Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Oliver Stone|
|Produced by||Oliver Stone
A. Kitman Ho
|Screenplay by||Oliver Stone
|Based on||On the Trail of the Assassins
by Jim Garrison
Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy
by Jim Marrs
|Narrated by||Martin Sheen|
Tommy Lee Jones
Jay O. Sanders
|Music by||John Williams|
|Editing by||Joe Hutshing
|Studio||Le Studio Canal+
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||188 minutes|
|Part of the series on the|
investigation of the
JFK is a 1991 American political thriller film directed by Oliver Stone. It examines the events leading to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and alleged subsequent cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner).
Garrison filed charges against New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) for his alleged participation in a conspiracy to assassinate the President, for which Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) was found responsible by two government investigations: the Warren Commission, and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (which concluded that there could have been another assassin shooting with Oswald).
The film was adapted by Stone and Zachary Sklar from the books On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs. Stone described this account as a "counter-myth" to the Warren Commission's "fictional myth."
The film became embroiled in controversy. Upon JFK's theatrical release, many major American newspapers ran editorials accusing Stone of taking liberties with historical facts, including the film's implication that President Lyndon B. Johnson was part of a coup d'état to kill Kennedy. After a slow start at the box office, the film gradually picked up momentum, earning over $205 million in worldwide gross. JFK was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won two for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. It was the most successful of three films Stone made about the American Presidency, followed later by Nixon with Anthony Hopkins in the title role and W. with Josh Brolin as George W. Bush.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (April 2013)|
The film's opening encompasses newsreel footage (with narration by Martin Sheen), including President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address, warning about the build-up of the "military–industrial complex." This is followed by a summary of John Kennedy's years as President. Events shown are the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis and the early days of the Vietnam War and Laotian Civil War. This builds to a reconstruction of the assassination on November 22, 1963. New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison subsequently learns about potential links to the assassination in New Orleans. Garrison and his team investigate several possible conspirators, including private pilot David Ferrie, but are forced to let them go after the federal government publicly rebukes their investigation. Kennedy's alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is killed by Jack Ruby, and Garrison closes the investigation.
The investigation is reopened in late 1966 after Garrison talks to Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana. Garrison then reads the Warren Report and notices what he believes are numerous inaccuracies and conflicts. Garrison and his staff interrogate several witnesses to the assassination, and others who were involved with Oswald, Ruby and Ferrie. Upon Garrison's informal questioning, Ferrie denies any knowledge of meeting Oswald, but he's soon suspected of conspiring to murder the President. Another witness is Willie O'Keefe, a male prostitute serving five years in prison for soliciting. As well as briefly meeting Oswald, O'Keefe was romantically involved with a man he knew as "Clay Bertrand" – also known as Clay Shaw. O'Keefe reveals he witnessed Ferrie discussing the assassination with Shaw, Oswald and several Latin men. In Dallas, Texas, others come forward, including Jean Hill: she tells the investigators that she witnessed shots fired from the grassy knoll and she heard four to six shots total, but U.S. Secret Service agents threatened her into saying only three shots came from the Texas School Book Depository; the implication is that the Warren Commission made changes to her testimony. Garrison and a staff member also go to the sniper's location in the book depository and aim an empty rifle from the window through which Oswald allegedly shot Kennedy. They conclude that Oswald was too poor a marksman to make the shots, and two of the shots were much too close together, indicating the involvement of two additional assassins.
After discovering electronic surveillance microphones planted in his offices, Garrison meets a high-level figure in Washington, D.C. who identifies himself as "X." "X" suggests there was a conspiracy at the government's highest levels, implicating members of the military-industrial complex, the Mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Secret Service, and the Vice President during the Kennedy administration, Lyndon B. Johnson, as either direct co-conspirators, or, as having motives to cover up the truth after the assassination. "X" explains Kennedy was assassinated because his foreign policy would have meant diminished profit for the military-industrial complex, and enraged high-ranking military officials who viewed such diplomacy as weakness. Kennedy ordered control of covert para-military operations to be removed from the CIA and handed over to the U.S. Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff. This would have diminished the CIA's power. Further, the Mafia had helped Kennedy win the U.S. presidential election in 1960 as a favor to his father, Joseph, who had done business with mafiosi dating back to the 1920s, and felt betrayed that he had let his brother, Robert, continue his crusade against them. Furthermore, they wanted revenge for the Bay of Pigs Invasion fiasco, which they had helped fund and support in order to get their Cuban casinos – their biggest moneymakers – back from the Castro regime.
