Few events in American history stand out quite so heavily as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Besides the shocking nature of the event with the American president being gunned down in broad daylight in a major city came the psychic scars caused by unanswered questions due to an alleged assassin gunned down before he could ever be tried and an official investigation that was at best botched and, at worst, a whitewash. Perhaps no single film or work of fiction has done more to raise questions about the event than Oliver Stone's 1991 JFK with its exploration of events through the perspective of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who brought to trial of the one alleged conspirators.
Stone, along with his co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar, craft a peculiar film around the biggest unsolved mystery in American history. Indeed, JFK as a film owes much both to political thriller films such as Z (which also focuses on the assassination of a government official with multiple versions of the same events seen from the perspective of witnesses brought forth by a determined investigator) and the murder mystery genre. The only difference is that this is a murder with far more scope, far more suspects, and far more consequences than your garden variety murder mystery. It's a tale that takes in a large portion of still recent history and an era in time before distrust in government would reach its zenith (and perhaps has never truly subsided) and when terrible things very likely lurked in the shadows.
Incidentally, anyone convinced that Stone's vision is overly paranoid should seek out the published script book for the film with dozens (if not hundreds) of annotations. The film's vision, while leaning perhaps a bit far in cases, turns out to be far plausible a vision than it's often given credit for. The result is at nightmarish with its implications, so perhaps it's no surprise that the film led to an act of Congress to release more of the classified files related to the assassination which is still being released even as I type these words.
To bring the story to life, Stone assembled a first-rate team both in front of and behind the camera. Borrowing another trope from some of the better-filmed murder mysteries, the film has an all-star cast of actors in roles both big and small. Leading it is Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who becomes both investigator and the audience's guide into the twisty world surrounding the assassination. Costner, though quite different from the real Garrison who was taller and more built, was nevertheless a perfect piece of casting as the intelligent everyman armed with a large amount of dignity and a determination to get to the truth no matter where it leads. Costner's performance plays up all of these elements and even the dark side of Garrison's obsession while also creating someone the audience is willing to follow for the three-plus hours the film runs for.
The rest of the film's cast is equally as strong. The Garrison investigation turns up a number of fascinating characters, any of whom could very well the protagonist of their own film, ranging from Tommy Lee Jones' quietly menace as Clay Shaw, Joe Pesci's eccentric David Ferrie, John Candy as the ever-shifting lawyer Dean Andrews, and Kevin Bacon as Willie O'Keefe (a composite character, one of several the film uses) among many others. There is also Gary Oldman's Lee Harvey Oswald is not only uncanny in his resemblance but a fascinating portrait in its own right, presenting many different versions of one of modern history's most enigmatic figures. The film also has its fair share of strong female performances from Laurie Metcalf as an assistant DA to Sissy Spacek as Garrison's wife torn between supporting her husband and being drawn into the world he's uncovering. That's without mentioning the effective cameo appearances from the likes of Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau or the scene-stealing monologue delivered by Donald Sutherland as the mysterious insider known as X. Few films can claim to have perfect casts but, for my money, JFK is one of them.
Those behind the camera are the other half of the equation. Stone's team includes superb costume and set designs from Marlene Stewart and Victor Kempster which gives the film its sense of time and place. Yet as cerebral as the film is, a thinking person's thriller in many ways, it's also an immensely visual work with Stone often relying on the editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia as well as the stunning cinematography of Robert Richardson. The three of them together weave in footage both archive and newly shot together into a tapestry that captures the viewer's eye as well as their brain. Underpinning it all is John Williams' score, perhaps one of his most underrated, that plays up not only the sense of unease but also the sense of what was lost all in the space of the film's opening titles and haunting themes elsewhere in the film. It's a remarkable tapestry all around.
Indeed, that is a nice summary of the film as a whole. Stone's JFK is, in essence, a murder mystery. One whose stakes have a firm basis in reality and based on a crime whose particulars are still hotly debated decades after the fact. With his cast and crew, he created a fascinating piece of film-making that crosses genres and time, presenting an incredible and paranoid vision of an earth-shattering event. Except that, if what's in the film is even half true, has deeply disturbing implications. That thought and the fact that the film led to documents being released speaks to the power of film-making and JFK as a film in particular.