Picks and Pans Review: Jfk

updated 01/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman

Two things must immediately be said about director Oliver Stone's three-hour quasidocumentary on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: It is a cunning, often mesmerizing piece of filmcraft and—make no mistake—it is propaganda, shot through with all the perils and pitfalls of that most troublesome genre.

Stone advances in JFK the theory that Kennedy was not killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, as the Warren Commission ultimately determined. Rather, according to Stone, Kennedy was felled by a team of killers as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy fomented by the CIA, the FBI and the Pentagon in collusion with anti-Castro Cubans who hated Kennedy for his failure to fully support the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion. Oswald is thus reduced to the role of a "patsy" who may not even have fired a shot.

The reason for this violent covert action, Stone argues, was the fear that Kennedy planned to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam—a threat to the U.S. "military-industrial complex" President Eisenhower warned of in his 1961 farewell address. In Stone's film, the solitary, heroic figure who seeks to crack this iron veil is Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who did indeed bring one Clay Shaw, a wealthy local businessman, to trial for conspiring with diverse right-wing zealots to assassinate the President on orders from above.

Stone has less a story to tell than a case to make. Unfortunately, he has chosen the path not of rational skepticism but of demonology. The garish accusations of the real Garrison got nowhere in court, and the media and the public in the main dismissed him as an ambitious crank. Not Stone. In JFK, Garrison, as played by the earnest Costner, is a populist patriot, an update of Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Costner's Garrison brands the Warren Commission report a cover-up and concentrates his fire on its conclusion that Oswald (Oldman, in a nerve-jangled performance) acted alone.

To cite just two problems with Stone's speculations: Earl Warren, the liberal former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had been under attack for years by archconservatives: How did he then become their pawn? More specifically, JFK ignores the plain fact that Oswald owned the 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found at the assassination site and established by ballistics tests as the weapon that killed Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally Jr.

Indisputably, the Warren report raised questions that may never be answered, and loose ends make people unhappy. This melancholy truth, though, no more argues for the Garrison/Stone conspiracy theory than gaps in Darwin's theory of evolution prove the literal interpretation of Genesis.

Moreover, Stone further weakens his thesis by using his camera to run a sort of three-card monte game with history, crosscutting dramatic narrative with real-life footage, to the point that fact and fiction become indistinguishable. These tactics lead Stone into a disastrous trap: Costner's ringing courtroom peroration as he sums up his case. It's forthright, forceful, wondrously eloquent—but where's the defense summation? In fact, the real Jim Garrison didn't make the prosecution's summation; the defense attorney perforated his proofless charges; and the jury found Shaw not guilty in less than an hour. Thus Garrison's political failure becomes Stone's cinematic failure, because JFK finally has nothing new to say and no place to go.

One critic has lauded Stone for "tenaciously seeking higher truth" despite his guile. That seems like commending a rogue cop for planting evidence on an unpopular suspect. That's not the way malefactors are called to account, not in this republic. In the end, Stone's JFK emerges less as the voice of the auteur in Pursuit of truth than the cry of the demagogue demanding that his deuces be declared wild. (R)

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