"X" reveals how his superior, Brigadier General "Y," had "X" sent to Antarctica just before the assassination. One of "X"'s duties was to supplement presidential security. He points out all the security lapses during Kennedy's trip to Dallas: the open windows along the route, the hairpin turn from Houston Street to Elm Street which slowed the limousine, and bystander activities which wouldn't have been allowed. "X" suggests he was ordered out of the country in order to strip away the normal security measures he would have had in place during the trip.
On his way back from Antarctica, "X" touches down in New Zealand. He reads a local newspaper which mysteriously presents a full dossier on Oswald and his guilt in Kennedy's death. This was hours before Oswald would be charged with the crime and anyone investigating the case knew much about him. "X" views this as clear proof of a cover story of the type used by CIA black ops. In other words, CIA assets in the media were being used to persuade the public of Oswald's guilt.
"X" further states that Kennedy was intent on pulling U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of 1965 as evidenced by National Security Action Memorandum 263. This was countermanded immediately by Lyndon Johnson with National Security Order 273. Therein, concludes "X," lay the Vietnam War's foundation. "X" encourages Garrison to keep digging and make further arrests.
Two of Garrison's staff quit the investigation, doubting his motives and methods, the latter warned by an FBI agent, who claims that Fidel Castro is Kennedy's sole assassin, and tells the latter that if the truth comes out, there would be a war and it would be more important than Garrison. Garrison's marriage is strained when his wife Liz complains that he is spending more time on the case than with his own family. After a sinister phone call is made to their daughter, Liz accuses Garrison of being selfish and attacking Shaw because of Shaw's homosexuality. Additionally, the media launches attacks on television and in newspapers attacking Garrison's character and criticizing the way his office is spending taxpayers' money. Some key witnesses become scared and refuse to testify while others, such as Ferrie, die under suspicious circumstances. Before his death, Ferrie tells Garrison that he believes people are after him, and reveals there was a conspiracy around Kennedy's death that involved co-conspirators that were involved in a CIA operation, Operation Mongoose.
Bill Broussard meets Garrison at the airport where Garrison is boarding for Phoenix, Arizona and tells him the Canadian mob will attempt to assassinate him and is about to get Garrison some serious protection when Garrison confronts Broussard about his orders not to pass rumors about someone going to be killed. Broussard tries in vain to get Garrison to listen, but Garrison refuses, dismissing it as "paranoid garbage." He accuses Broussard of disobeying orders and decides to take him back to New Orleans as punishment. Broussard tries to apologize, but Garrison is too busy to accept it. After a few minutes, he has to flee from a public restroom when he hears strange noises in the adjacent stall and is approached by an unknown man who pretends to be a friend of Garrison's. After Garrison returns to New Orleans, he and his staff discovered that Broussard has joined the FBI and disappeared from his apartment. They argue about the real reason why Shaw has been brought to trial. After Liz retires, he sees Robert Kennedy on TV and witnesses Kennedy's assassination. Garrison, who predicted it, and Liz, whose faith in her husband is renewed as a result, reconcile.
Shaw's trial takes place in 1969. Garrison presents the court with further evidence of multiple killers while attempting to debunk the single bullet theory, proposes a scenario involving three assassins who fired six total shots, but the jury acquits Shaw on all charges. However, the DA's office wins a conviction of perjury against New Orleans attorney Dean Andrews, who repeatedly claims that an alleged phone call made by Shaw to Andrews in which Andrews was asked to represent Oswald in the assassination case was false. The film reflects that the jury's members publicly stated that they believed there was a conspiracy behind the assassination, but not enough evidence to link Shaw to that conspiracy. The film ends with Shaw acquitted of those charges, while Garrison states he'll continue to find out what else may be there in the cover up.
