JFK

Released:  1991

Cast:  Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Sissy Spacek

Oscar Wins:  Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Best Film Editing (Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Director (Oliver Stone), Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregg Landaker, Tod A. Maitland), Best Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar)

SUMMARY:  On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy is shot in Dallas, Texas; in New Orleans, D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) watches the TV in a bar for updates.  In the aftermath of President Kennedy’s death, Garrison starts to learn that certain people in New Orleans are connected to the assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald.  He and his office begin to follow these leads, but are quickly stifled by the federal government.  Garrison himself gives up on things after Jack Ruby kills Oswald.  In 1966, the Warren Report is released.  Garrison begins reading the first volume and realizes that there are multiple obvious falsehoods.  He decides to reopen the investigation into the assassination.  His first interview is David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), a pilot who has gotten involved in the anti-Castro movement in America — and who knew Oswald.  Garrison and a team member next visit Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), a male prostitute who was present when Ferrie and other men were discussing a plan to kill the President.  O’Keefe was involved with Clay Bertrand, whose name comes up in several other interviews.  Garrison also re-interviews many of the people who were present at the time of the shooting, and discovers that their testimonies were either changed or ignored by the Warren Commission.  Based on the number of wounds, the length of the attack, Oswald’s marksmanship, and tests conducted by the military, Garrison and his office also conclude that the single-shooter theory is impossible.  Garrison soon gets a call from a mysterious Washington figure, who requests a meeting.  This man, who identifies himself only as “X,” tells Garrison that he is very close to uncovering the truth.  He informs Garrison that the assassination was the result of a large conspiracy that involved many higher-ups in the government, including Lyndon Johnson, the CIA and FBI, the Mafia, and the Secret Service:  Kennedy was in favor of stopping the Vietnam War and eliminating the CIA, which those around him saw as a disastrous plan (particularly for the business corporations that received military contracts during the war).  Kennedy had proposed legislation detailing his plans, but was killed before he could pass it; Johnson canceled the legislation after becoming the President.

When he returns to New Orleans, Garrison decides to bring a case against Clay Bertrand, better known as Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), an openly gay businessman.  The team has mountains of evidence against him, but Shaw categorically denies everything, including a knowledge of Ferrie, O’Keefe or Oswald (who was involved in the same activities as Ferrie and Shaw, and therefore O’Keefe).  All of this causes tremendous stress for the various lawyers and investigators on the team, and particularly for Garrison.  He spends so much time at the office that he begins to neglect his family, wife Liz (Sissy Spacek) and five children — he even interviews Shaw on Easter Sunday.  After Shaw reveals his interrogation to the media, more stress is added as the public attacks Garrison.  Many of the witnesses, Ferrie in particular, become scared for their lives, and threaten not to testify.  While Garrison’s office promises they will protect their witnesses, several (including Ferrie) die mysteriously.  In 1969, Garrison finally goes to court against Clay Shaw, charging him with conspiracy to murder the President.  In order to prove that a conspiracy existed, Garrison has to review the assassination.  This includes showing the jury and gallery the film made by Abraham Zapruder, which had not yet been released to the public.  He also points out the ridiculousness of the “Magic Bullet” theory, and posits that there were actually three teams of shooters during the attack, which was then pinned on Oswald.  He points out large numbers of problems in the Warren Report and recounts how the government was unwilling to let his office examine evidence, including autopsy photos:  they also informed him that the President’s brain was missing.  His argument inspires his team and brings his wife to tears, but the jury declares Clay Shaw innocent, although noting that there probably was a conspiracy (just not enough evidence to implicate Shaw in that conspiracy).  An epilogue states that Shaw died in 1974, and in 1979, a former CIA agent testified under oath that Shaw had worked for the CIA (as Garrison suspected).  It ends by noting that the records of the trial will be unsealed in 2029.

MY TAKE:  Obviously a lot of actors thought this was going to be a big movie, because a lot of really famous people have minor roles.  Aside from those noted above, the cast includes:  Gary Oldman (who is basically a chameleon) as Lee Harvey Oswald, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ed Asner, John Candy, Wayne Knight and Vincent D’Onofrio.  Oh, and Martin Sheen narrates.  This makes it weird in another way:  it’s got famous comedians Lemmon, Matthau, Asner, Candy and Knight, and it’s not a funny movie.  When I was in the eighth grade, my history class did an extended unit on the JFK assassination, with the goal of each of us deciding whether we thought it was a lone wolf, conspiracy, etc.  I think my teacher basically used this movie as a script, and it was convincing:  a lot of us, including myself, came out thinking that it had to be a conspiracy.  In the years since, I have sort of gone back to thinking Oswald was the only shooter, attributing my conspiracy belief to a teacher who obviously thought that way.  After watching this movie, though, and knowing that it was based on the actual book by Garrison, I have returned to the conspiracy belief.  As Garrison points out, the Magic Bullet theory is absurd, and there’s a whole lot of really suspicious circumstantial evidence — including a lot of witnesses who claimed to have seen and heard shots from the grassy knoll.  Most damning, in my opinion, is the way Kennedy reacted to being shot:  the final, fatal shot, that seemed to blow the side of his head off, hit him from his front right, based on the way he fell.  At the time of the shot, Oswald in the Book Depository would have been behind Kennedy.  There’s also a frame in the Zapruder film that shows Governor Connelly holding his Stetson in a wrist that was supposed to have already been shattered by the Magic Bullet — he shouldn’t have been able to grasp it.  The amazing thing about this movie is that it manages to go pretty in-depth in a complicated and real historical event, without losing the viewer.  There are a lot of characters, too many to keep completely straight by name, but that isn’t really important:  what is important is the evidence they provide.  I tend to get tired of rehashing old mysteries, like the JFK assassination and JonBenet Ramsey, but this film held me riveted, even the second time around.  It’s just insane what the government expected the public to believe, but nobody was really shown the evidence until Garrison stepped forward.  It’s still the only case involving the assassination to ever reach court.  Maybe in 13 more years we’ll finally know the truth.

RATING:  Fascinating.

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