Months before prolific director Oliver Stone (‘Platoon,’ ‘Wall Street’) released ‘JFK’ in 1991, journalists began criticizing the film and its politics after reading early drafts of the screenplay, receiving second hand reports from members of the cast and crew, and relying on evolving accusations that Stone was nothing more than a left-wing propagandier. Once ‘JFK’ arrived in theaters, the response to the film grew even more divisive as a slew of positive and negative reviews hit the press. Critics were divided as to whether Stone took unforgivable liberties with history, audiences were split as to what the director was implying with his assassination epic, and the man himself received some of the most disparaging threats and accusations of his career. Yet, more than seventeen years later, no one can deny that ‘JFK’ had a lasting impact on public perception of US history and reminded millions of citizens of a constitutional responsibility to question the actions of their government.
Based on Jim Garrison’s “On the Trail of the Assassins” and Jim Marrs’ “The Plot That Killed Kennedy,” ‘JFK’ follows a New Orleans district attorney named Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) who, after noticing several grievous inaccuracies in the Warren Commission’s report, begins to doubt that a lone assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) killed the president. His investigation leads him to a local businessman named Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), a male prostitute (Kevin Bacon), a shady pilot (Joe Pesci), a mysterious government insider (Donald Sutherland), and several people who witnessed Kennedy’s assassination. Even as his staff begins to question his motives, Garrison has Shaw arrested and tries him for being directly involved in a conspiracy to kill the president. However, to do so, he has to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a conspiracy existed in the first place.
Historical inaccuracies aside for a moment, ‘JFK’ is a wonderfully constructed, exhilarating political thriller packed with excellent performances, sharp dialogue, and stunning cinematography. From the early overview of history to Costner’s passionate closing argument at the trial of Clay Shaw, Stone is at the top of his game, miraculously weaving dozens of subplots and hundreds of seemingly rambling facts into a cohesive and compelling narrative. His screenplay is taught and tended with an expert hand, focusing on his characters as much as his theories. As Garrison becomes unhinged and loses himself in the madness of such a vast conspiracy, his family life unravels, his professional career is threatened, and his conviction is tested. Not to overstate things, but Stone uses these elements to deftly transform Garrison into a symbol of patriotic fortitude; into a man determined to uncover the truth no matter the personal cost. As a result, the director forces us to question whether we simply accept what we’re told or whether we take hold of the very rights handed to us by the Constitution itself.
My take on the film’s historical inaccuracies is this: from what I can tell, the damning alterations that have led so many people to despise ‘JFK’ are merely character composites, the exact arrangement of the story’s timeline, and the insinuation that then-vice president Lyndon B. Johnson (and other high-ranking officials) may have been involved in a coup d’état. But Stone, by his own admission, rakes together every piece of information that points to a conspiracy and hurls it at his audience in quick succession. I’ve never had the impression that ‘JFK’ is meant to be a documentary -- it was created to spark a conversation, to influence people to question their history books, and to make us realize we don’t live in a happy little pre-packaged utopia, but rather in a place where powerful men can easily conspire to do evil things. Stone doesn’t want us to accept his version of the events carte blanche, he wants us to realize that the story that has been handed down over the years is, at its very core, a joke.
As it stands, I think anyone looking for an unequivocally accurate rendering of the events surrounding JFK’s assassination wouldn’t find a film that’s as captivating, gripping, or invigorating as Stone’s ‘JFK.’ Not only does the three-and-a-half hour film fly by in a relative instant, it leaves an enduring impact and systematically presents a thoroughly persuasive argument. I can’t guarantee you’ll agree with Stone’s politics or his every insinuation, but I’m confident anyone approaching ‘JFK’ with an open mind will find it to be a magnificent political epic and a hard-hitting, timeless classic.
’JFK’ features an initially troubling, ultimately redeeming, and altogether faithful 1080p/VC-1 transfer that outclasses its various DVD counterparts and offers fans the most attractive version of the film to date. In the earliest scenes, Stone intentionally employs a severely undersaturated palette, soft focus shots, and flat imagery. However, give the film some time and the transfer’s strengths slowly become apparent. As the director allows vibrant colors and warm skintones to finally invade the picture, depth increases, detail sharpens, and the film takes on a natural, eye-pleasing appearance. Moreover, blacks grow deeper, contrast becomes brighter, and the various on-screen textures really begin to pop. By the hour mark, the film looks exceptional, capturing the tone and intensity of the era in highly-detailed, revealing shots. Better still, the transfer doesn’t appear to suffer from any unintentional noise or print damage, or any significant artifacting, banding, or edge enhancement.
Of course, between Stone’s eclectic visuals, ever-changing film stock, and reliance on both aging historical news reels and artificially degraded faux-period footage, the overall visual experience is quite uneven. Much like ‘Natural Born Killers,’ the director oftentimes wasn’t interested in making a film that would look aesthetically amazing, but rather one that would evoke a strong emotional response. Technically speaking, the transfer has some problems as well. Crush mars a few shots, contrast wavers here and there, and black levels aren’t always completely resolved. Even so, ‘JFK’ makes a commendable debut in high definition. All things considered, fans of the film should be more than pleased with the results.
Slowly but surely, Warner seems to be getting on board with other studios when it comes to high-def audio. I’m pleased to report that ‘JFK’ arrives on Blu-ray with a stirring Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track; one that readily bests its standard DD counterpart (also included on the disc). Dialogue is crystal clear and perfectly prioritized against the at-times chaotic soundscape, the LFE channel is aggressive and resonant, and the film’s musical score sounds fantastic, with pulsing low-end strings, crisp snare beats, and chilling trumpet calls. The rear speakers don’t quite match the tenacity of the rest of the track (after all, the film is heavy on conversation and light on action), but soundfield ambience is still thoroughly engaging and interior acoustics are convincing. Best of all, dynamics are strong, enhancing an already involving and immersive mix that doesn’t have to contend with as many source inconsistencies as the video transfer.
If I have any major technical complaint, it’s that the track’s directionality and pan transparency falter a bit during the quietest scenes. Anytime Stone hurls his story back and forth through time (which happens a lot), the soundfield is eerily convincing and technically on point, but when he settles on quite moments like those between Garrison and his wife, the track’s sonic acuity is less impressive. Regardless, I doubt any further remastering could make ‘JFK’ sound much better than it does here.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘JFK’ includes most of the significant supplemental material that has appeared on its many standard DVD releases over the years. MIA is a 2008 documentary called “The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings” that comes bundled with the new Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD (also releasing on 11/11), JFK’s historic inauguration address, and a collection of DVD-ROM essays. The missing material isn’t a huge loss, but it would have been nice to see Warner give ‘JFK’s Blu-ray debut the same treatment it gave the film’s umpteenth DVD release.
Despite its length, I’ve watched ‘JFK’ countless times over the years and will continue to do so for many more. Its stirring performances, tight screenplay, and thought provoking revelations keep me rooted in my seat every time, regardless of how often I’ve followed Jim Garrison into the courtroom. Thankfully, its Blu-ray debut is strong enough to satisfy fans and attract newcomers. It features a faithful (albeit intentionally uneven) video transfer, impressive TrueHD audio, and a wealth of supplemental material. Minor problems aside, this is an easy release for me to recommend.