the history books. With the New Orleans setting, we also see local politics in action as a local businessman and philanthropist becomes involved in the ever-growing plot. The film also explores the rift between Jim Garrison and his wife, which grows because of the investigation that is taking up more and more of his time.
Although JFK as a film is now twenty-six years old, it still holds up to this day. As the assassination begins to fade into the memory of Americans as fewer people remember that tragedy in Dealey Plaza, the importance of the film increases, as the conspiracies surrounding the assassination are perhaps as important, since it shows just how monumental the event was in American history. While the film does have flaws, the excellent performance of the cast easily makes up for it. Oliver Stone’s career is filled with many films of a similar nature and even a documentary series which I am also in the process of watching, this is perhaps the pinnacle of his work. It shows how complicated the politics of the 1960s were as we face a complicated political system in the 2010s, and for those fascinated with conspiracy theories, JFK is an excellent film to start down that journey.