In the end credits, it's mentioned that Shaw died of lung cancer in 1974 and in 1979 Richard Helms testified under oath that Shaw had, in fact, been a part-time contract agent of the CIA's Domestic Contacts Division. The end credits also state that secret records related to the assassination will be publicly released in 2029 (see Legislative impact below).
- Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison. For the role, Stone sent copies of the script to Costner, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. Initially, Costner turned Stone down. However, the actor's agent, Michael Ovitz, was a big fan of the project and helped Stone convince the actor to take the role. Before accepting the role, Costner conducted extensive research on Garrison, including meeting the man and his enemies. Two months after finally signing on to play Garrison in January 1991, his film Dances with Wolves won seven Academy Awards and so his presence greatly enhanced JFK's bankability in the studio's eyes.
- Kevin Bacon as Willie O'Keefe, a composite character who testifies that Bertrand and Shaw are the same person and that he knew Ferrie, and had met Oswald.
- Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw / Clay Bertrand. Jones was originally considered for another role that was ultimately cut from the film and it was Stone who decided to cast him as Shaw. In preparation for the film, Jones interviewed Garrison on three different occasions and talked to others who had worked with Shaw and knew him.
- Joe Pesci as David Ferrie. Stone originally wanted James Woods to play Ferrie, but Woods wanted to play Garrison. Stone also approached Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich, who both turned down the role.
- Laurie Metcalf as New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Susie Cox
- Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and later returned. He was arrested on suspicion of killing Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. According to Oldman, very little was written about Oswald in the script. Stone gave him several plane tickets, a list of contacts and told him to do his own research. Oldman met with Oswald's wife, Marina, and her two daughters to prepare for the role.
- Michael Rooker as New Orleans Assistant District Attorney Bill Broussard
- Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon
- Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison, Jim Garrison's wife.
- Beata Poźniak as Marina Oswald. Pozniak studied 26 volumes of the Warren Report and spent time living with Marina Oswald. Since the script contained few lines for the Oswalds, Poźniak interviewed acquaintances of the Oswalds in order to improvise her scenes with Gary Oldman.
- Jack Lemmon as Jack Martin, an American private investigator living in New Orleans. He worked with Guy Banister at Banister's private investigation office. He was the one who implicated Ferrie to Garrison about Kennedy's assassination.
- Walter Matthau as Russell B. Long, an American politician who served in the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Louisiana from 1948 until 1987.
- Donald Sutherland as X, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, author, banker, and critic of U.S. foreign policy, especially the Central Intelligence Agency's activities.
- Edward Asner as Guy Banister, a career member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a private investigator. He was an avid anti-communist, member of the Minutemen, the John Birch Society, Louisiana Committee on Un-American Activities, and publisher of the Louisiana Intelligence Digest.
- Brian Doyle-Murray as Jack Ruby, an American nightclub operator from Dallas, Texas. He was convicted on March 14, 1964 for Oswald's murder on November 24, 1963, two days after Oswald was arrested for Kennedy's assassination.
- John Candy as Dean Andrews Jr., an eccentric lawyer who was allegedly called by Shaw to represent Oswald in the assassination case.
- Sally Kirkland as Rose Cheramie, a Dallas prostitute who was allegedly beaten up by Jack Ruby's bodyguards. She's taken to a clinic where she pleads to the doctors that the Mafia is planning on killing President Kennedy.
- Wayne Knight as Numa Bertel
- Vincent D'Onofrio as Bill Newman, an eyewitness
Many actors were willing to waive their normal fees because of the nature of the project and to lend their support. Martin Sheen provided the opening narration. The real Jim Garrison, a severe critic of the Warren Commission, played Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren himself, during the scene in which he questions Jack Ruby in a Dallas jail. Alleged assassination witness Beverly Oliver, who claims to be the "Babushka Lady" seen in the Zapruder film, also appeared in a cameo role inside Ruby's club. Sean Stone, Oliver Stone's son, plays a secondary role as Garrison's oldest son Jasper. Perry R. Russo, one of the sources for the fictional character "Willie O'Keefe," appeared in a cameo role as "angry bar patron." Dutch investigative journalist Willem Oltmans, who worked as a reporter for Dutch TV broadcaster NOS in the 1960s, had established ties to Kennedy's closest circle of advisers. After Kennedy's assassination, Oltmans interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Marguerite. Further investigation led him to Oswald's babysitter George de Mohrenschildt. According to Oltmans, de Mohrenschildt, who had ties to the CIA, was the assassination's architect. In 1977, de Mohrenschildt agreed to disclose information to Oltmans, but disappeared from their meeting place and was found dead in Florida a few weeks later. Intent on irony, Oltmans played de Mohrenschildt in the film.
