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.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
To commemorative the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, Warner Home Video releases a Limited Collector's Edition set (of 50,000 copies) of Oliver Stone's 'JFK' in a large, attractive and sturdy box that closes at the front lip with magnets. When opening it, we first find a small poster-size reprint of the President's Inaugural Address and a campaign poster with Kennedy's picture. Beneath that, we have a digipak design housing four discs inside a trifold box with clear-plastic panels — two discs to each panel on top of the other. The first is a Region Free, BD50 with the film and supplements while the other three region-locked discs (1 DVD-9, 2 DVD-5) contains documentaries.
The package also includes one episode ("Chapter 6: JFK: To the Brink") from the recent series 'Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States' on a separate Region Free, BD25 disc inside a cardboard sleeve. An nice-looking hardcover book entitled Quotations of John F. Kennedy features 32 pages of inspiring words from the 35th President. Accompanying that is another slick, plain black 43-page hardcover book with information on the production and cast & crew bios. To top it all off, Warner offers an extensive assortment of 19 personal photographs from JFK's private life, 6 postcards on the cast and short bios on the people they portray, and 6 reprints of letter correspondences from his presidency.
Warner celebrates Stone's political drama with a commemorative edition that shows a 1080p/VC-1 encode that's identical to the previous digibook release from 2008. While perhaps a fresh, brand-new encode would have been nice, the high-def presentation is quite pleasing nonetheless.
The 2.40:1 image remains faithful to the stylized intentions of the filmmakers and the weakest aspects are arguably the stock footage and other scenes meant to appear badly aged. Still, there are plenty of strong visible details with good dimensionality and resolution throughout. For the most part, contrast levels are well-balanced and comfortably bright with clean, crisp whites, but a few moments run just a tad hotter than others. Blacks are also accurate with respectable delineation within the shadows, but once again, some sequences are noticeably weaker and the darker portions of the frame can engulf a bit of the background information. The palette deliberately commences with subdued, drained colors, but as the film progresses, primaries become more animated while secondary hues fill the screen with warmth and facial complexions appear healthy with excellent textural details during close-up shots.
As with the video, Warner also ports over the same Dolby TrueHD soundtrack from the 2008 release, which is not a bad thing because the drama features an excellent sound design.
Being a dialogue and character driven film, one shouldn't expect much in terms of rear activity, but surprisingly, the listener can enjoy a decent amount of atmospherics to generate a satisfying and pleasantly engaging soundfield. Of course, the music of John Williams bleeds nicely into the surrounds while also occupying a majority of real estate in the front soundstage, creating a beautifully well-balanced and welcoming image. This is aided by an outstanding mid-range that delivers precise, detailed clarity within the orchestration and some fantastic, room-penetrating acoustics. Low bass is also quite robust and hearty, providing appreciable weight and presence to the score and the few more intense moments. All the while, vocals are delivered with exceptional priority and intelligibility in the center, making this lossless mix a great joy to listen.
Detailing the court drama that soon followed the assassination of the 35th President of the United States, Oliver Stone's epic 'JFK' is an enthralling masterpiece with stirring performances from the entire cast. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's tragic death, Warner Home Video releases the film in an attractive and incrediblly exhaustive treasure trove of information, pictures, two short books, documentaries and another film. The Blu-ray arrives with the same picture and audio presentation seen in 2008's digibook release, along with the same set of supplements. For fans of the film and history buffs in general, this comprehensive box set is highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.