Zachary Sklar, a journalist and a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, met Garrison in 1987 and helped him rewrite a manuscript that he was working on about Kennedy's assassination. He changed it from a scholarly book in the third person to "a detective story – a whydunit" in the first person. Sklar edited the book and it was published in 1988. While attending the Latin American Film Festival in Havana, Cuba, Stone met Sheridan Square Press publisher Ellen Ray on an elevator. She had published Jim Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. Ray had gone to New Orleans and worked with Garrison in 1967. She gave Stone a copy of Garrison's book and told him to read it. He did and quickly bought the film rights with $250,000 of his own money to prevent talk going around the studios about projects he might be developing.
Kennedy's assassination had always had a profound effect on Stone: "The Kennedy murder was one of the signal events of the postwar generation, my generation." Stone met Garrison and grilled him with a variety of questions for three hours. Garrison stood up to Stone's questioning and then got up and left. His pride and dignity impressed the director. Stone's impressions from their meeting were that Garrison "made many mistakes. He trusted a lot of weirdos and followed a lot of fake leads. But he went out on a limb, way out. And he kept going, even when he knew he was facing long odds."
Stone was not interested in making a film about Garrison's life, but rather the story behind the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He also bought the film rights to Jim Marrs’ book Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. One of the filmmaker's primary goals with JFK was to provide a rebuttal to the Warren Commission's report that he believed was "a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a counter-myth." Even though Marrs’ book collected many theories, Stone was hungry for more and hired Jane Rusconi, a recent Yale University graduate, to lead a team of researchers and assemble as much information about the assassination as possible while the director completed post-production on Born on the Fourth of July. Stone read two dozen books on the assassination while Rusconi read between 100 to 200 books on the subject.
By December 1989, Stone began approaching studios to back his film. While in pre-production on The Doors, he met with three executives at Warner Bros. who wanted him to make a film about Howard Hughes. However, Warren Beatty owned the rights and so Stone pitched JFK. Studio president and Chief Operating Officer Terry Semel liked the idea. He had a reputation for making political and controversial films, including All the President's Men, The Parallax View and The Killing Fields. Stone made a handshake deal with Warner Bros. whereby the studio would get all the rights to the film and put up $20 million for the budget. The director did this so that the screenplay wouldn't be widely read and bid on, and he also knew that the material was potentially dangerous and wanted only one studio to finance it. Finally, Stone liked Semel's track record of producing political films.
When Stone set out to write the screenplay, he asked Sklar (who also edited Marrs’ book) to co-write it with him and distill the Garrison and Marrs’ books and Rusconi's research into a script that would resemble what he called "a great detective movie." Stone told Sklar his vision of the film:
I see the models as Z and Rashomon, I see the event in Dealey Plaza taking place in the first reel, and again in the eighth reel, and again later, and each time we're going to see it differently and with more illumination.
Although he did employ ideas from Rashomon, his principal model for JFK was Z:
Somehow I had the impression that in Z you had the showing of the crime and then the re-showing of the crime throughout the picture until it was seen another way. That was the idea of JFK – that was the essence of it: basically, that's why I called it JFK. Not J dot F dot K dot. JFK. It was a code, like Z was a code, for he lives, American-style. As it was written it became more fascinating: it evolved into four DNA threads.
Stone broke the film's structure down into four stories: Garrison investigating the New Orleans connection to the assassination; the research that revealed what Stone calls, "Oswald legend: who he was and how to try to inculcate that"; the recreation of the assassination at Dealey Plaza; and the information that the character of "X" imparts on Garrison, which Stone saw as the "means by which we were able to move between New Orleans, local, into the wider story of Dealey Plaza." Sklar worked on the Garrison side of the story while Stone added the Oswald story, the events at Dealey Plaza and the "Mr. X" character. Sklar spent a year researching and writing a 550 triple-spaced page screenplay and then Stone rewrote it and condensed it closer to normal screenplay length. Stone and Sklar used composite characters, most notably the "Mr. X" character played by Donald Sutherland. This was a technique that would be criticized in the press. He was a mix of Richard Case Nagell and retired Air Force colonel Fletcher Prouty, another adviser for the film and who was a military liaison between the CIA and the Pentagon. Meeting Prouty was, for Stone, "one of the most extraordinary afternoons I've ever spent. Pretty much like in the movie, he just started to talk." According to Stone,
I feel this was in the spirit of the truth because Garrison also met a deep throat type named Richard Case Nagell, who claimed to be a CIA agent and made Jim aware of a much larger scenario than the microcosm of New Orleans.
The screenplay's early drafts suggested a four and a half-hour film with a potential budget of $40 million – double what Stone had agreed to with Warner Bros. The director knew film mogul Arnon Milchan and met with him to help finance the film. Milchan was eager to work on the project and launch his new company, Regency Films, with a high profile film like JFK. Milchan made a deal with Warner Bros. to put up the money for the film. Stone managed to pare down his initial revision, a 190-page draft, to a 156-page shooting script.
There were many advisers for the film, including Gerald Hemming, a former Marine who claimed involvement in various CIA activities, and Robert Groden, a photographic expert and longtime JFK assassination researcher and author.
The story revolves around Costner's Jim Garrison, with a large cast of well-known actors in supporting roles. Stone was inspired by the casting model of the documentary epic The Longest Day, which he had admired as a child: "It was realistic, but it had a lot of stars...the supporting cast provides a map of the American psyche: familiar, comfortable faces that walk you through a winding path in the dark woods."
Cinematographer Robert Richardson was a week and a half into shooting City of Hope for John Sayles when he got word that Stone was thinking about making JFK. By the time principal photography wrapped on City of Hope, Richardson was ready to make Stone's film. To prepare, Richardson read up on various JFK assassination books starting with On the Trail of the Assassins and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy.
The original idea was to film the opening sequence in 1.33:1 aspect ratio in order to simulate the TV screens that were available at the time of the assassination, then transition to 1.85:1 when Garrison began his investigation, and finally switch to 2.35:1 for scenes occurring in 1968 and later. However, because of time constraints and logistics, Richardson was forced to abandon this approach.
Stone wanted to recreate the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza. His producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a substantial amount of money to hire police to reroute traffic and close streets for three weeks. He only had ten days to shoot all of the footage he needed and so he used seven cameras (two 35 mm and five 16 mm) and 14 film stocks. Getting permission to shoot in the Texas School Book Depository was more difficult. They had to pay $50,000 to put someone in the window from which Oswald was supposed to have shot Kennedy. They were allowed to film in that location only between certain hours with only five people on the floor at one time: the camera crew, an actor and Stone. Co-producer Clayton Townsend has said that the hardest part was getting the permission to restore the building to the way it looked back in 1963. It took five months of negotiation.
The production spent $4 million to restore Dealey Plaza to 1963 conditions. Stone utilized a variety of film stocks. Richardson said, "It depends whether you want to shoot in 35 or 16 or Super 8. In many cases the lighting has to be different." For certain shots in the film, Stone employed multiple camera crews shooting at once, using five cameras at the same time in different formats. Richardson said of Stone's style of direction, "Oliver disdains convention, he tries to force you into things that are not classic. There's this constant need to stretch." This forced the cinematographer to use lighting in diverse positions and rely very little on classic lighting modes. The shoot lasted 79 days with filming finished five months before the release date.
JFK marked a fundamental change in the way that Stone constructed his films: a subjective lateral presentation of the plot, with the editing's rhythm carrying the story. Stone brought in Hank Corwin, an editor of commercials, to help edit the film. Stone chose him because his "chaotic mind" was "totally alien to the film form." Stone remembers that Corwin irritated the more traditional editors working on the film because his "concepts are very commercial sixty-seconds-get-your-attention-fragment-your-mind-make-you-rethink-it. But he had not developed the long form yet. And so a lot of his cuts were very chaotic." Stone employed extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks for a specific effect. He said in an interview,
I wanted to do the film on two or three levels – sound and picture would take us back, and we'd go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback...I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.
Because of his enormous commitment to Steven Spielberg's Hook, which opened the same month as JFK, composer John Williams didn't have time to compose a conventional score for the entire film. Instead he composed and conducted six musical sequences in full for JFK before he saw the entire film. Soon after recording this music, he traveled to New Orleans where Stone was still shooting the film and saw approximately an hour's worth of edited footage and some dailies. Williams remembers, "I thought his handling of Lee Harvey Oswald was particularly strong, and I understood some of the atmosphere of the film – the sordid elements, the underside of New Orleans." Stone and his team then actually cut the film to fit Williams' music after the composer had scored and recorded musical cues in addition to the six he had done prior to seeing the film. For the motorcade sequence, Williams described the score he composed as "strongly kinetic music, music of interlocking rhythmic disciplines." The composer remembered the moment he learned of Kennedy's assassination and it stuck with him for years. This was a significant factor in his deciding to work on the film. Williams said, "This is a very resonant subject for people of my generation, and that's why I welcomed the opportunity to participate in this film."
Based on 55 reviews collected from notable publications by popular review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 84% "fresh" approval rating, with the consensus, "As history, Oliver Stone's JFK is dubious, but as filmmaking it's electric, cramming a ton of information and excitement into its three-hour runtime and making great use of its outstanding cast." However, the film's production and release was subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. A few weeks after shooting had begun, on May 14, 1991, Jon Margolis wrote in the Chicago Tribune that JFK was "an insult to the intelligence." Five days later, the Washington Post ran a scathing article by national security correspondent George Lardner titled, "On the Set: Dallas in Wonderland" that used the first draft of the JFK screenplay to blast it for "the absurdities and palpable untruths in Garrison's book and Stone's rendition of it." The article pointed out that Garrison lost his case against Clay Shaw and that he inflated his case by trying to use Shaw's homosexual relationships to prove guilt by association. Stone responded to Lardner's article by hiring a public relations firm that specialized in political issues. Other critical articles soon followed. Anthony Lewis in the New York Times stated that the film "tells us that our government cannot be trusted to give an honest account of a Presidential assassination." Washington Post columnist George Will called Stone "a man of technical skill, scant education and negligible conscience."
Time magazine ran its own critique of the film-in-progress on June 10, 1991 and alleged that Stone was trying to suppress a rival JFK assassination film based on Don DeLillo's 1988 novel Libra. Stone rebutted these claims in a letter to the magazine. The filmmaker ended up splitting his time between making his film, responding to criticism, and conducting a publicity campaign of his own that saw him "omnipresent, from CBS Evening News, to Oprah." However, the Lardner Post piece stung the most because Lardner had stolen a copy of the script. Stone recalls, "He had the first draft, and I went through probably six or seven drafts."
Upon theatrical release, it polarized critics. The New York Times ran an article by Bernard Weinraub entitled, "Hollywood Wonders If Warner Brothers let JFK Go Too Far." The article called for intervention by the studio, asking "At what point does a studio exercise its leverage and blunt the highly charged message of a film maker like Oliver Stone?" The newspaper also ran a review of the film by Vincent Canby who wrote, "Mr. Stone's hyperbolic style of film making is familiar: lots of short, often hysterical scenes tumbling one after another, backed by a soundtrack that is layered, strudel-like, with noises, dialogue, music, more noises, more dialogue." Pat Dowell, veteran film critic for The Washingtonian, had her 34-word capsule review for the January issue rejected by her editor John Limpert on the grounds that he didn't want a positive review for a film he felt was "preposterous" associated with the magazine. Dowell resigned in protest.
The Miami Herald said about the controversy in its review, "the focus on the trivialities of personality conveniently prevents us from having to confront the tough questions [Stone's] film raises." However, Roger Ebert praised the film in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, saying,
The achievement of the film is not that it answers the mystery of the Kennedy assassination, because it does not, or even that it vindicates Garrison, who is seen here as a man often whistling in the dark. Its achievement is that it tries to marshal the anger which ever since 1963 has been gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.
Rita Kempley in the Washington Post wrote,
Quoting everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to bolster their arguments, Stone and Sklar present a gripping alternative to the Warren Commission's conclusion. A marvelously paranoid thriller featuring a closetful of spies, moles, pro-commies and Cuban freedom-fighters, the whole thing might have been thought up by Robert Ludlum.
On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times ran a critical article entitled "Suppression of the Facts Grants Stone a Broad Brush." New York Newsday followed suit the next day with two articles – "The Blurred Vision of JFK" and "The Many Theories of a Jolly Green Giant." A few days later, the Chicago Sun-Times followed suit with "Stone's Film Trashes Facts, Dishonors J.F.K." Jack Valenti, then president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, denounced Stone's film in a seven-page statement. He wrote, "In much the same way, young German boys and girls in 1941 were mesmerized by Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, in which Adolf Hitler was depicted as a newborn God. Both JFK and Triumph of the Will are equally a propaganda masterpiece and equally a hoax. Mr. Stone and Leni Riefenstahl have another genetic linkage: neither of them carried a disclaimer on their film that its contents were mostly pure fiction."
Stone recalls in an interview, "I can't even remember all the threats, there were so many of them." Time magazine ranked it the fourth best film of 1991. Roger Ebert went on to name Stone's film as the best film of the year and one of the top ten films of the decade. The Sydney Morning Herald named JFK as the best film of 1991. Entertainment Weekly ranked it the 5th Most Controversial Movie Ever.
Years after its release, Stone said of the film that it "was the beginning of a new era for me in terms of film making because it's not just about a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. It's also about the way we look at our recent history...It shifts from black and white to color, and then back again, and views people from offbeat angles."
In his book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a history of the assassination published 16 years after the film's release, Vincent Bugliosi devoted an entire chapter to Garrison's prosecution of Shaw and Stone's subsequent film. Bugliosi lists thirty-two separate "lies and fabrications" in Stone's film and describes the film as "one continuous lie in which Stone couldn't find any level of deception and invention beyond which he was unwilling to go." David Wrone stated that "80 percent of the film is in factual error" and rejected the premise of a conspiracy involving the CIA and the so-called military-industrial complex as "irrational."
Internet film reviewer Chris Lee Moore, alias "The Rowdy Reviewer", reviewed this movie on the fiftieth anniversary on the Kennedy Assassination in a double review comparing this movie to the Quantum Leap Episode "Lee Harvey Oswald" calling this movie "One of the biggest travesties on actual history,", "One of the most homophobic films (he had) ever seen" and "The worst piece of propaganda to come out in (his) lifetime!" in addition he called out all the factual inaccuracies about the movie and Jim Garrison's end argument.
JFK was released in theaters on December 20, 1991. Box office started slow but picked up momentum and by the first week in January 1992, it had grossed over $50 million worldwide. Stone started to get support for his film. Warner Brothers executives pointed out that because of the film's long running time, it had fewer screenings. The studio undertook a $15 million marketing campaign promoting Stone's film.
On its first week of release, JFK tied with Beauty and the Beast for fifth place in the U.S. box office and its critics began to say it was a flop. However, JFK eventually earned over $205 million worldwide, and $70 million in the United States during its initial run. Garrison's estate subsequently sued Warner Bros. for a share of the film's profits, alleging a book-keeping practice known as "Hollywood accounting." The lawsuit contends that JFK made in excess of $150 million worldwide but the studio claimed that the film didn't earn any money under its "net profits" accounting formula. The suit also claims that Garrison's estate didn't receive any of the net profits income. He should have been paid more than $1 million.
Awards and nominations
JFK was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Director (Oliver Stone), Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregg Landaker and Tod A. Maitland), Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stone and Zachary Sklar). It won two awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.
Stone was nominated for an award for Outstanding Directing by the Directors Guild of America but didn't win. He also won a Golden Globe for Best Director and in his acceptance speech, he said, "A terrible lie was told to us 28 years ago. I hope that this film can be the first step in righting that wrong."
The television show Seinfeld would later pastiche the "Magic Bullet Theory" featured in JFK in an episode ("The Boyfriend") where Kramer and Newman believe that they had been spat at by New York Met Keith Hernandez, who later reveals that there had been a second spitter, Roger McDowell. Wayne Knight, who plays Newman, is also in JFK as a member of Garrison's team. He would be one of the two men to model the shooting in court to prove the implausibility of the "magic bullet," not unlike how Jerry disproves Newman and Kramer's theory of the "magic loogie." In each case, Knight played the second victim in the sequence, John Connally and Newman, respectively.
The film's popularity led to the passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (also known as the JFK Act) and the formation of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board. The Act was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in late October 1992. The ARRB worked until 1998. Witnesses were interviewed (some for the first time), including many medical witnesses, the U.S. government purchased the Zapruder film, and previously-classified documents relating to the assassination were finally made public. By ARRB law, all existing assassination-related documents will be made public by 2017.
JFK has been released on VHS, LaserDisc, and several times on DVD. The film's only version ever released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in the United States is the longer "Director's Cut." The theatrical cut has been released on DVD in only a few foreign territories, including the UK. In 2001, the "Director's Cut" was released as part of the Oliver Stone Collection box set with the film on one disc and supplemental material on the second. Stone contributed several extras to this edition, including an audio commentary, two multi-media essays, and 54 minutes' worth of deleted or expanded scenes with optional commentary by Stone. In 2003, a two-DVD "Special Edition" was released with all of the extras on the 2001 edition in addition to a 90-minute documentary entitled, Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy.
The film was released on Blu-ray Disc on November 11, 2008. The disc features many of the extras included on the previous DVD releases, including the Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy documentary.
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- Crowdus, Gary (May 1992). "Getting the Facts Straight: An Interview with Zachary Sklar". Cineaste.
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- Nunziata, Nick (2001-01-22). "JFK (Oliver Stone Collection)". IGN. Retrieved 2007-11-02.
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- "Warner Sets Date, Specs for 'JFK' Blu-ray". High-Def Digest. 2008-07-22. Retrieved 2008-10-17.
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- Riordan, James (September 1996) Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. New York: Aurum Press. ISBN 1-85410-444-6
- Salewicz, Chris (February 1998) Oliver Stone: Close Up: The Making of His Movies. Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 0-7528-1820-1
- Stone, Oliver (February 2000) JFK: The Book of the Film. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 1-55783-127-0
- Further reading
- Mark C. Carnes (Fall 1996). "Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies". Cineaste.
- Gary Crowdus (May 1992). "Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone". Cineaste.
- Eric Hamburg (September 2002). JFK, Nixon, Oliver Stone and Me: An Idealist's Journey from Capitol Hill to Hollywood Hell. PublicAffairs. ISBN 1-58648-029-4.
- Robert Brent Toplin (1996). History by Hollywood "JFK: Fact, Fiction, and Supposition," pp. 45–78. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06536-0
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: JFK (film)|
- JFK at the Internet Movie Database
- JFK at the TCM Movie Database
- JFK at Box Office Mojo
- JFK at Rotten Tomatoes
- JFK at Metacritic
- JFK (motion picture): A Selective Bibliography of Materials in the UC Berkeley Library
- The JFK 100: One Hundred Errors of Fact and Judgment in Oliver Stone's JFK, by Dave Reitzes
- The Assassination Goes Hollywood! (concise overview of frequent criticisms)
- JFK: How the Media Assassinated the Real Story, by Robert Hennelly & Jerry Policoff
- "Why they hate Oliver Stone", Sam Smith, Progressive Review, February 1992
- JFK and the Unspeakable by Oliver Stone, The Huffington Post, July 23, 2009
-  TV Trash: JFK vs Lee Harvey Oswald